The Popularity Ratchet In Music & Venture Capital

One of my favorite people to listen to is Marc Andreessen.

You can thank Marc for the creation of the web browser, and you can also blame him for the spread of social media via his venture capital firm’s investment in Facebook.

In a recent interview with Brian Koppelman, Marc applies his understanding of complex systems and markets honed through years of venture capital investing to more creative fields like music and film.

On the surface, one might think that “business and investment” is different from “music and art,” but there’s a shocking amount in common between trying to be the next billion dollar start-up and trying to be a rock star.

There’s quite a few similarities between the success of a fintech app disrupting a bloated incumbent in the financial industry and an up-and-coming Soundcloud rapper.

Both require an insight into a coming wave of cultural change, a product that resonates deeply with a target market, and a healthy dose of luck and timing.

In art, music, and technology, technical operators often experience frustration that the “best product doesn’t win.” Musicians almost universally prefer Megadeth to Metallica based upon technical chops, songwriting, and innovation, but Metallica is a much more popular band (much to Dave Mustaine’s chagrin).

The start-up world is littered with failed technologies that were just before their time or were superior technologically to the eventual “winner” in a market, but that never quite resonated with consumers.

Instead, what matters is creating “flywheel” effects where the interest generated in your product or your art is leveraged to further meet consumer demand – especially since, once you have the flywheel spinning, you are able to continually lean on the continued consumer interest and feedback from your market to iterate and outpace competitors who are looking to also own some market share.

In the case of a start-up, this means that you are trying to solve an unsolved problem in a way that resonates with a market who experiences some sort of pain point or latent desire in such a way that – through the introduction of your product – you kick off a feedback loop where users start aggressively using your product and demanding more features to further help them solve their problems.

If you strike the balance correctly of listening to feedback while understanding that users often don’t know exactly what they want, you can continue to innovate in a way that resonates with a market that already knows and trusts you through the use of your service.

In music, it’s a bit more difficult to think about “solving a problem” for a target market.

Instead, musicians need to resonate with an identity such that their fans can say something about themselves by displaying their fandom of a specific artist. Most people don’t latch onto a band because they like the music (although that does matter). They latch onto a band because they like what being a fan of that band says about them.

As Seth Godin has said, “The Beatles didn’t invent teenagers.”

It’s more important to tap into either a latent cultural identity (typically frustrated by the existing paradigm in music – ie thrash metal and death metal reacting against the theatrics of posturing of hair metal in the 80s or bebop opening up entire new paradigms of jazz improvisation and breaking out of the stuffy big band structure) or to fully embrace an orthodoxy and appeal to connoisseurs and otaku (those with obsessive interests in a specific subdomain) in niche subgenres like grindcore, acid house, or d-beat.

In both business and art, those who win big are often solving their own problems or expressing their own identity – they just happen to tap into larger cultural forces that are coalescing around them at the same time.

And, through their success and exposure they are simultaneously both better to understand their audience and their market – as well as shape the conversation through their own output as they become culturally influential with the groups that have built their identity around either a specific genre or technology.

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