Why companies should pay attention to Kanye West
Kanye West is not exactly a boring fella. You can love or hate what he does (and especially what he says), but he constantly pushes for something.
A lot of controversy evolved around his latest body of work “The Life of Pablo.” Questions like: Is it out? What’s it called? Is it done? Can it be bought? What has he said now? This has to be one of the most confusing and mood-driven releases of an artist of his caliber.
But there is something really interesting going on with Kanye’s approach, something which feels oddly familiar to some of the things we do and ways we work at Fjord. Often, our clients face the challenge of bringing something new to the market – a service, a product or even internal ways of working – which is different to everything they have done before. This is a scary challenge – even for the biggest of businesses. Everything moves so quickly today, and loyalty is increasingly scarce. So we develop things iteratively with our clients and their customers, not just to get it right but to move it out fast. We make the smallest thing, a minimum viable product/service/experience, which we can put in front of people to find out if we’re on the right track. This can be as rudimentary as a piece of paper, a video or a story told. If people don’t like it, we can quickly understand why and can adjust course accordingly – without having spent too much time or money. Yet, the thought of sharing something with the public that is not entirely finished, de-risked by exploring all eventualities and passed through endless loops of governance still sends shivers down the spines of many traditional companies. It’s time to overcome this fear.
It’s time to follow in Kanye’s footsteps.
As a musician, traditionally you lock yourself in a studio and write and record material. When you (and your label) think it’s done, you release it and cross your fingers that many people like and buy it. Especially, in a time where music was distributed on physical mediums, it was really hard to change it once it was out. But times have changed. A lot of music is accessed digitally, be it via download or stream. Therefore, changing it does not mean that hundreds of thousands of produced units become obsolete and can’t be sold anymore. Digital releases can be changed without the sunk costs of unsalable stock. This is great because the cost of trying and learning dramatically dropped with digitally-distributed music. The distribution and consumption models have caught up with the time, but the production and release models seem to be lagging behind. The streaming business model has many drawbacks for artists, but this has the potential to be a big benefit if you embrace it.
So what did Kanye do? (Whether consciously or not is not for me to judge). He posted two tracks to his Soundcloud – a good way to spread the word and gauge interest. Fairly standard procedure, so let’s move on.
He tweeted a picture of a handwritten playlist and waited to see what would happen. Again, many artists share their final track list ahead of release to promote. But this piece of paper then underwent a remarkable evolution. New tracks were added, some disappeared (and reappeared), sequence changed, features popped up, etc. It felt like he tried, tested and iterated…publicly. He tapped into a very large audience to learn what worked and what didn’t. While this is interesting in this context, it’s nothing new in other industries. Many companies take a similar approach when testing value propositions or services and products (that might not even exist yet). It’s relatively cheap and de-risks investment into new things.
So, this was a very interesting approach in releasing, promoting and possibly making an album.
He then rented out Madison Square Garden for a listening session. According to one of his engineers, this session was also intended to test how the music sounded in stadiums.
Then came the release, which he chose to do exclusively on the streaming service Tidal (owned by his buddy Jay-Z and a bunch of music A-listers as shareholders). Now, this is where it gets really interesting. The version made available to stream was still not the final one. In the days and weeks to come, the track list, mixes and even production changed several times, as if Kanye ran a pilot to refine the album with a broad, but incomplete, audience. And that poses some really interesting questions: why can’t music keep evolving once it’s out? Software does. How would charts reflect such fluid work? Platinum and gold certifications already count (even changed) re-releases towards the same record. How do we handle version control? Will old versions of albums become, what used to be limited editions? Will there be sold out music again? Will this help music as an art form or only as a business?
This is just an external observation of this release through the lens of our work. This might not at all reflect the reality and the album might never be released beyond Tidal. Love him or hate him, but this approach – sharing unfinished work with the public and changing it on the go until it’s tight – is quite ballsy and unique on such a scale.
It’s time to commit
Many of our clients are big corporate organizations that had significant success in a vastly different time by doing good and sound business. But they suddenly find themselves in the headlights of smaller contenders eager and able to respond to the market with much more agility. It’s time to commit to a new way of doing business. Experimenting, testing and learning is not risky. Quite the opposite, actually, because if you do it right, then you will de-risk your future.
If Kanye did it, so can you.