Where You Are Still Matters

Yesterday I got fed up with reading about music-sharing services like Pandora and Spotify, because neither is currently available in Australia – quite frustrating. After some hunting around, I finally found deezer.com, a French music-streaming site.* I listened to the Punk Rock radio channel on the site, and discovered a fair number of French bands that I’d never heard before. It used to be pretty hard to find music from all the parts of Europe that weren’t the UK, and it was fun to start digging into a musical history that had been mostly hidden from me.

That got me started on a serendipitous path through my music collection, and throughout the day I ended up listening to music by people from France, Italy, Sweden, Latvia, Jamaica, Algeria and Mali. The music was from many different genres, including punk, reggae, rai and several that I don’t know the name for, which mostly combine regional folk music instruments, lyrics and melodies with western rock tropes. As an example of the latter, check out this song by Garmarna, a great band from Sweden:

The issue with Garmarna is that I don’t really know what genre they fit into, but that reflects my ignorance. The standard response to this kind of categorisation problem is to create a catch-all category, like “World Music”.

When we do this, it’s a mistake. Eugene Hütz, the leader of Gogol Bordello, explains why in an interview from Boing Boing:

Boing Boing: You’ve been quoted as saying you hate the phrase “world music.”

Hütz: The term itself is just kind of weak and mindless, but that’s not the problem. The problem was that it was used wrongly, and misguided listeners for decades, it blocked audiences from being able to hear worldwide rock and roll culture, because anything not in English went into a world music section, like a trash bin that only nerds and geeks bother to go into. A lot of brilliant multicultural rock and roll music, great bands, never reached rock and roll listeners worldwide. I know these bands. Incredible musicians from Brazil, Russia, Italy, France, that end up in the world music section and never found their audience because they don’t speak English. “World music” ruined a lot of musician’s careers.

Boing Boing: Has the internet helped to undo some of that damage, by helping to connect those bands to new audiences now?

Hütz: Absolutely. It didn’t resolve all the problems for us, but it does help communication. The downside is that it multiplies the volume of bad quality recordings and videos out there. There are so many more of them out there now. The sheer volume of material makes it important for people to realize that they must have their own filter, to find really good quality material out there. Filters are more important now.

The critical point in all of this is that even in the digital age, where we are still matters (perhaps a sixth uncomfortable fact for digital maniacs?). Music is interesting, because it is a genuinely global phenomenon. Yet every region has a distinct tradition, with lyrical and musical themes that are replicated within groups of composers and performers. In many cases, the genuinely innovative musicians work within one of these traditions, but they add in bits and pieces from other forms of music (from different genres or different locations, or both) to create something entirely new.

Great music is usually an example of combinatorial creativity. It results from complex interplay between tradition, location, and innovation.

There are a few general innovation lessons in all of this:

  • Diversity of thought leads to creativity and innovation: Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. This is true for most musical genres too (although I sometimes wonder if his 90% number was too optimistic…). The 10% that rise above are the ones that do something more than simply being competent in their recreation of existing tropes. They find new ways to combine ideas. Digital technologies have made it easier to gain exposure to new ideas, but we still have to figure out how to develop novel connections between them.
  • We need good filters to find the right ideas to connect: As Hütz points out, the importance of filters increases as the volume of available information increases.
  • Beware of garbage can classifications like “World Music”: this is the critical lesson. These kinds of categories end up reflecting our ignorance. This is a problem because we create categories as a way to quickly communicate some basic information about the members of that category. When the category does not reflect genuine differences, its existence can do more harm than good.

    This is why terms like Reverse Innovation bother me. The general concept that is being communicated is good – innovation takes place everywhere, and people and firms in developed countries would be wise to pay attention to what’s going on in places that they’ve usually discounted as sources of innovation. This is an important idea, and one that I completely agree with. However, the phrase Reverse Innovation, while catchy, actually reinforces the attitude that it is trying to fight against.

    I support the points that Vijay Govindarajan is making when he talks about Reverse Innovation, but I think it’s a terrible category.

Both in music and in innovation, where you are from still matters. Location has a huge influence on the way that we see the world, and on what tools we think to use in dealing with the world. To innovate, we need to find ways to expand the number of ideas that we are exposed to. We also need to able to effectively filter these ideas. To do this, we need to be able to categorise them accurately.
*It’s worth noting that after listening to music on deezer for just a couple of hours, I went out and bought 3 full CDs – something that the labels would do well to remember when they’re negotiating whether or not these services can get licensing to spread more widely. The simple lesson is that people buy music that they’ve heard – something that labels used to know back when they bribed radio DJs to play their songs…

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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