Music and the theory of disruptive innovation

36 minute read

UPDATE: This was very much a stream of consciousness blog post, where I wrote down my thoughts as they occurred to me. Among other things, this meant that it lacked a good summary of what it is actually supposed to be about. The basic idea was/is to take Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation in business and apply it to music and (by extension) to other arts, with a goal of sketching out a “unified field theory” that (with suitable elaboration) could potentially explain how music evolves not only from an aesthetic perspective but also in terms of the sociology and economics of the communities of composers, performers, critics, educators, audiences, etc., who participate in particular musical traditions and movements. I referenced Kyle Gann a lot because for a while I’ve been reading his blog and his writings on downtown vs. uptown music, but the themes of the post are really more in line with the writings of people like Alex Ross and (in particular) Greg Sandow who’ve been writing about the future of classical music in relation to popular music and the rest of contemporary culture.

Kyle Gann (composer, musicologist, writer, educator) recently wrote a blog post, The Epistemology of Elitism, that posited a way to get beyond sterile debates on whether some types of music are objectively better than other types (e.g., the classical vs. pop music argument). To quote Gann at length:

John [Luther Adams] and I put together a registry of musical virtues that was isomorphically analogous to a classification of audiences. For instance: there are people for whom the best music must involve innovation. These people are likely to value Varese, Partch, Cage. There are others who value craftsmanship above all else. These people tend to like Hindemith, Sessions, perhaps Ligeti. Other people feel that music should be, above all else, emotionally true; perhaps they gravitate toward Barber, Vaughan Williams, maybe Messiaen. There are people who love music for its sonic lushness and sensuousness, who may relish Takemitsu and Feldman. There are people who value clarity, who value simplicity, who value intellectualism, who value memorability, who value physicality, who value theoretical rigor. Most people value several of these virtues, and we could create Venn diagrams of audiences who love different new musics because of the specific virtues they possess. The innovation + emotive sincerity intersectors love Ives. The intellectualism + sensuousness people love Takemitsu. That's what John and I were coming up with. I think these virtues could be categorized, and I think it would be a worthwhile and revealing musicological exploit. I think it could become the prolegomena to a sociology of new-music (and other) audiences.

I happen to have a weakness for aesthetic theories, and commented on what I thought were some interesting implications of this one, including what I thought was an possible point of intersection with Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. Gann replied positively to my comments and added It’d be great if we could use findings from other fields to lay out the groundwork for all this. That was all the encouragement I needed to write at length about this topic (though needless to say Gann bears no responsibilities for any excesses or errors I’ve committed).

A framework for a possible theory of aesthetic innovation

Let me first say that I am definitely not the person to construct an aesthetic theory of everything. The best I can do is try to explain Christensen’s theory and point out possible analogies and connections with how aesthetic and related changes occur in music and other arts. Consider this the barest sketch of a possible theory of innovation in the arts. Others can either take this further (if they think it’s a potentially fruitful approach) or demonstrate that it’s total poppycock (if they don’t)

What I like about Christensen’s theory as applied to this context is that it offers a theoretical framework that is rich enough to include all the actors within an aesthetic movement—not just artists but also the audience, critics, patrons, etc.—and to also account for historical and technological factors. I think this is an advance over theories that posit that art evolves in some autonomous manner (e.g., in inevitably repeating cycles of innovation, elaboration, and decadence) or that focus solely on artists and their reactions to each other (e.g., as discussed in Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence).

What should we look for in such a theory? In the context of business Christensen’s theory purports to explain (among other things) why established companies fail to capitalize on particular types of innovation, how new entrants to markets can successfully compete with and (in many cases) displace incumbent vendors, what characteristics truly innovative vendors, products, and business models tend to have, and how such innovative vendors, products, and business models tend to evolve over their lifetime in the market. In the aesthetic realm a variant of Christensen’s theory may function similarly, providing insight into how aesthetic innovations and artistic movements are born, received initially, evolve over time, and (in some cases) successfully compete with and displace existing artistic works and movements.

