What music has in common with bookstores and Swiss watches

An excellent article in the December 6, 2017 Boston Globe presents an interesting instructive for the music industry. Bookstores are opening at an increasing rate, up 35% between 2009 and 2015. And book sales  – real print on paper books – were up for the third straight year in 2016.

The bookstore industry has gone through digital turbulence not unlike that experienced by the music industry.  Who reads books, the thinking went, in an online world? We read texts and social media. And after independent bookstores were pushed to the brink by the big box booksellers – Barnes & Nobles, Borders, etc. – those very behemoths were themselves driven to irrelevance by Amazon. And then came the e-reader. Who now would buy a book?

It turns out, lots of us. The readers came back. No longer booksellers, a new breed of “literary entrepreneurs” doubled down on the core values that made the local independent bookstore valuable in the first place. They became a place of community, riding the community oriented localism that drives local craft beers, farmers markets, community radio and the like. They carefully curated to their audience – not only the books they sold, but repositioning  themselves as “intellectual centers,” hosting events and convening people and ideas, introducing beer, wine, coffee and a host of  ancillary craft gifts and products of interest to their clientele. Booksellers have adapted to the vast changes in their own industry.

What’s driving this resurgence are the dynamic entrepreneurs who choose to own, manage, and work for independent bookstores. Nobody is making millions of dollars. But these successful, intellectually curious, community-minded people continue to go into the business. They are creating an environment, outside the home, outside the workplace, with their community where they can convene and experience entertainment like open-mic nights or trivia contests in addition to readings and panel discussions.

The Swiss watch industry is another example of an industry that, in the face of turbulence driven by the digital age, chose to double down on their past core values in order to stay relevant in the age of digital watches. (Trivia question: Who here says, when asked what time it is at 8:45, says “a quarter to 9”?) The Swiss watch industry promoted elegance and craftsmanship to combat the assault of stylish yet inexpensive digital watches, and the expensive watch industry is healthy today. Similar examples where an old technology has seen reemergence include the fountain pen and the vinyl record. Each of these “dying” technologies repositioned themselves by redefining their identity and value for the customer. Fountain pens don’t compete with ball point pens, and vinyl records don’t compete with digital music or streams.

The successful re-emergence of an old technology relies on several factors, and these may be in place for the music industry. First, there must be the opportunity to redefine the technology’s value. The entire industry must accept the new definition, and must also buy in. And it’s OK if there remains a tension between those pushing for innovation and those protecting the technology’s legacy. Already we see innovative musicians recognizing that careers can be created by engaging their “tribe”, and most industry practitioners recognize the power and value of understanding and knowing your “true fans”.  I don’t think there is any argument that tensions exist between the proponents of new technology and those who seek to make their careers in music by developing a strong community.

Independent musicians are the “musical entrepreneurs” of the music industry and, by doubling down on the core values of the Artist – Fan relationship, can change your own fate. Artists who become the hub of their fan base, and expand your job description to one that includes curating, convening, and community, can use technology to reemerge. This is especially critical today since, as Mark Mulligan so thoughtfully explained, the Tyranny of Choice has shown that excessive choice actually hinders discovery, and the Long Tail has been thoroughly disproved. The distinction between musician and musical entrepreneur is important.

An independent music community that collectively reinvents itself by doubling down on the core values of its own past adds value to the entire music ecosystem, punching above it’s weight.  Innovations from musical entrepreneurs can have a big impact on the sales of everything else. And that provides benefits back to the large labels, who may yet come to understand how critical the independent musician is to the ecosystem.

Artists that recognize themselves as musical entrepreneurs have known this all along. We may listen to music alone, but we want community with others who share our passion.


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