Lessons From A Thermostat

Cool engenders conversation. This is what we used to sell in the music business. Stuff that listeners just could not help talking about.

Everybody’s talking about the Learning Thermostat, that you can control remotely. It wasn’t shoved down our throats, there were just a couple of newspaper reviews and now, like an Apple product, people need to own one.

Actually, Tony Fadell, the man responsible, helped birth the iPod (and hung on for seventeen subsequent iterations). But he’s working for Apple no more. But in the latest issue of "Fast Company", Fadell outlines five lessons he learned at Apple that helped him with the Nest thermostat. They apply to the music business too.

1. Reintroduce A Product

This is complicated. Isn’t the music business built upon the new?

Then again, how much really new music is there? How can we get people to love a variation on what has come before, or something that already exists?

In other words, how can we make something old seem brand new once again?

In the music business it’s all about now. But could it be about yesterday? What I mean is, instead of front-loading the business with undeveloped acts, how about cluing people in on acts that have been around for years but are now ready for consumption?

Now this is contrary to the major label paradigm. For two reasons. One, these are public companies focused on quarterly profits. Two, the executives just aren’t there that long. They want it today. But how many acts are ready today?

Think of all those acts that have been plying the boards for years… Conventional wisdom is the public has sampled and rejected them. But the truth is, most people have barely heard them. How do you get them to listen now?

Via the music. Which must be simple and great.

If you’re waiting for the mountain to come to you, good luck.

But if you’re willing to distill the essence of your act so that those not already fans can be hooked, you’re on your way. Once you’ve got them in your corner, they can latch on to your more challenging stuff.

I’m not talking about compromising. I’m talking about shining up your personality for that all important date with the person you plan to marry.

2. Build Up Slowly

"Let people understand and buy into the device, then build a world around them step by step."

Sure, they’re talking about artist development, but they’re also referencing quality. There’s a good chance if you haven’t made it you just haven’t written and produced that one song people can wrap their heads around. You’ve got a Twitter feed and a Facebook page and you’re dunning people to pay attention, but the core…is amorphous. The marketing is way out of proportion to the music.

And once you gain traction, you don’t have to achieve world domination in a day. Give yourself time to acclimate to your new, successful surroundings. Who knows what you’re going to want to say a year from now.

Here today and gone tomorrow is what the music business has become.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

But it’s incumbent upon the acts to change it.

The labels, managers and agents are at cross-purposes to the act and the populace. The labels, managers and agents are eager to get paid. Sure, there are some businessmen who are willing to let you take your time, but they are few in number. If you don’t work, the agent and the manager don’t get paid. As for the label, it hasn’t been on your side for decades. So the act must grab hold of and maintain the power. Don’t sacrifice control if you want to last. In the seventies, the labels ceded control because there was so much money involved and the execs were clueless. Now the execs think they know everything and with revenue fading, they want to make sure they get theirs.

You’ve got plenty of time to become a long term success.

Look at Sinead O’Connor and Katy Perry. They got married almost instantly and were divorced soon thereafter. You don’t want to be impulsive and desperate as an act, you want to play for the long term.

3. Design For One Function

This is about simplicity. The one dial on both the Nest thermostat and the iPod. This is why Sony and Microsoft have faltered, feature creep.

Don’t plan on being an actor and an author as well as being a musician. A musician is enough. Hell, when you start becoming a brand and make deals with the Fortune 500 you’re diluting your message. You need to be beholden to the fan.

And stay with one genre of music until you get traction. Be identifiable.

4. The Experience Starts In The Box

Ever buy an iPod or MacBook?

Then you know.

This is your site. It must be intriguing and easy to use. No Flash. No confusing menus. When someone finally decides to track you down make it easy to get the information, be honest and open as opposed to generic.

This is what the classic acts tend not to understand. They think they’re above social media. That they can stay behind a wall. If Verizon can’t, neither can you.

Participate on the boards. E-mail responses. If it’s tedious, stop. But you can’t say you don’t enjoy it until you try it.

For every bozo who posts that you suck, there are others with brilliant insight who just want to help you, both creatively and with your business. Your fans make your success. If you don’t interact, you’re going to have a tough time succeeding.

Forget radio and TV. Broadcasting is dead for music. It’s all personal, it’s all one on one.

5. Make It A Status Symbol

Don’t be trashy unless this is the image you want to cultivate.

Make your t-shirts so cool that people want to wear them irrelevant of their interest in the band. When fans wear them, they must be bombarded with questions.

There was a story in the "New York Times" about Cee Lo making $20 million last year. (http://nyti.ms/s0csM6) I don’t believe that, but I do believe that Cee Lo is so busy dashing for cash that he’s undercutting what he stands for. Once upon a time, he was the voice of the best track of the first decade of the twenty first century. Then he threw a novelty cut on top of that. Now he’s the overexposed guy who’s always on TV and will show up to cut the ribbon at a mall opening. He’s eviscerating all that was attractive about him. He’s no longer a star, he’s a personality. And have you seen John Davidson around recently? Those kids from the "Real World"?

You’re a musician. Send only that image.

I’ll give the Black Keys some credit here. They’re not confusing you with what they do. All the messaging is about the music, about doing it their way. As a result, there’s tons of passion for the Black Keys.

We’d love to have Cee Lo come to our barbecue and hang out, but that’s got nothing to do with music. Hell, I’d rather not hang with the Black Keys, they seem to have chips on their shoulders. But the music stands.

Once you cheapen the music, you’re toast.

Whether you’re Rebecca Black, not realizing that people are making fun of you, or Rod Stewart doing disco or the rockers starting to rap or Bon Jovi making a country record.

Wait a minute Jon… I thought you were living on a prayer in New Jersey? Now you’re in Nashville? Those aren’t real cowboys down there, they’re not wanted dead or alive, they’re whoring themselves out to the highest bidder.


The responsibility is on the shoulders of the act because no one else in the food chain believes in any of the above lessons. No one wants to invest, no one wants to wait and no one is interested in quality. All anybody cares about is money.

But I’ll clue you in… Customers are financially-challenged. Interestingly, they’ll lay out oodles of cash for what they deem necessary, but if it’s not, it stays on the shelf.

Too much of music just isn’t necessary, you don’t need to own it. It’s grist for the mill, fodder for the pipeline.

Music thrived when you needed to own it.

Cynics will say it’s all about exposure. I’ll disagree, but I’ll also add we’re in a new era. Where anything can be exposed and the public is so overwhelmed with crap it ignores most of it.

So if you’re trying to do it the same way as everybody else, good luck. You’re like the second runner-up on "Idol" or "X Factor". A trivia question.

You’ve got to set yourself apart.

That’s what all the great acts of yore did.

That was the key to Steely Dan. You knew these cats marched to the beat of their own drummer. You were intrigued. And when you became infected by a ubiquitous track you bought the album and got involved with a whole lot of material less instantly palatable but ultimately wholly rewarding.

You gave the band your time.

And that’s what a band still wants, your time.

And you don’t get it by beating people over the head.

You get it via music.

Today you wait for people to discover you.

But when they do, you must be ready.

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