By George Howard
(follow George on Twitter)

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, has attracted a ton of attention in the entrepreneurial realm.  For good reason.  The book addresses issues endemic to startups, and offers philosophical viewpoints and tactical conceits that serve to help both the entrepreneur’s mindset, and the venture itself.

As I’ve read through the book—several times now—I’m continuously struck by how much of it is applicable to artists.

For years now I’ve encouraged artists to think entrepreneurially, and to view themselves as business units in start-up mode.  My problem has been that when suggesting artists think entrepreneurially, I’ve often felt as if I was giving hollow “advice;” like asking someone who’s never been to medical school to think like an orthopedic surgeon prior to operating on someone’s knee.

“Thinking entrepreneurially” is a really nice sound clip.  However, unless there is the heft of learning/science behind it, and unless the person being asked to think entrepreneurially understands this learning/science, it’s worthless.

Eric Ries understands this, and while not addressing artists specifically, and provides them with precisely the learning/science artists need to hear.

Interestingly, the advice that I will summarize below (and I’ve also included a SlideShare presentation below that summarizes the first few chapters), is not new.  In fact, much of what Reiss puts forth in his book has been expressed by myself or Jeff Price on this very blog.  That said, the book pulls together a lot of very good, action-oriented learning, and presents it in a way that I truly think will benefit artists.

Artists, therefore, need to think in terms of the Lean Startup methodology.  This methodology can be summarized via a few key points:

  1. Extremely fast cycle time
  2. Focus on what customers want (without asking them)
  3. Scientific approach to decision-making

You should be able to surmise from these three points that the goal is to put some discipline and (testable) rigor around startups.  If we (as I think we should) think of bands as startups, this advice is very relevant, and very helpful.

For instance, the idea of extremely fast cycle time relates to an article I wrote some time ago, entitled Sign and Fail where I implored artists to get their work into the marketplace as quickly as possible, because (1) the cost of failure was low, and (2) you could learn from this action. I stated:

As it’s now easier than ever to create and release music, artists are freed from the one-album-every-eighteen-months cycle that raised the stakes (and cost of failure) to such a scary degree.

What results is that artists are much more inclined to create a work and put it into the marketplace quickly.  In so doing, they honor a time-tested management theory known as the Deming Cycle.  W. Edward Deming developed a philosophy that revolutionized industries, and, like most revolutionary philosophies, it can be stated simply, but takes some time to understand and implement.  At its core, the Deming cycle recommends a circular process beginning with “Plan,” moving to “Do,” then to “Check,” then to “Act,” and then back to “Plan.”

In fact Ries, without naming the Deming Cycle, comes up with his own variant: Build, Measure, Learn.  While I prefer the Deming Cycle, the idea of getting something into the market quickly is crucial. By doing this you’re able to begin discerning what it is the customers want, which is the second point.

Too often companies and artists either assume they know what customers want, or they engage in some process of “market research”/surveying in order to discern what customers want.  There are many problems with either approach when it comes to startups.  First, startups, by definition, are offering something that doesn’t exist in its current form (if it did, there would be no need for the startup), therefore asking a customer if they want something they don’t know about tends to give you bad feedback.  As Steve Jobs was fond of stating, “If Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, he would have given them faster horse and buggies.”

Therefore, the only way you can discern if the product or music you make will resonate with a customer is to get it out there.

Of course, if you get it out there and don’t listen to what the market is telling you, you might as well not bother in the first place.  This leads to the final key point: Scientific Decision Making.

I’ve written at length about the importance and value of data collection and analysis with respect to artists.  This article, The New Report Card, puts forth both the reasoning behind measuring, and suggests some specific things you should consider measuring:

Where the old school report [SoundScan, for example] axiomatically led to depression due to the inexorable decline in numbers (SS, reviews, spins), the new school report axiomatically leads to hope (and thus energy). If you haven’t increased–even by a teeny bit–your email subscribers, etc., something is wrong.

The good news now is that once you realize that something is wrong you can take strides to fix it.

Not getting enough email subscribers? Do you have an email-for-content widget rocking on your site; have you done what you need in terms of SEO to make sure people know you have a site; are you leveraging Twitter or FB to go to where people already are congregating and giving them a decent value proposition to go to your site; etc.

You know what your “remedy” was for bad Soundscan numbers? Spend more co-op dollars. Uggh. Bad radio numbers? Payola. Double Uggh. Bad press? Cry. Sigh.

Again, the real beauty of this new type of report card is that it should be exciting and encouraging. You can see incremental progress, and, most importantly, you (band and/or manager) are in control.

This is vastly different than placing your hopes/destiny in the hands of a sales rep, publicist, promo person, label.

This type of measuring—from seeing how your customers react (without asking them in advance)—allows for validated/scientific learning.  No longer should you do something purely based on “gut” feel.  Rather, have a strong, powerful, unique vision, and then find ways to empirically test your thesis.

Through this testing, you are able to adjust and refine your approach.  In this way, you avoid falling back on the doing the same things that haven’t worked over and over again.

I want to be clear: artists and startups, generally must have a unique vision. I’m not suggesting that you subjugate that vision in favor of a completely quantitative approach. Rather, I’m suggesting you find ways to test your vision to show that it has the possibility to achieve the outcomes you hope it to over some realistic period of time, and that you use the information you gather to adjust your approach.

The above is obviously a very brief overview of what is put forth in Lean Startups (again, below is a SlideShare presentation that dives a little deeper), but I do encourage you to buy the book, read it, and attempt to incorporate some (all) of its principles in your approach for your music-related endeavor.


George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is an Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee.  He is most easily found on Twitter at:

Related to this article: The Marketing Money Can’t Buy

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