In the discussion that follows I focus on music, but to the extent it works at all the framework is general enough to be applied to other artistic endeavors. My explanations of Christensen’s theory are drawn from the book Seeing What’s Next: Using Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change (SWN), Christensen’s most comprehensive treatment of his ideas, including both a useful summary of his various theories (as an appendix) and several informative case studies. Those interested in Christensen’s ideas should also consult his earlier books, The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution in order to see the evolution of his thinking.

Artists and their markets

Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation was originally formulated in the context of technology-based businesses (e.g., computer companies), and thus our basic strategy is to equate the world of art with the world of business at a fairly deep level. (If this offends you please stop reading now.)

We start with vendors selling products to customers; a set of similar vendors providing similar products to a set of similar customers constitutes a particular market. In the simplest model applied to music we can identify composers with vendors, compositions with products, and listeners with customers. The price paid to composers for their products may be in the form of patronage (direct or indirect) or simply in the form of sustained attention to and engagement with their works.

Note that Christensen’s theories can be applied to individual companies or to groups of companies providing similar (though not necessarily identical) products as part of an overall market. Similarly in our analogies we’ll sometimes deal with individual composers and sometimes with groups of composers who are associated with particular aesthetic movements.

Note also that in the full Christensen theory vendors are part of value networks, defined as [a firm’s] upstream suppliers; its downstream customers, retailers, and distributors; and its partners and ancillary industry players (SWN, p.63). In our musical example components in the value network could include performers, critics, promoters, instrument makers, and others. For now we’ll ignore these others for purposes of our analysis, but we’ll come back to them later. In particular, we assume for the moment that performers simply transmit composers’ intentions faithfully, and we lump critics and patrons (including institutional patrons) in with listeners in general.

Finally, note that (as with other art forms such as painting, poetry, etc.) products may outlive their vendors, so that composers today are competing for listeners not only with their contemporaries but with past composers as well. I’ll come back to this topic later as well.

Jobs to be done

The next key component of Christensen’s theory is the concept of jobs to be done. In Christensen’s formulation, customers hire products in order to accomplish a particular job (SWN, p.281). Jobs to be done can be very straightforward: for example, most customers hire cell phones to do the job of enabling them to make and receive phone calls while out and about. Jobs to be done can also be more complicated, and not necessarily apparent based on the surface nature of the product. For example, I make more use of my iPhone to access the Internet, including reading blog posts, than I do to make voice calls. A large part of the job I am hiring the iPhone to do is to provide a source of information and entertainment in contexts where I have nothing better to do (e.g., waiting in line at a store).

People also hire music for certain jobs to be done. For example, religious music helps intensify the ritual of worship, chamber music can be used as an aural background for social occasions, opera provides an entertaining spectacle, and so on. Jobs can exist within a specific cultural context; for example, the original job of rock music was to provide teenagers a compelling vision of rebellion and excess. Christensen notes that in general the job that customers may hire a product to do may differ greatly from what the vendor intended them to use it for. This is true for music as well; for example, many people listen to religious music for purely aesthetic pleasure, outside the context of a worship service.

In the context of music the jobs to be done concept allows us to address both sociological and psychological aspects of music—i.e., that music has particular social uses and also fulfills certain human pyschological needs. I haven’t read a lot in the relevant literature, so I won’t be concerned too much about what exactly these uses and needs are. (See Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and similar works that attempt to address these questions.) For the purposes of this analysis I simply assume that such uses and needs exist, that there are a multiplicity of them, and that a particular composition may satisfy each of them to greater or lesser degrees. This leads us to our next topic.

Dimensions of performance

When customers seek to hire a product to do a certain job for them, they evaluate the product based on certain dimensions of performance (SWN, p.277). (Performance here is used not in the musical sense but in the sense of how well products do their jobs.) For example, a mobile phone may be judged on its weight and voice quality, among other characteristics.

