Maybe you should take a hammer to your iPod. OK, maybe not literally, but have you given any consideration to what the impact of the MP3 file (and Apples’s game changing iTunes business model) has been on the customer experience for recorded music? Steven Wilson, the driving force behind the band Porcupine Tree has given it a great deal of consideration. Wilson is clearly a minority in an industry transformed by technology and focused in selling three minutes of disposable entertainment at $.99 a pop. He sees the long form package as the best way to deliver a quality experience to the listener. Like legendary artists that came before digital, Wilson still produces limited edition, high quality vinyl collector’s pressings and “Digi-Pacs” that contain both stereo and 5.1 mixes contained in packaging which is in itself a work of art with pages of glossy artwork. Last month, Wilson released his first solo project to critical acclaim. Insurgentes is about music and the album as art form, and applying the same aesthetic vision through the writing, performance, production, artwork, lyrics, videos and beyond. It also reflects a theme which has been in Wilson’s most recent Porcupine Tree releases:
“My fear is that the current generation of kids who’re being born into this information revolution, growing up with the Internet, cell phones, iPods, this download culture, ‘American Idol,’ reality TV, prescription drugs, PlayStations – all of these things kind of distract people from what’s important about life, which is to develop a sense of curiosity about what’s out there.” (Steven Wilson, MTV News)
Later this year, Wilson and long-time film collaborator Lasse Hoile are expected to release a documentary film under the same title which looks into the issues of creating, packaging and marketing music in an era when iPods, Mp3’s and download culture are changing and eroding perceptions of exactly what an album is supposed to sound and look like. In an extract from the documentary included with the DVD-Audio package, Wilson laments the loss of the rock album as an art form.
As a teenager, he would go to the local record store with enough money to buy one album. He would explore the racks of titles and would make his decision on which one to buy based on, among other things, the look and feel of the cover artwork. Once the decision was made, he would spend hours exploring and absorbing his investment from the first track to the last (as it was meant to be heard).
As a teenager in the 1970’s, this really resonated with me. Think about a masterpiece like The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper. It was never meant to be consumed in three minute chunks, but rather as a whole 48 minute composition, while exploring the extensive imagery and lyrics of the album cover. A work of art like that could never deliver the same experience in digital download format with a single two inch square picture. Sadly, most modern artists have abandoned the album format as a result of the available technology.
Nevertheless, we are in a different time and the technology has forever changed the customer experience. Listening to Wilson describe why he does the things differently made me wonder if we haven’t seen a familiar phenomenon with other types of customer experiences. Have we made them superficial and disposable for the sake of technology and the need to do everything faster? More importantly, are there ways to succeed by playing the game differently like Steven Wilson does?
I worked on a customer experience strategy project for a large retailer a few years ago. One of the obvious insights gained from talking to customers was that they were (and still are) increasingly feeling starved for time. They want and expect everything to happen instantly. “Let me get in and out quickly” was the takeaway. This is a common insight used by companies developing their customer experience strategies. As a result, the approach many organizations have taken is to replace human interaction with technology. We self-serve everything from money to gasoline. It’s all very convenient, for the customer and cost efficient to the company, but does nothing to help build the brand by engaging customers through a smile, a greeting exchanged, a windshield washed (ok that’s a really old reference, but you get the point).
The point here is that while technology can be a great experience augmenter, it’s no substitute for building experiences based on the interactions of people. If you ask customers, they will tell you that that the brands they love and continue to be loyal to are the ones that deliver a great experience and a personal touch. And, by the way, they are willing to pay more for it if it’s exceptional. The good news is that so many organizations aren’t really focusing on or succeeding at making customer experiences a strategic differentiator. If the customer experience you are delivering looks more like the iPod model than the ‘album as art form” model, maybe it really is time to smash your iPod.