SXSW Musings on When NOT to Innovate
Along with about 200,000 other music lovers, I enjoyed SXSW’s recent descent on Austin and the chance to take in some live performances. But, I think it is safe to say that I was one of the few fans making mental connections between the music industry and its love-hate relationship with innovation.
This line of thought bubbled up during a great performance that included my daughter’s guitar instructor (Van Wilks from here in Austin and highly recommended!) which we caught shortly after I researched my blog post SXSW Exclusive: Top 10 Inventive Companies in Musical Technology.
As we watched the performance from fantastic seating at the side of the stage, I thought about all of the wiring and equipment on the stage and how big a trip hazard it presented. (Please don’t tell my wife, she already thinks I’m a geek.)
And then it hit me…
Some markets, and the industries that serve them, deliberately avoid innovation, at least in the equipment used. While this is not bad or detrimental, I never really thought about it as being pervasive in any particular industry. Wow! As someone who helps inventors, entrepreneurs and companies be more innovative, this notion that someone would prefer not to be innovative seemed foreign, the horror!
My earlier blog post research revealed that this hesitance is not universal. In fact, I discovered that Yamaha is a huge exception and trying to be very innovative in the music industry. This contrasts with other well-known companies such as Moog that are highly respected and are likely to be so for many more years by producing the same equipment that made them famous.
How can innovation and lack of innovation flourish side-by-side in the same industry?
As an electrical engineer I respect that the sound produced by digital electronics has less noise than that of older analog equipment. I thought it was so cool when audio CDs first came out (I won’t tell you what year!) since their sound was very clean. I didn’t realize until later that these low-noise tracks were sacrificing bass, a key benefit of analog systems using vacuum tubes.
I also didn’t realize until a few years ago that some people *prefer* hearing the noise and popping associated with records and vacuum tube equipment. This concept was hilariously captured in an episode of the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond, a small portion of which can be seen here.
This might help explain why people have saved the vinyl record from obsolesce and are even finding ways to introduce that sound to other formats too.
We in technology (notice how I drag everybody under the bus with me) often focus on delivering better equipment. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this goal unless you consider that we’re often doing this on the basis of specifications, especially in comparison to other equipment. Unfortunately, we occasionally forget to find out first what people prefer.
A current example of how we’re trying to “catch up” the state of music equipment is the release of newer music formats such as Pono and others. The big benefit here is to move us closer to a live performance and improve on the lower audio quality formats such as MP3.
At the same time, incoming college students were found to prefer the “sizzle sounds” of MP3s.  Compared to the analog technology, is this starting to sound like a familiar story of generational preference?
Now that I’ve ranted, what other markets exist that prefer not to change? Do they fall into a similar pattern as the music equipment industry?
Picture credit: Ekaphon maneechot (Shutterstock)
 The Sizzling Sound of Music, Dale Dougherty (2009)