In the case of music the dimensions of performance can be identified with the various aesthetic virtues discussed by Gann, perhaps augmented by certain aspects of music that relate to its social uses and are not captured by the purely aesthetic virtues. Thus, for example, people may judge a composition by how emotional it is, how deep it is (i.e., requiring repeated listening for maximum appreciation), the degree to which it exhibits novelty in its form (what Gann refers to as being innovative), and so on.

Note that some of these virtues refer to points along a single spectrum; for example, we can contrast a deep musical piece with one that elicits immediate appreciation. Others are wholly or partially orthogonal to each other; for example, Gann describes Toru Takemitsu’s music as being simultaneously intellectual and sensuous.

Sustaining vs. disruptive innovations

Now we come to the most important and well-known component of Christensen’s framework, his disruptive innovation theory (SWN, pp.277-279). Christensen divides innovations into two general types:

  • sustaining innovations directed to demanding customers in an existing market, or

  • disruptive innovations directed to less demanding and more price-sensitive customers in an existing market (low-end disruption) or to new customers or new uses by existing customers (new market disruption).

Thus, for example, when mobile phones were first introduced they were a disruptive innovation relative to traditional phones, as they enabled people to make calls in new contexts. Since then mobile phone vendors have been producing sustaining innovations for demanding customers who want lighter phones, phones with longer battery life, etc.

Note also that disruptive innovations can be in the form of new technologies or new business models. Pre-paid mobile phones leveraged existing technology in the context of a new business model that represented a low-end disruptive innovation, enabling people to afford basic cellular service without the need to sign up for an expensive plan.

Returning to music, we can imagine composers creating (for example) deep works to which certain audiences respond appreciatively, and in response inventing new compositional techniques to make their works even deeper. Such new techniques would count as innovations, though in this case they are sustaining innovations only. (Note that I am here using the word innovation in a slightly different sense than Gann.)

At some point in time other composers may begin writing music of a different type, one that appeals to other listeners; for example, such composers may eschew depth and pioneer different compositional techniques that create music with a clear audible structure that audiences can immediately apprehend and appreciate. From the perspective of the prior composers and their works this would count as a disruptive innovation, and in particular a new-market disruptive innovation, since it is directed at new customers not being well-served by the incumbent composers.

As noted above, in the context of music and other arts the price may not be (only) in money, but may also be paid in terms of attention, engagement, and the level of effort required to experience the work. If a given work can provide a reasonably satisfying aesthetic experience at least comparable to (though perhaps still inferior to) that of a more expensive work (i.e., one demanding more attention, engagement, and effort to experience properly) then it can be considered a low-end disruptive innovation. For example, the 3-minute pop song may have functioned in this way vis-a-vis longer works.

Investing in sustaining innovations directed at demanding customers

Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation originated in his desire to explain why so many successful and innovative companies missed out on the creation of important new markets and were eventually displaced by new market entrants. For example, DEC was blindsided by the success of the PC and the rise of Intel and Microsoft, while Microsoft did not foresee the strategic importance of search engines like Google’s.

Christensen’s explanation for this innovator’s dilemma is that companies invest in innovations that are consistent with their capabilities, business models and processes, and overall priorities in serving their existing market. Christensen refers to this as the resources, processes, and values (RPV) theory (SWN, p.279). For example, if a cellular company owns its own network and is expert at managing it, and has customers that put a high premium on (and are willing to pay for) market-leading reliability and ubiquity of cellular services, then that company will tend to invest disproportionately in innovations that improve the quality of the network, at the expense of innovations that might reduce the cost of cellular service, enable new applications, etc.

In musical terms the RPV theory implies that incumbent composers (i.e., those who have already achieved some measure of success) will innovate based on the stock of compositional techniques that they have already learned and mastered, in the social and institutional context in which they are already situated, and for the same types of rewards (tangible or non-tangible) as those to which they have become accustomed.

