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How Music Became an Experience (Again)

Once upon a time, the process for creating a record breaking band was very simple: find a talented artist, release an album, get it into heavy radio rotation, reach platinum sales, and stage a world tour. In 2014, however, for the first time in history, only one artist reached platinum sales: Taylor Swift.

From a conventional perspective, the music industry has moved from records to streaming or from owning to sharing. Pandora, Spotify, Youtube, Soundcloud, and others have taken the place of digital music downloads. Due to the shift in how people experience music, listener tastes became more dispersed and concerts became larger in scale, leaving artists with less power than ever before. But is this really the case? 

Customer experience designers see it from a different perspective. They know from French sociologist Bruno Latour that “we have never been modern.” Instead, Latour argued, modern ways of thinking and doing (our dualistic language, practices of standardization, normalization, etc.) have gradually clouded our understanding of how people and elements come together to create an experience.

From this advanced experiential marketing standpoint, then, the standardized record industry era is only a historical distraction from the fact that music has always been (and probably will always be) a profoundly experiential network-building enterprise. 

And while “the industry” became something of a black box that made it seem as though it was no longer required to assemble the sound, the people, and everything else in ways that create a musical whole greater than the sum of its parts, a lot of what was in the hands of industry players falls back into the hands of experiential marketing entrepreneurs.

Here are three lessons modern-day musical experience designers can learn from all-star experiential marketing entrepreneurs like Handel, Bach, and Mozart: 

Handel’s Law: Musical Experience is a Network

George Frideric Handel knew that conquering England with his music was never just about performing songs in front of an audience. It was about bringing regular consumers, journalists, the merchant class, and even the king himself on his side. The more he would push his music in between these people and the possibility of reaching their respective economic and political goals, the bigger he became as an artist brand. From Handel we can learn that the creation of a musical experience requires musical entrepreneurs to redefine people’s interests.

Bach’s Law: Experiential Technologies of Power

Johann Sebastian Bach understood that technology played a key role in the experience design process. And one technology of power he innovated was the Bach trumpet, a new instrument that allowed him to enroll his allies more effectively than competing composers. With this trumpet, only Bach would be able to create sonic representations of God’s divine power, thereby winning over important key institutions such as the church and the courts.

Mozart’s Law: Keeping It All Together

What do Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have in common? They remind us that experiential assemblages are never perfectly durable, that they require the ongoing management and support of many actors, and that they go through phases of perpetual structural instability. Between Mozart’s zenith on the top 5% of breadwinners in the late 18th-century Vienna and his miserable end in one of Salzburg’s pauper graves, for instance, we can trace the gradual disintegration of his experiential network. And between this event and today, we can also witness the resurgence of the modern Mozart empire from its 18th century roots. Keeping it all together is never merely a matter of writing captivating songs. In the past and present, it is a much more matter of coordinating rights, tourists, concert-goers, instruments, school curricula, chords and beats, musicians, politicians, chocolate lovers, and stages in ways that create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Annalisa Fratti, Leonardo Horowitz, and Sam Wang are MBA Students in the new Customer Experience Design course at the Schulich School of Business at York University.