Late Summer Reading on Music, Marketing & Entrepreneurship From ProHipHop’s Clyde Smith
I'd like to share four books with you that I find of interest and I think will be well worth reading for anyone who likes to think deeply and act on those thoughts in the fields of music, marketing and entrepreneurship. Bonus: my discussion of the final book on the list, Good To Great, also addresses my coming exit from hip hop business media into new fields of endeavor.
Under the Influence: Tracing the Hip-Hop Generation's Impact on Brands, Sports & Pop Culture
I highly recommend Erin O. Patton's Under the Influence to those who want some meaningful insights into what's been happening with hip hop and urban marketing over the last 20 years. Most of what we get are personal tales and inspirational fodder so I greatly appreciated this book.
That said, Patton's autobiographical tale which begins the book provides a lot of insights even without his more analytical take on things. The man's career includes a rich run at Nike with a big focus on Michael Jordan as well as a bunch of other impressive feats. In fact, I would say that unlike the writing of most prominent figures in hip hop business, he draws on his experiences to educate rather than to exalt his own brand which he could certainly get away with given his accomplishments.
But I did initially critique Patton's development of the 7 Ciphers model of the urban/hip hop demographic in a post at ProHipHop while I was still reading the book. I eventually finished the book and remained convinced of my recognition that the 7 Ciphers model is too embedded in the view that New York City is the center of the universe for hip hop and urban culture to be widely applicable today. To a large degree New York was the center due to the invention of hip hop in the Bronx, the creation of related businesses and their proximity to the marketing and media powerhouses of Manhattan.
Such thinking no longer holds true because artists from other regions came to the forefront, after facing great opposition from the New York hip hop machine, and because the invention of the Web allowed for the decentralization of music, media and marketing at a previously unheard of scale. This is not to say that New York is not incredibly important in the world of hip hop, however:
A) One must take into consideration how much of that importance is now due to the longstanding presence of corporate record labels, marketing firms and media outlets in Manhattan.
B) Given that New York rose to prominence in the arts only after World War II disrupted the triumvirate of Paris, Moscow and Tokyo and that, even before the Web, Manhattan's prominence was already gradually dissipating, one must recognize that many factors must be taken into consideration in understanding hip hop and urban markets in the U.S.
But, despite my feeling that the 7 Ciphers model is now an artifact of an earlier age, I found it quite useful to consider and critique in relationship to my own knowledge of such things. Unfortunately, I have yet to see a credible demographic model that effectively takes into account developments of the last decade in hip hop as an art form or as what is now not just a subculture but a kaleidoscopic array of multiple subcultures with influence far beyond even those boundaries.
Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, by David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan, is the closest of the four to what is sometimes referred to as "beach reading". It's physically lightweight and the hardback is more the size of a mass market paperback. It's also broken up into small segments with illustrations making it consumable in bite-size chunks.
However, unlike traditional beach reading, this book isn't just fluff. I've only skimmed it, so maybe there's some in there, but it basically appears to be a nice example of looking at a specific subculture, exploring marketing ideas related to the actual business aspects of the subculture and then connecting those observations to what might seem initially unrelated business settings in a practical and actionable manner.
Whether or not you agree that the Grateful Dead are the "most iconic band in history", I hope you'd agree that they are quite a unique example from which to draw. If it concerns you that you and your allies are clearly nothing like the Dead, you might consider thinking of this book as an example of extreme or deviant case sampling in which issues and experiences are more easily forefronted due to their extreme nature and thus more readily accessible for consideration.
I wrote about certain aspects of the initial marketing of this book at ProHipHop and discussed my concern with the off-center art that is supposed to imply the look of an actual poster seen on the street. I like the art itself. There was a mild discussion with the authors and the book designer in the comments and I addressed the fact that, given the white background, I believe this concept gets lost in the viewer's eye. There I was speaking from a marketing standpoint but, upon further reflection, let me speak as someone who knows a bunch of Deadheads. It's bad feng shui and thus will negatively affect sales!
The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail
The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen, and Good To Great, which I discuss next, are both books that might seem entirely unrelated to music and marketing and even entrepreneurship in those areas due to their focus on corporate strategy. However, both books continue to inform my understanding of the changes at hand at every level of the game.
If you ever find yourself using phrases like "disruptive innovation" then you owe it to yourself to read Christensen's work since his definitions of disruptive and sustaining innovation are widely referenced in discussions of both business and technology. As I explained at Cultural Research in terms that I believe Christensen would find reasonably acceptable:
"sustaining innovation"…mean[s] innovations that can be incorporated into the existing practices of organizations including innovations that disrupt standard modes of practice but that can be integrated into the already existing structures of dominant players.
"Disruptive innovations" are disruptive in an even deeper way than simply forcing changes in existing practices in that they disrupt existing models of success. Disruptive innovations are initially inadequate to the jobs performed by current solutions. Perhaps worse for those with a currently successful business model, disruptive innovations require different models to succeed, models which dominant players are unable to effectively pursue because their skillsets are based on past success rather than emergent realities.