In many cases a company’s priorities in pursuing new innovations are driven by its most demanding customers, those for whom the company’s products are not yet good enough—i.e., they fall short of customers’ needs and preferences along whatever dimensions of performance are most important in the market served by the company. The most demanding customers are typically the most vocal in their complaints and product feature requests, and also typically those most willing to pay a premium for products most nearly meeting their needs.

If our analogies hold we would expect a similar phenomenon in music: Composers would strive to innovate in furtherance of the particular aesthetic virtues valued by their most demanding listeners, i.e., those who have the most sustained engagement with the composer’s work.

Note that this does not mean that composers do not or cannot create autonomously. Composers can themselves be their own most demanding listeners, just as (for example) developers of open source software are known for scratching their own itch, i.e., developing software for themselves to use, and enhancing it to improve its fitness for their own particular needs. As with open source developers, this can lead to accusations that composers are not offering anything of interest to ordinary users (audiences), as I discuss in the next section.

Overshooting customer needs

People often speak of aesthetic movements in music or other arts as being played out or as having exhausted the possibilities, which seems to put the blame on the composers or the materials with which they’re working. On the other hand we have the cliché of the composer who complains that audiences don’t understand what I’m doing. Can we reconcile these two views?

In the context of Christensen’s theory one major problem in satisfying the most demanding customers is the danger of overshooting customer’s needs, i.e., investing in sustaining innovations that improve products along dimensions of performance that most customers no longer see as most important. In the technology-based industries originally discussed by Christensen, this occurs when the pace of technological progress is faster than the rate at which customers can absorb it. (This is illustrated in the diagram in this discussion by the contrast between the line marked sustaining innovation and the line marked performance that customers can utilize or absorb.) For example, steady improvements in integrated circuit technology have translated into regular increases in the processor speeds of the CPUs in personal computers. However except for the most demanding users (e.g., PC gamers) customers have not needed such speed improvements for their typical tasks (e.g., email and web browsing).

Is it possible to overshoot customer needs in a similar way in the artistic realm? Certainly in the case of music human physiology sets certain limits on the range of pitches we can hear, the minimum pitch differences or maximum number of notes per second we can distinguish, the softest sounds we can hear and the loudest tolerate, and so on. Evolution can change such limits over time, but only relatively slowly. Similarly, cultural evolution can result in people being more familiar with and accepting of new musical forms and techniques over time, but this does not happen overnight.

Given that musical compositions are essentially information products (e.g., like software) there would seem to be no inherent limit other than human ingenuity to the extent to which composers could produce new compositions that improve on prior compositions with respect to one or more aesthetic virtues (dimensions of performance). This is especially true if composers are working in parallel in the context of a particular school or genre, all trying to advance their compositions along the same or similar aesthetic dimensions, since they have the advantage of being able to build on and leverage each others’ compositional (sustaining) innovations.

What then accounts for the sense that the work of composers within a particular musical movement is producing diminishing returns from the point of view of audiences? If we take the diagram referenced above as an accurate model, and focus on the main aesthetic virtue or virtues exemplified in the products of a particular musical movement, earlier in time there is a relatively large gap between what audiences want and can appreciate and what composers are producing, and any progress in closing that gap is welcomed. As composers steadily advance in their ability to produce works that embody that virtue (or virtues), the difference between what audiences want and can appreciate and what composers produce goes from large to small. Beyond that point further incremental improvements in the aesthetic virtue(s) in question may be appreciated by those most engaged with composers’ works (including the composers themselves), but leave all others cold.

Creating disruptive innovations to compete against non-consumption

What happens when customers’ needs are overshot? One possibility is that vendors continue to advance their products along the same dimensions of performance as before, chasing the needs and wants of an ever-smaller group of the most demanding customers. This scenario is very much analogous to the by-now-familiar caricature of modern (or more precisely, modernist) composers. However there are two other general possibilities, corresponding to the two types of disruptive innovation discussed above.

