Innovation By, Bob Lefsetz

Posted on September 25, 2011 by

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Everybody will say you’re on the wrong path.

You have to decide if you’re an insider or an outsider, an innovator or a follower, a member of the group or a loner.

Everybody wants something new. They just don’t know what it is.

Established industries give people what they want. Up and comers deliver what they could not foresee, what they have no idea they want.

This is the difference between Microsoft and Apple. The initial iPod was met with derision. Who wanted a $400 MP3 player?

Turned out many.

And when capacity increased and prices fell, it turned out just about everybody.

Who wanted a phone where you could surf the Web, never mind utilize free or nearly-free apps to execute unheard of jobs? RIM thought it was on the cutting edge with its BlackBerry, a seamless e-mail machine. It triumphed for a while. Now BlackBerry is left in the dust. It thought e-mail was enough. Turned out it wasn’t.

I’m fascinated by the failure of “X Factor”. And that’s what it is. Simon Cowell said anything less than 20 million viewers would have to be considered such.

Why did “X Factor” fail?

Was it the fact that it debuted in the fall, during reasonable weather, as opposed to the winter when much of the country is homebound?

Was it the stellar competition on other networks?

Or did the public just tire of the format.

Hell, “The Sing Off” failed completely.

If you keep on giving the public what you think it wants, one day it doesn’t.

That doesn’t mean if you do something different the public will eventually find you, but all the legends, all the greats, from the Beatles to Steve Jobs, thought different. So if you want to make a paycheck, think like them. Get a degree, network like hell and find your place on the totem pole and try to keep it. But if you want to last, if you want to change the world, there are no rules, you’ve got to forge your own identity, your own path, your own work.

That’s one of the reasons why music is in the shitter. Everybody’s seen it all. Sure, you can light yourself on fire, sell out to corporations, but what does that have to do with the sound?

And if you endlessly repeat yourself, fewer will care. Isn’t that what happened with Jay-Z and Kanye? People had seen it before, they perceived it as a dash for cash, fewer were interested. But neither of these artists is willing to take a risk, do it different, for fear of the audience abandoning them. And as soon as you’re trying to keep your audience, once you have one eye looking over your shoulder, you’re doomed.

Sure, few can innovate forever. But it’s astounding how a brief spark can flame a career. Whether it be Patti Smith or Van Morrison, who’s so crotchety I doubt he plays nice with himself.

Now Steve Jobs didn’t wake up one day and suddenly invent the Apple I. He was fascinated by electronics and paid his dues, and hooked up with programmer extraordinaire Steve Wozniak.

In other words, if your only desire is to be rich and famous, you’re probably not going to create something of worth. And whatever you create probably won’t be successful unless you employ the work and creativity of others.

Most abstract expressionists knew how to draw, they just weren’t dripping paint on a canvas. Looks simple to the uninitiated, but it’s the training underneath that begat the conception.

So if you want to have an impact, don’t try out for “American Idol”, don’t buddy up to everybody in the business. Follow your muse and create something insanely great. Refine it until it’s so. And then the audience will find you.

That’s not only the story of Steve Jobs and Apple, it’s the story of classic rock. Yes sounded like nothing else. But the band broke through to AM radio and ultimately played arenas. There hasn’t been a track like “Roundabout” before or since on mainstream radio. But Yes, or what they call Yes these days, is still touring on that long ago hit.

The history of the music business is the endless triumph of outsiders. Whether it be the Beatles or Eminem or Simon Cowell. None were rich, none were connected, they just did it different, a way everybody else said they could not.

Simon Cowell spoke the truth on TV! Whew! That was unheard of in a nation that coddles its young and is duplicitous.

But now that he’s about fame and money as opposed to truth, the truth is the acts he promotes are mediocre at best, we’re no longer interested.

The Beatles are legendary because they kept innovating, kept taking risks.

And Neil Young was not afraid to alienate his audience and destroy his fanbase in order to maintain his creative freedom. Neil’s beholden only to himself, that’s the mark of a true artist.

And if I could tell you where we’re going, what music comes next, I’d record it and sell it to you. But I’ve got no idea. I’m gonna be as surprised as you are. But I’m looking out for it. My spies are on the ground. If they find anything great they’ll tell me.

And there’s very little great stuff out there.

But when it hits the Net, it’s gonna spread like wildfire.

Actually, it might lie in plain sight for years. But suddenly the public will catch up to it. This is the classic ten year overnight success.

Don’t try to second-guess what people want. You’re better off working at Procter & Gamble. You might not make millions, but you won’t go hungry. An artist is willing to go hungry, he plays without a safety net, and we give him all our money because he satiates us in a way no one else can. He’s a fully-realized human being. He’s our best self.

If you hear “How did you come up with that shit?” you’re on the right path.

If the establishment says you’re doing it wrong, that you suck, you might just be a winner.

But you’ve got to be willing to lose. Possibly forever.

But the rewards if you win are gargantuan, for not only you, but listeners.

We’re separating the wheat from the chaff. Almost everybody has played basketball, but few make it to the NBA, there’s only one Kobe, one LeBron. We’ve got room for a few great acts. Just a few. You’ve got to be better than everybody else, and unlike in basketball, there are no rules, you make them up as you go along.

You’re the key to the future. Not anybody at a label, Live Nation or television. No one can help you as much as you can help yourself.

The odds are daunting.

But someone’s gonna break through.


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