Thursday, June 5, 2008

Metallica’s choice of path? Grow old, innovate, or die!

In my blog from June 3, I wrote about Metallica's problem with its market of youth. The market has changed in that the fan base has become older. What an artist could get away with in the beginning of his/her career, is not necessary possible in the later stages of the career. This because when young customers becomes older, their interest and taste changes. One effect is that they may become more critical - both towards the artists and themselves. I ended the piece with the question: "How do producers of creative culture goods such as music cope and adapt to such changes?”.

The story of Metallic seems to be that first they got it right, and then they did not got it so right. I mean, it seems to be problematic to show up all your accumulated wealth and at the same time accuse those who have provided that wealth for stealing. That is a recipe for...problem.

Due to existing customer becomes older, an artists has a diminishing fan base over time. It is also hard to attract new young costumers. This because they have their mind set on other perceived new "hip" artists. Problem with costumer becoming older and their changes in interest is not any specific for music artists as Metallica. I think that is a general problem for all markets of youth. Markets of e.g. films, games, and books.

What paths can artists choose from to cope with and adapt to the changes in the market? Broadly speaking, I think we can talk about three paths.

1 The first is to get old with those loyal customers which you attracted when you became popular. I think this is the most common path. The artist hangs on to the true believers. You do not dare to tamper with the successful offering too much. The market knows what they can expect from you. Yes, some of the fan base will drop of. But if you had had many from the beginning, there will be enough left to take you to the end. This path is the safe bet. Some artists on this path are able to attract new generation of youth. However, it is not for everybody. The example I can think of is Bruce Springsteen. He has not changed his music concept much over the years. But he has something, which seems to attract also new younger generation of music consumers.

2 The second is to continuously innovate and thereby attract new young customers. This artist tries to follow the times and try to change his/her music style to meet the changing demand of the market. It is difficult to always be innovative and to anticipate what could be a new success in the future market. There is also an additional risk. When you tamper with the original successful music concept, you may alienate the old loyal part of your existing customer base. The risk is that you could end up losing in both of the ends. You do not attract any new young customers and you scare away the old ones. However, Madonna is an impressive example of an artist which has been successful on this path. She has reinvented herself many times. This by co-operating with young hip players. Together they figured out what was the next new thing.

3 The third is to quit while you are ahead. A band breaks up and the band members go separate ways. Sometimes it ends with a kind of Farewell tour. The music becomes timeless. ABBA is an example of this. They still attract many new young fans, even though they have quite long ago. A more drastic example of this path is when the artist unexpectedly dies. The obvious example, which comes to my mind, is Elvis. A rumour has it that he earns more money today than when he was alive. Generation after generation of young people seems to find his music inspiring and fulfilling.

Which path is Metallica on? I do not know? All three could be possible. However, if I must choose one of them, which one should it be? Probably not path number two. There are too many risks for a hard core rock band like Metallica. Path three is either not so likely. Metallica has shown before that they can cope with problems within the band. I assume also that they are going to stay alive. Therefore there is good probability that they will keep on going - "business as usual". My pick is therefore path number one. But on that path, they can not afford to piss of too many of their old fans. They will need every one of them to hold on to - in their way into the future.

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