Maybe It’s Time to Smash Your iPod

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

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.

8 thoughts on “Maybe It’s Time to Smash Your iPod

  1. Can’t we have both? As a vinyl fan, I love that most albums are coming with digital downloads these days. I like vinyl for the reasons mentioned above, the full beauty of package: Gatefold covers, thick high quality vinyl – whether colored or black, glossy inserts, I want it all. But obviously in this day and age, portability is key, so I’ll take a lower quality audio version and throw it on my ipod for listening in the car or while traveling.

    To be fair, the LP was never the best medium for solid albums front to back due to it’s two sided nature. I’d argue that any format that allows you to play the entire 30-55 minute album uninterrupted is a superior listening experience.

    Obviously Radiohead made a lot of noise with the release of In Rainbows and it’s alternative distribution method (for full disclosure I paid a few bucks for the digital dl, and then bought the standard LP when it was released). This is obviously the tip of the iceberg, and I look forward to seeing the artists and musicians who continue to push the envelope by releasing their art using atypical distribution methods (for me, the digital album booklet doesn’t cut it). Unfortunately I guess I won’t be able to download this film anywhere online, will I?

  2. Hey Johnny,
    Thanks for the comment. We can have both. Insurgentes was release in February, but you could order it in early December. The order included instant MP3 downloads. All of Wilson’s recent releases have been produced in 5.1 which is the ultimate sonic experience. He has also be going back through the older Porcupine Tree catalog and reissuing limited edition 5.1 remixes.

    Your point about the two sidedness of LPs is fair although Classic era artist usually built their albums around this limitation. I think Wilson’s point is not about listening uninterrupted, but rather listening to an entire album as a cohesive performance.

    Coincidentally, Wilson reviewed ‘In Rainbows” in the Mexican edition of Rolling Stone and discusses it in the film. While he praised the work, he used it as an example of how artists have abandoned the artwork component.

    Finally, the film is expected to be screened at film festivals this summer. No idea about how it will be made available after that.

  3. What I think is interesting is that most artists still build their albums (however they’re released) around the time limitations set by the old “album experience”. 45-50 minutes, 10-12 songs, more or less. Sometimes, you might get someone who pushes out to a near 70-minute run to take advantage of the space on a CD, but not usually. Also, you still have artists that build albums as performances and not just collections: three recent(ish) examples that I can think of are “Demon Days” by Gorillaz, “10,000 Years” by the Honeydogs, and “Dog Problems” by the Format.

    On the other hand, the digital distribution model makes it really easy for artists to connect more quickly and consistently with their audiences. I have a cousin who is in music and after he did a cover of an old song on a national TV show, the response was so great that he was able to get into studio, cut the track, and release it on iTunes within a week or two. Other artists are participating in a charity subscription project where they’re releasing two songs a month on a site that donates most proceedings to a charity. You can’t do that with vinyl. But the other benefit is that it also helps grow the fanbase, and if you’ve got a strong touring ethic, then you give them the “performance experience” in live shows (which is where the money really is).

  4. Great article, thanks! Customer service is probably one of the most underrated things in this world – truly a dying art. I have come across a website which allows me to receive the customer service I deserve. By writing reports about my Suppliers, and allowing them to respond to me regarding the matter at hand, has helped restore my faith in customer service.

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