In low-end disruption some vendors find ways to offer new products that satisfy most customers’ needs and preferences along the same or similar dimensions of performance as before, but at significantly lower cost. An example from the world of finance is the invention by Vanguard of mutual funds tied to market indices (e.g, the S&P 500). Index funds offered similar investment opportunities to traditional actively-managed mutual funds (including the ability to target particular regions or sectors) and were perceived as roughly comparable products by investors, but had expense ratios (i.e., costs to customers) that in some cases were almost an order of magnitude lower.

In the world of artistic endeavor we’ve characterized cost as not only an issue of monetary price (i.e., how much people must pay to experience a work) but also as related to the level of attention, engagement, and other effort the audience must devote to experiencing the work. In this sense the introduction of recorded music was a major low-end disruptive innovation, allowing people to experience music without the monetary cost of concert tickets and the non-monetary costs in time of getting to the concert hall. Listening to recorded music was inferior to listening to live music in several respects—sound quality, immediacy of the experience, the social aspect, and so on—but audiences were willing to overlook that in exchange for the reduced cost and increased convenience. This trade-off is characteristic of low-end disruptive innovations.

With new-market disruption some vendors find ways to offer new products that enable new uses by either existing or new customers, and that typically address customers’ needs and preferences along different dimensions of performance than before. As noted previously, mobile phone service was a disruptive innovation relative to traditional phone service, allowing existing phone customers to make calls in situations where this was previously impossible. The very first mobile phone customers cared relatively little about voice quality (traditionally among the most important dimensions of performance for telephony) and much more about new dimensions of performance: the size and weight of the handset itself, the geographic extent of the service areas, and the relative convenience of roaming between cellular networks.

I’ve already alluded to minimalist music as a disruptive innovation with respect to the modernist idiom that was prevalent in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Another interesting example of disruptive innovation in music occurred in the early 1990s in the context of the popular musical genre electronic dance music (EDM). With roots in disco and related genres, EDM (as the name implies) was created for listening in nightclubs, at raves, and in similar social contexts, and the prioritized dimensions of performance were those like simple song structure, a steady and pronounced beat, and rapid tempo that were conducive to dancing. (These were also present in many minimalist compositions, of course; in The Rest is Noise Alex Ross notes the influence of composers such as Steve Reich on EDM.)

Sustaining innovations within EDM (e.g., increasing the beats per minute) produced improvements along existing dimensions of performance relevant to social dancing, but overshot the needs of listeners who wanted to listen to electronic music at home or in other solitary contexts. Intelligent dance music or IDM, while recognizably grounded in EDM, emphasized different qualities of the music—for example, more variations in timbre and more experimental song structure—that were more important and valued in the context of home listening. IDM allowed EDM fans to listen to variants of their favorite music in the home instead of in clubs, and also attracted new listeners who were not previously going to clubs. By thus supporting new uses and users IDM was a classic new-market disruptive innovation relative to existing EDM works.

Note that new-market disruptive innovations do not compete directly against existing products in the exact same markets addressed by those products. Instead they compete against non-consumption as Christensen puts it. Translated into the world of music this means that we should not necessarily expect disruptive musical innovations to compete for and win the loyalties of existing audiences in existing contexts; instead new music would typically give rise to new audiences, or at least new contexts in which existing audiences might experience that new music.

Overlapping vs. independent value networks

Following on from the preceding point, disruptive innovations don’t just give rise to new markets. Truly successful disruptive innovations simultaneously both depend on and give rise to entirely new value networks (defined above as [a firm’s] upstream suppliers; its downstream customers, retailers, and distributors; and its partners and ancillary industry players).

For example, early transistor radios were a disruptive innovation relative to traditional tube-based radios (SWN, p.157): They were both cheaper and lighter than existing radios (albeit inferior in sound to tube-based radios), and so could be adopted by new users like teenagers for new uses like listening to radio outside the house. (As Christensen notes, Even the poorest of sound qualities delighted teenagers, because for most of them, the alternative was to have no radio at all.) Tube-based radios were typically sold by specialty appliance stores that were equipped to provide the post-sale service that such appliances required. Such stores had no interest in selling cheap radios that were designed to be replaced rather than repaired in the event of a problem. However transistor radios were perfect for the newly emerging discount stores (e.g., K-Mart) since they could be sold cheaply in high volumes and required no post-sale maintenance.

