Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Art imitating life - an Innovator's dream

I was running last week (a great way to get ideas) and listening to NPR while I was running.  During All Things Considered, there was a story about how the music industry works.  The story is called How much does it cost to make a hit song?  What was fascinating about the story was how packaged and cynical the pop music world is, but also what a great demonstration of an innovation engine the process is.  We innovators can learn a lot from the production of pop songs, especially considering how relatively inexpensive it is to write and produce an "album".  Do they make those any more?

The story related that a star's manager will determine it's time for a new record, and will host a writing camp for two weeks. There, some of the best song writers come to write songs and are paired with music producers who have a music tracks but no words.  Here's what the transcript says:
Here's who shows up at a writing camp: songwriters with no music, and producers toting music tracks with no words.

For two weeks the song writers and music producers develop songs, and at the end the "artist" - in this case Rihanna - comes in and selects the tracks she likes best, and then records those songs.

The cost?  According to the transcript:
The writing camp for Rihanna's album "had to cost at least 200 grand," Daniels says. "It was at least forty guys out there. I was shocked at how much money they were spending! But, guess what? They got the whole album out of that one camp."
A writing camp is like a reality show, where top chefs who have never met are forced to cook together. At the end, Rihanna shows up like the celebrity judge and picks her favorites.
Her new album has 11 songs on it. So figure that the writing camp cost about $18,000 per song.

Yes, $200,000 for two weeks, but they create an entire album's worth of material.  $200K sounds like a reasonable sum of money in any business, until you realize that figure represents, on average, less than two full time equivalent people fully loaded.  In other words, it's not a very large expense and the value generated in that very short amount of time is incredible.  If your firm could spend $200K once every six months or so and come away with, say, 11 really valuable ideas that those executives could implement, wouldn't that be the best investment you could make?

We innovators need to learn from this - we need to encourage our teams or clients to bring together the best people, in very short projects, to generate and develop powerful and valuable ideas quickly.  This concept shouldn't be a once in a while approach, but a regularly scheduled effort.  There's clearly an important need to be solved (the public expects a new record from Rihanna) and a lot of urgency (excellent people and recording studio time aren't cheap), but bringing these resources together under these conditions created a tremendous amount of value.

Yes, I can hear you now, wondering about how to free up some of your best people for a few days, much less two weeks.  If your best people can spend one week a quarter preparing to present the results of the quarter that is just finished, then certainly you can find two weeks every six months or so for them to develop the game changing ideas for the future.  Too many executives spend far too much time evaluating and reporting on the past, which can't be changed, only dressed up, and spend far too little time investigating the future and generating ideas that will impact the future.  We need to change this dynamic.

When change is slow, contemplation of the past is reasonable.  When change is fast, contemplation of the future is vital.  Where are your best people spending their time?  Assessing and reporting on the past, or evaluating and understanding the future?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:36 AM


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Very excellent story about Music production and for writing song.

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