For example, the call quality of mobile phones meant that they were inadequate to many of the needs of fixed line callers but for those who needed mobility, poor call quality was an acceptable trade-off to be able to conduct business or keep up with one's friends.
Over time the quality of mobile phone networks improved but, by the time mobile phones became a threat to existing landlines, incumbent players were too far behind to catch up. Though the full story is more complex and landlines have not disappeared, their role is shrinking at a rate that no one would have expected even a few years ago.
Christensen's work reveals that the successful business models of major corporations get in the way of their understanding of (let alone their ability to benefit from) disruptive innovations. That's why I now maintain that "The "Cluelessness" of Major Labels is Not Stupidity", no matter how satisfying that explanation may feel!
Whether or not you agree with my assessment, based on Christensen's work, of why major labels can be full of smart people yet still fail, I believe you'll find yourself looking at discussions of disruptive innovation with a sharper eye after reading The Innovator's Dilemma. Better yet, you may find yourself pondering how to become a disruptive force or even discovering that you've already become one.
The last book that I wish to discuss, Good To Great by Jim Collins, has had a strong effect on my thinking not just about entrepreneurship and corporate strategy but also on my thinking about my own endeavors in the world and how best to decide my future actions as a still emerging entrepreneur.
It's been awhile since I read this book and I have to be honest, I've forgotten most of the details! But what I haven't forgotten and what is now posted on the wall behind my computer as a daily reminder are the "Three Circles of the Hedgehog Concept" (p. 118).
Collins maintains, based on his study of corporations that outperformed in their industries, that the ones that became dominant players are "more like hedgehogs – simple, dowdy creatures that know 'one big thing' and stick to it. The comparison companies are more like foxes – crafty, cunning creatures that know many things yet lack consistency" (p. 119).
Now, in my case and maybe yours, I was initially thrown by such terminology because I tend to think of myself in my finer moments making moves like a crafty fox and outpacing the hedgehog who will eventually fall by the wayside due to his heavy weight and slow speed. So, if you want to get past that intuitive response to the metaphorical language, you'll just have to read the book but, if we rename the concept, the "Three Circles of Your Resounding Success", then perhaps we can focus things more successfully for the moment.
If that doesn't work, just think niches and Seth Godin's concept of going small to go big and take it from there. These three concepts can also arguably be considered both a form of positioning and a way to focus execution of that positioning, if such terminology resonates for you.
The Three Circles of Your Resounding Success:
"What You Are Deeply Passionate About"
"What You Can Be The Best In The World At"
"What Drives Your Economic Engine"
Heck, if you step back and think about it for a moment, these three sound like a good basis for a self-help book and I've kind of used them that way in evaluating my next steps as I begin my exit from hip hop media.
In my case, being deeply passionate connects to the concepts in Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow but, due to the rest of the analysis, it doesn't force you to make a psychological leap of faith that the money will come. That's important because I can assure you that doing what you love will feel great but that doesn't mean it can be monetized in a successful manner.
Doing what you can be best in the world at not only resonates with Seth Godin's work but with a snippet of advice Guy Kawasaki sent me (and probably many others) in response to an email in which he advised me to do something along the lines of "learn everything there is to know about hip hop" when I asked him for some feedback on a project I was considering pursuing. The fact that I had no intentions of doing that was an early alert that there was a limit to my career in hip hop media and launched me into a multiyear process of considering what things I both am willing to learn everything there is to know about and am capable of learning at this stage in my life.
However, you can see how that approach could get confused with do what you love, especially since I'd already identified such a path during my doctoral training and watched that come to nought in academic form, though that path now awaits me in a different form.
What pulls the three circles together for me is considering how the heck I can monetize the things that fascinate me and not come to hate those things in the process! But Collin's focus remains how best to monetize what I am both deeply passionate about and can be the best in the world at.
That said, I am currently in the process of selling my main hip hop business sites, which have been a huge focus of my life for the last five years, and launching a B2B college textbook industry site, College Textbook News. I know that the college textbook industry cannot fascinate me for the rest of my life but I also feel that it comes closer to satisfying the requirements of all three circles than my work in hip hop business media has done to date.
At the same time, my successes and failures with hip hop web publishing have given me many of the insights required to pursue a B2B site and related services focused on the college textbook industry. And I do find myself becoming impassioned when I recognize that the college textbook is becoming both a signifier of and a battleground for concerns about higher education at a time of great disruption of past certainties. And I also find myself willing and able to learn everything I can about the industry as well as the concept and history of the college textbook itself.
Furthermore, I've got some pretty clear ideas about how to monetize this project whose current beta launch is simply a sketch of what is to come.
As I reenter startup mode and find myself actually enjoying having way too much to do, I find myself returning to great books I've read as well as to the advice of excellent thinkers who I've encountered along the way. And I'm grateful to each and every one.