Never Gonna Give You Up: Creating a Musical Experience in a Digital Age

The music industry has been feeling the curse of digital communication technologies as a result of music streaming services such as Spotify (or even YouTube, which is a popular way of accessing music, with or without video). Streaming services pay very little – fractions of pennies, in fact, back to the musician when songs are played. And this year, the closure of HMV has shown us that there is no longer a market for physical recorded music. In fact, even the purchase of individual songs on iTunes has become less relevant as a result of streaming. In my private sector consulting work, I often coach independent musicians about how they might survive, and even thrive in a world where they cannot make money from their original product, and I think we can draw inspiration from this in the most unlikely of places: Tough Mudder – a fitness brand that is optimized for the digital age.

Three people doing handstands in front of a wall with the tough mudder logo
Tough Mudder 2014 from donds. Available on Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/pxjCTU

For the uninitiated, Tough Mudder is a dirty, demanding obstacle course, which includes a 12 mile run interrupted by such obstacles as running through electric shocks, swimming in ice water, scrambling up a greased half pipe, and wading through waist-deep mud. Initially started in 2010, it has grown into a global brand, and now has partnerships with athletic apparel companies, protein bar manufacturers, and most recently, has expanded to include tough mudder training gyms that “mudders” can attend when they’re not running the course. Unlike many races, tough mudder is not designed as a non-profit. People pay $200 or more for a ticket, not including parking or food at the venue. And they come back year after year, with some people traveling across the country or around the world to take place in multiple mudder events. Mudders are loyal to the brand, and support it not only by showing up, but also by purchasing merchandise, connecting with the brand on social media, and evangelizing about their experiences to friends and family. And all this from an experience that is at best grueling and uncomfortable – a Tough Mudder event is not a walk in the park for participants.

So why do people do this? And why do I think this is an example of how to thrive in an time of digital disruption? According to the founder of Tough Mudder, people participate in order to have a unique experience. When they participate, they transcend their 9-5 day to day lives, challenge themselves, and feel like they have grown and become more as a result. This experience of transcendence is so meaningful, it makes them want to take a piece of the action home with them, in the form of merchandise, and it makes them want to evangelize, and come back year after year. Essentially Tough Mudder has created a product that cannot be disrupted by digital technologies very easily. People cannot have the experience of running a Tough Mudder unless they actively participate in it – which makes the brand resistant to online sharing in a way that many industries are not.

So what can the music industry learn from this?

A musician in a spotlight with a guitar. His hands are above his head.
Luis Hernandez from Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/bAUGhX

To survive in an age where music is digital and each song produces very little revenue for the artist, musicians have to think more about what they offer that cannot be digitized. Music, in a way that other content cannot, has a way of creating a feeling of transcendence, emotion and experience. Combined with the excitement and glamour of being in the entertainment industry, this is something on which artists MUST build if they want to make money at their craft.

Learning from Tough Mudder, musicians need to think about how they can create a one-of-a kind experience, that people will not only pay for, but also one that will inspire people to want to take a piece of the experience home with them via the purchase of a CD, t-shirt, or other merchandise. This opportunity can occur only in the form of the live show. My recommendation at first may seem counter-intuitive, but I suggest that rather than fighting against the trend of the devaluation of each song, artists give their music away for free in order to get audiences interested in the real product – that is, the live shows and merchandise. This would be analogous to Tough Mudder producing social media content of Tough Mudder training workouts for free, even though they have physical gyms they want people to train in.

Then artists need to begin to think about how they can make the experience at their shows truly memorable and unique for audience members. Doing something different, and even involving the audience in some way via social media may help. So too will taking the time to connect with fans face to face, because nothing feels more special than an acknowledgement from someone you’ve seen up on stage. This is something that Canadian country music artist Brett Kissel does really well. He takes the time, both on social media, and in public appearances to stop and interact with as many fans as possible, and this action helps to cement his popularity with his public.

Like Tough Mudder, music can foster a community of people that will never give their favorite artists up. For that to happen though, we must understand Walter Benjamin’s instruction about the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction. That is, when art is easily reproducible (in this case due to digital technologies), it loses its “aura”. To give the art more value then, we must favor approaches that help to restore the unspoken value in the work of art. We must create something that is no longer reproducible. In doing so, we no longer have to fear digital sharing, but can embrace it. And if musicians share their own music online, rather than only having organizations like Spotify do it for them, they begin to reclaim their digital footprint, allowing for a new type of interaction with their communities.

Never Gonna Give You Up: Creating a Musical Experience in a Digital Age

2 thoughts on “Never Gonna Give You Up: Creating a Musical Experience in a Digital Age

  1. troebuck says:

    Interesting post about music. I have heard previously that musicians have to tour – perform live – to make a profit now; whereas, it used to be the other way around. Music sales used to be the profit. Is there anything untouched by the era of digital technology?

    1. jhodson says:

      Unfortunately, it seems like digital is impacting many areas of our lives. We need to choose if we’re going to be a victim of the technological shift, or take some ownership in helping to shape it.

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