If the value network for a disruptive innovation overlaps too much with the value network for existing products then the disruptive force of the new innovation may be blunted When there are overlapping suppliers, distribution networks, sales forces, or ancillary providers, firms can face severe pressure to create something that makes sense to the [incumbent] competitor’s value network and hence makes sense to the competitor. (SWN, p.63) This overlap allows incumbent vendors to either directly impede new market entrants (e.g., through particular choke points controlled by incumbents), or to compete with new entrants by co-opting particular features of the new products into their own.

In the context of music the value network associated with composers and their works includes performers (both individual and ensembles), critics and musicologists, music schools (teaching both performance skills and compositional techniques), performance venues and the organizations that control them, concert promoters, record labels, individual and institutional patrons, prize committees, and so on. Kyle Gann’s writings on the downtown and uptown music scenes offer a classic picture of one value network resisting disruptive innovations, with attempts to create a new value network in response.

Integrated vs. modular solutions

The association of successful disruptive innovations with new value networks is related to another aspect of disruptive innovation, namely the extent to which successful disruptive products are created in a vertically integrated fashion, with a monolithic (as opposed to modular) architecture. As noted previously, disruptive innovations are typically objectively inferior to existing products when judged against the prevailing criteria: they are designed to be cheaper at the expense of lower performance and/or are designed to meet an entirely different set of criteria. In order to be successful disruptive innovations must be designed to be as good as they possibly can be given the cost targets they must meet and the new contexts in which they’ll be used.

The best way for a vendor to do this is to develop, manufacture, and distribute the product in an integrated manner, controlling as many of the aspects as needed in order to achieve the desired customer experience. This point is at the core of the value chain evolution (VCE) theory, the third component of Christensen’s overall theoretical framework (after disruptive innovation theory and the resources, processes, and values (RPV) theory):

The [VCE] theory suggests companies ought to control any activity or combination of activities within the value chain that drive performance along dimensions that matter most to customers. Directly controlling, or integrating, an activity gives companies the ability to run experiments and push the frontiers of what is possible. ... Consider IBM's early mainframe computers. IBM needed to improve the mainframe's overall performance. It integrated the design and assembly processes for individual components and the entire computer. Complete control gave IBM the design freedom to experiment and improve mainframes to meet customer needs. A modular, nonintegrated strategy would have produced an underperforming product that customers would have rejected. (SWN, p.xix)

This integrated approach is also characteristic of newly-introduced disruptive innovations in music and other arts. For example, we see innovative composers exercising control over as many aspects of the overall musical experience as needed to achieve success for their innovations: designing new instruments or making their own idiosyncratic uses of existing instruments, creating their own ensembles, embedding their works within a larger philosophical framework, prioritizing live performances over recordings or written scores, or even building their own performance spaces.

This reach for control could simply be laid to the personality of particular artists; however it can also be thought of as a practical response to the problem of creating disruptive aesthetic innovations. Also, control need not be total—it need extend only to those aspects of the work that are most critical to improving performance along the dimensions that are most important to demanding customers (remembering again that the artist is often the most demanding customer of all).

Christensen contends that over time the need for complete integration lessens as companies learn to modularize products and outsource some aspects to others:

Modular architectures that facilitate (or permit) disintegration sacrifice raw performance in the name of speed to market, responsiveness, and convenience. This sacrifice allows companies to customize their products by upgrading individual subsystems without needing to redesign an entire product. They can mix and match components from best of breed suppliers to respond conveniently to individual customers' needs. (SWN, p.xx)

Modular architectures are made possible by the creation of standard interfaces between components that allow specification of the desired inter-modular behavior, verification that the behavior is as designed, and predictability that the correct behavior will always occur (SWN, p.283). In the context of music modularization of the aesthetic experience has been made possible by the invention of various forms of musical notation, the invention of various tunings and their eventual replacement by the equal temperament system, the invention and standardization of new instruments and types of instruments, the classification of voice types both at the gross level (e.g., bass, baritone, tenor) and with more specificity (e.g., by Fach), and the invention and standardization of various types of ensembles (e.g., the string quartet or the symphony orchestra), among others. All of these form the context within which sustaining musical innovations can be created.

