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While new products and services are constantly being introduced to the music industry, few of these are truly “disruptive.” This article examines some telling signs that can allow artists to identify game-changing technologies early on.


Capitalizing on even a small advantage can change the outcome, as elegantly described in this Renaissance proverb, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

In 1768 a new invention, the chronometer, disrupted global navigation and the ones to have it first were the British. In a period of just 10 years they used it to change the outcome of the global empire race.

What if right now there is a new product among the recent wave of new direct-to-fan promotion products that will change the outcome for your band? Is there a way to identify which one? The answer is yes. Products that disrupt have four “tells”, and they appear early on. We’ll look at how they appeared in the invention of the chronometer and use them to see if the new digital promotion products offered by Apple, Spotify, Pandora and Facebook will change the outcome for you.

Before the mid-1700s sailors really preferred to stay within sight of land whenever they could. A device called an astrolabe let them plot their latitude – north-to-south… but there was nothing to plot longitude – east-to-west. This led to some impressive errors in navigation when traveling across oceans, the most spectacular in 1492 when Christopher Columbus got so lost he landed in America while looking for India.

In 1768 Captain Cook set sail from England with orders to discover what lay in the Pacific, and he had a new device called a chronometer that let him plot longitude from anywhere on the globe. Over the next 10 years he used it to chart most of the Southern Pacific Ocean… and also claim quite a bit of new territory for the Crown – Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Hawaii and South Georgia. That changed the outcome for Britain and made Captain Cook, if not a king, certainly a hero… but then he got killed by Hawaiian natives in 1779.

Predicting that a device to plot longitude would be disruptive wasn’t difficult. What was difficult was predicting who would invent it, so in 1714 the British Parliament authorized an “X Prize” of $6,000,000 in today’s dollars for its invention.  Here are the four “tells” that showed early on who the inventor would be.

Tell #1 – Solving big problems requires new skills, so inventors comes from outside. The inventor of the chronometer was not a sailor, or a shipbuilder… he wasn’t an astronomer, or a map maker… and he knew nothing about sea navigation. He was John Harrison, a carpenter who was passionate about timekeeping and in his spare time built and repaired wooden clocks. That proved critical because plotting longitude requires knowing precisely what time it is at the prime meridian, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich England. No timepiece was able to keep accurate time over a long sea voyage. That was the big problem to solve.

Tell #2 – Solving big problems requires designing from the ground up. Big problems are really the sum of many small ones, and the designer needs freedom to follow each problem wherever it takes them. At that time the only accurate timepieces used a pendulum, but pendulums have a difficult time of it at sea. So keeping accurate time required solving for all the natural forces that reduced it during a voyage – temperature, gravity, pitch, roll, and acceleration. Harrison built his first chronometer in 1735 from the ground up, and it solved most of these problems. It looked nothing like a timepiece but it kept accurate time during its test voyage.

Tell #3 – Early on function matters most. A corollary to Tell #2 is that when solving a big problem, looks don’t matter until later. It is easy to mistake looks as a proxy for new function or a necessity for adoption. The reality is if a product is the first to deliver a key advantage, nothing else matters. While you wait for it to be pretty others have already capitalized on it. Harrison’s first H1 was not pretty but the H5 was beyond pretty, it was elegant. But it came 25 years later.

Tell #4 – These products redefine what success is. A product that just makes things better will target standard metrics and use conventional measures of success. One that changes the outcome moves the needle on something new with an effect that is an order of magnitude greater. In terms of the global empire race, the British Parliament knew they weren’t just going after nautical charts, they were going after territory… and they got 3,120,963 square miles of it.

How do these new digital promotion products stack up? What do these four “tells” say about the new batch of direct-to-fan products offered by Apple, Spotify and Pandora, and Facebook too?

#1. Comes from an outsider – Who isn’t an insider in the digital music business today? I would argue all of these companies are well established in the music industry and are insiders. While it’s true they weren’t ten years ago, that’s how fast things are moving in the digital music business. So look for something from someone who isn’t an insider yet.

#2. Designed from the bottom up – All four of these products for direct-to-fan promotion are add-ons to platforms that do other things. I don’t know of any platform that succeeded in changing one outcome that succeeded in changing a different outcome. It’s back to solving difficult problems which required designs from the ground up… new platforms not new add-ons. Facebook’s band page has had success because it leverages what Facebook’s platform already does incredibly well – make it easy for one person to communicate to many others all at once. But truly effective direct-to-fan promotion only happens when bands communicate to their fans in ways that feel direct and personal. Facebook’s architecture doesn’t let them.

#3. Function first, then form – How many of the little problems that make up a big problem does the product actually solve? If it just whittles away at the periphery and doesn’t deliver a new advantage, it’s not going to change the outcome no matter how elegant the UX. Early-on is where people mistakenly put form over function and get into trouble because they miss it. That’s what appears to be with these new add-on products, but if they can show empirical data from real customer usage that will make it clear either way.

#4. Redefines success – The claims made by the provider always sheds light. If it’s to improve sales of music or tickets or merch… even a 25% bump will only making things better. Changing the outcome requires a different metric and it’s measured in multiples.Take a product that accelerates fan growth. New fan growth is now measured in multiples because of digitally connected fans. A band that has 50,000 Facebook fans and is doubling every year will have in 3 years… 400,000 fans. That’s pretty good! But if a new direct-to-fan product allows you to grow fans at 3½ times a year instead of 2 times, in 3 years you will have…2,000,000 fans!  That’s what a different outcome looks like.

I don’t think any of these will change the outcome for bands. But these are just four visible products that got lots of press. Look for ones launched without fanfare that are still under the radar, and use the four tells to see if they’re going to disrupt. If you are one of the first to see it, you are in a tremendous position. These companies know they’ve got something special but they need customers to help them prove it empirically. They’ll have other data around similar cases because that’s how they knew what product to build. That data is worth looking at and hearing them explain it. They will also make it easy to test their product while keeping your risk low until you see the proof. And good companies reward early loyalty for a long time. You’ll not only have the advantage early on, they will tell you first about new ways they’ve found to leverage the platform, they’ll ask for your input on new features, and probably lots more.

Finding the right product from the right company will take some work, but the four “tells” will increase the odds that you’ll see it early… and then you will be king!