Innovate, Indie-Style

by Doug Powell
Designers tend to be an inwardly focused bunch. Design conferences, publications and blogs are the primary source of inspiration and guidance for most of us. When it comes to reinventing our business model, however, there is so much to be learned by looking at other professional disciplines.

A recent trip to the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas illuminated for me some lessons designers can learn from the world of indie rock (loosely defined as musicians and bands who do not have a deal with a major recording label). For instance, I was impressed to hear veteran indie rocker, Freedy Johnston, announce during one SXSW gig that one of his side projects is using for funding. Like design, the music industry has undergone colossal changes in the last decade enabled by a rapid technological evolution and sharply increased use of online social networks. Indie artists have led the way in using these new opportunities to transform their business.

Andy Thompson, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer based in Minneapolis points out one of the ways emerging artists are getting their music in front of new audiences: “Licensing songs to film and television shows has become a major opportunity for musicians. This has been around for a long time, but now it’s become a big way these shows are marketing themselves,“ says Thompson. “A lot of bands have come to count on licensing in order to pay the bills, fund future recordings, or underwrite a tour.” Product licensing has also become a viable way for designers to bring their ideas directly to market.

Distribution can be a major barrier for designers looking to bring a product or service directly to market. Likewise, musicians have historically been dependent on a record label to promote and distribute their work. “Now, oftentimes a distribution deal is not even on our radar—the internet is our distribution deal,” says Thompson, “we can easily promote our music through social media like Facebook and Twitter, and sell through online stores, like Bandcamp and iTunes. This has cut out entire armies of middlemen and transformed the industry.” Designers can draw parallels with online marketplaces such as Etsy, Felt & Wire, and even Amazon, which bring an international customer base to our doorstep (and laptop).

Social media has also redefined how musicians collaborate with each other. Andy Thompson elaborates, “I keep in touch with all kinds of folks around the country who might be looking to hire me for my many services, such as bands, film editors, other producers and engineers, a singer-songwriter looking for a kick ass accordionist (it’s not me, but I can give them the name of a guy).” Some of the most exciting music industry innovations involve connecting artists directly to their fans. New online platforms like PledgeMusic, allow fans to help fund their favorite acts. LiveMusicMachine provides fans with the opportunity to book gigs directly with a band…completely sidestepping the booking agents, ticket sales services, and venues. These examples present a really interesting template for designers to follow as a way to connect directly with our audiences, without the intermediary of a client.

Innovation is happening in every corner of the business world, whether it’s creative industries like music, film, and theater, or more traditional business disciplines like healthcare or financial services. The important idea for designers is that these other fields hold clues for how we can transform our own businesses.

photo of marshall stack

Like design, the music industry has undergone colossal changes in the last decade enabled by a rapid technological evolution and sharply increased use of online social networks. Indie artists have led the way, using these new opportunities to amplify their business.

Quick Tip
Innovation is happening all around us. As with all things entrepreneurial, follow your passions—whether it’s music, gardening, rock climbing, or whatever—and find out who the innovators are in these areas. This can be a great way to fuel your own entrepreneurial energy.

Dig Deeper!
1. Tight Mix is a music industry blog that posted a great list of the most innovative music industry technology start-ups.

2. Check out Doug Powell’s earlier Parse post about product licensing…or his Parse post on alternative funding, including Kickstarter.

3. Andy Thompson has played with Dan Wilson, Mike Doughty, and Jeremy Messersmith. Check out his website here:

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