By Dan Vedda
While reading an issue of Wired (20.05, May 2012), an article by Thomas Goetz, “How To Spot The Future,” jumped out at me. Trendspotting has always fascinated me, particularly since trends are driven by people’s choices rather than by pure technology. Trends determine how we use the technology: what happens when availability is filtered through societal shifts, economic development and, well, the power of too much free time.
Take surveillance cameras, for instance. There seems to be one on every corner, in every store and in an increasing number of households. When I was in college at the end of the Vietnam era, student demonstrators would rant about Big Brother…how THE MAN can’t control us. And they would have climbed poles and taken down or disabled cameras in protest. Now, we shrug off their ubiquity or even say, “I feel safer.” Society has shifted, and cameras are everywhere.
As cool as cell phones might be, they only outnumber landlines (and now smartphones outnumber “feature” phones) because of developments like unlimited calling, free long distance and subsidized phone prices. Sure, there are many who will pay any price for gadgets. But the fact that the number of wireless devices outnumbers the U.S. population (as of October 2011) can’t happen while people pay top dollar.
I’ve often said that I came along 20 years early. (OK…30.) If YouTube were available when I was in college, I would have had the sort of viral channel a lot of 20-ish people have today. I was making audio parodies and all sorts of ridiculous stuff, but I lacked the opportunity to have it go beyond a few friends. Why did I do it? I had the energy and, as so many people reminded me, “too much free time.” Today, the new paths are being forged by legions of people who have the time to mess around without worrying about profit or productivity. There’s something magical about geeking out and just having fun with a new toy.
But, in the music industry, we’ve only recently acknowledged societal shifts (and some still deny their influence on us). We’re small enough that economies of scale take longer to trickle down to us…and few of us have the free time and resources to experiment just for fun. So, we have to find an easier way to latch onto the future, because the future is coming at us faster than ever.
Goetz’s article has several sidebars offering takes on trendspotting from prominent futurists in education, venture capital, industry and other disciplines. Here are a few nuggets. See if you can spot the connection:
“A clear view of the future is often obstructed by taking too much for granted.”—Juan Enriquez
“Go where other people aren’t…approach something as an outsider.”—Esther Dyson
“See how normal people make product decisions.”—Chris Sacca (my italics)
There’s a lot more, and I recommend that you look up the article if this sort of stuff intrigues you. But for the average person in our industry, my main point is this: Pay attention, lose the preconceptions and get real. We’ve been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, and it’s time for us to dedicate ourselves to evolving as an industry.
We’ve come a long way, but we’ve come here still holding on to our cherished preconceptions of what our market is. Almost a century ago, we were doing the same thing: protesting against the use of sound in motion pictures, because legions of theater musicians were out of work, lamenting that the record player and radio killed the player piano market and trying to figure out what to do when the Great Depression hit.
But we figured it out: We changed our product offerings, found creative ways to finance the desire to make music and (most radical of all) created the entire school music market from scratch. As an industry, we’re creative, we’re resourceful and we’re determined. I think we’ve forgotten that recently and, with all the (admittedly immense) challenges, hunkered down and gone into a shell.
Oh, I still see a lot of creative effort. But much of it is centered on fresher ways of doing the same thing, or an idiosyncratic approach that is hailed as a solution for an unjustifiably broad swath. Still more of it is simple opportunism: a well-capitalized newcomer taking advantage of underserved markets thinned by dealer attrition. There’s nothing wrong with any of this. It’s just not enough creativity, and too little of it is forward-looking. The future will blindside us—yet again—if we continue this way.
We need to ask challenging questions. What do we do about the fact that an increasing percentage of our market isn’t “school music”? What effect will the Maker movement—with its open-source coding and ability to print 3D circuit boards—have on amplifier and signal processing design and sales? Or simply, what are our customers asking for that we’re not giving them?
That, to me, is the critical difference between simple creative innovation and trendspotting. Many wonderful people in our industry have initiated great programs or products. Some of them serve a niche that no one identified, and props to them for recognizing it. But when rank-and-file customers regularly ask for something that is not available, it’s a trend, and we’re missing it. It doesn’t take a genius to see it…just a pair of ears that is ready to hear.
Past example: Customers were asking me for a combination metronome/tuner for two years before I saw such a product, and another year before an affordable one was available.
Current example, and one we can only thoroughly address as an industry: Day after day, adults who want to play ask me where they can find groups to join. Other than scattered community bands, there isn’t much. We need to address this, industry-wide. The culture is ready. We started the school band movement. Why can’t we do more for the adults? RMM is just the tip of the iceberg. This is a societal shift, and we need to address it.