SPEAK OUT: The World is Flat

Christopher Columbus

Here’s a simple grade school history lesson (albeit a false one) and I promise I will tie in how it relates to the current music business. Many of us were taught that it was through the efforts and explorations of Christopher Columbus that the modern man learned the world was not flat, but indeed of spherical shape. That, of course, is incorrect. The truth is as early as 300 BC, ancient Greek and Chinese astronomers speculated that the earth was round and they even made several attempts to calculate the exact curvature of the earth. By the 14th century, belief in a flat earth among the educated was essentially dead. Nonetheless, what has allowed Christopher Columbus’s legacy to last over five centuries are not his actual exploits and understanding that the natural world was not flat, but his own intuition and business sense that allowed him to perceive the world of business and commerce as flat.

Columbus was born into the equivalent of a lower middle class family in Genoa, Italy. His family’s profession did not dictate that he would be involved in trading and sea exploration. His father was a weaver and also owned a cheese stand; Columbus’s brother Bartolomeo worked in a cartography shop and was one of the first people to teach young Columbus about the map reading and production process. Despite rather modest upbringings, Columbus still managed to garner the respect and admiration of the Spanish royal court, which funded his greatest explorations to the Americas. Columbus did this through his great ability to market himself and his promises of the vast glory and riches that Spain would reap from his ventures. In fact, many of the famous pirates and sailors that you hear about were some of the first mass marketers and entrepreneurs to emerge from the lower social rungs of society. These were men who had a vision and understood the need to sell this vision to higher powers in order to gain financial backing.

Now why am I telling you all of this? As DIY musicians, booking agents and managers, we have to view the entire music business as being flat. I can’t tell you how many complaints I hear from local musicians about how they can’t begin work on a certain project or move to the next level in their career due to a lack of funds. I’ve been there myself and I understand how frustrating it is to miss out on opportunities because you may lack the money to bring your ideal record release party or tour to fruition. However, it was economist Thomas Friedman who introduced the idea of a “flat world” in his 2005 work, The World is Flat, where he popularized the concept of a level playing field in business and commerce. This is essentially the idea that all competitors have equal opportunity. Friedman actually has a list of ten flatteners or things that contributed to making the world of global commerce an equal playing field — things like work flow software, file uploading, job outsourcing, and what he labels the six “steroids” (breakthroughs in digital, mobile, personal and virtual technology). All of these flatteners have converged in the past decade to not only enhance each other, but they also provide a very sharp and competitive edge for mid-level nations to compete with the more powerful industrialized countries.

Now I will say this: I personally do not believe the world is flat in every single industry; unfortunately some industries thrive best off monopolistic and oligopolistic practices. Imagine if we had 2,000 different independent toilet tissue manufacturers, even down to companies that offered “boutique” toilet tissue and accessories. It would be absurd; it makes more sense to consolidate the means of production into the hands of a few factory owners.

Kanye WestHowever, in the music business, the world is indeed flat and in order to succeed as musicians, we must realize this. The key is to be able to make cross connections between your art and how that art can impact not only your field, but a variety of fields. I want to speak about Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Rihanna for a minute. The bizarre truth for anyone who can’t accept it is that these individuals are arguably the most popular and innovative pop superstars in the music business. They have climbed to the top of this sky high totem pole through careful marketing and branding that extends well past the music business. All of them have managed to find a cozy balance or alignment between their notoriety in not only music, but also the fashion and art worlds. You’re just as likely to see Kanye’s big mug on the inside of the cover of GQ or Vogue as you are XXL. The same goes for Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

Now I’m not suggesting any musician try to compete with them. I view these kinds of artists as the big conglomerates and corporations; they’re huge and famous, but all of their decisions have to be filtered through teams and boards of people. I’m sure it’s somewhat of an arduous task for these kinds of stars to pursue their major passion projects because their brand is too heavily micromanaged.

Nonetheless, I’ve realized that as independent managers and producers of art, we too must search for the cross connections in our own local community and strive harder to find ways to not only market ourselves outside of the local concert venue, but we must also reach out to the editors of art magazines, the fashion design students, and even local businesses about sponsorship and collaboration opportunities. By paying more attention to our own communities and keeping the lines of communication open, we can accomplish so much more at the local level.

The end game in 21st century music business politics is that you have to prove a concept works on a small scale before ultimately graduating to the next echelon. So the next time you think about handing out some flyers in front of a concert venue to promote your upcoming show, get creative. Channel the business spirit of Christopher Columbus and remember the flat world concept. The music business can be more equal than you think. Get out there and make connections with the people who can help make your dream exploration or discovery a reality.