As implied by the term value chain evolution the introduction of modularization can change the nature of an industry, most notably by allowing perceived value (and the consequent economic rewards) to migrate from one part of the value chain to another. For example, in the PC industry the introduction of standard IBM-compatible hardware interfaces and the MS-DOS operating system APIs allowed the perceived value and realized profits to shift from the manufacturer of the PC itself (IBM) to the suppliers of the microprocessor (Intel) and the operating system and major applications (Microsoft).

In the field of music this tendency is accelerated by the fact that composers’ works live on past their own deaths and in the limit pass into the public domain, at which point they have no economic value in and of themselves. The focus then shifts to others in the value chain: While there is no possibility for further evolution in the works of (say) Beethoven, individual performers and ensembles can compete to produce new interpretations of Beethoven, and the most successful (according to the prevailing standards of taste and virtuosity) will be rewarded accordingly.

In the extreme case of the industrial-era symphony orchestra almost all value accrues to the conductor / music director as the systems integrator of the aesthetic experience, as almost every other component in the musical value chain becomes fungible. The focus then shifts to the ability of the conductor to elicit a high level of performance from the orchestra, create novel interpretations of individual works, and combine multiple works into an interesting program.

Asymmetric skills and motivations in competitive battles

What happens when new market entrants introduce a disruptive innovation into existing markets? Assuming that the new market entrants do not fail due simply to poor execution, there are two general possible outcomes: The new market entrants and their disruptive innovations thrive and perhaps even displace the incumbent vendors, or the disruptive innovations get co-opted by incumbent vendors.

Success and even displacement due to disruptive innovation can occur when new entrants are protected by the shield of asymmetric motivation and are able to wield the sword of asymmetric skill, as Christensen puts it (SWN, pp.43-45). Asymmetric motivation occurs when incumbent vendors view disruptive innovations as having limited market opportunities, a potential customer base that is undesirable relative to the incumbents’ current customers, and no potential for profitability given the incumbents’ current business models. Protected by the unwillingness of incumbents to exploit the disruptive innovations, new market entrants can then develop asymmetric skills, i.e., unique ways of doing things that incumbent vendors cannot match, and that can potentially be used to compete with incumbents:

... a company's skills come largely from its processes. A process comes from repeatedly solving a particular class of problem. ... Asymmetric skills arise when one firm, through repeatedly completing the same task, has developed a unique ability to do something that its competitor is uniquely unable to do. (SWN, p.44)

For example, in the late 1900s Western Union was focused on providing long-distance telegraphy for business and was not motivated to worry about telephone service, which at that time was local only and primarily for personal use. Protected by this lack of motivation, telephone companies, most notably AT&T, were able to build critical skills in network operations, billing, and so on.

Kyle Gann’s Breaking the Chain Letter: An Essay on Downtown Music offers an example of this in the aesthetic realm:

Quite often, Downtown composers are lacking in skills that a European conservatory would consider essential to a composer's education: orchestration, counterpoint, 12-tone set manipulation. Downtowners, however, have their own sets of skills—just intonation, sound processing, South Indian rhythmic cycles—that are more intimately relevant to the music they're trying to create.

In essence Downtown composers developed a unique set of compositional techniques and processes in the course of repeatedly attempting to solve a particular class of musical problems; these were asymmetric skills in relation to those of Uptown composers.

Downtown composers and others working in similar spaces were then able to use these asymmetric skills over time to create works that addressed dimensions of performance similar to those addressed by traditional modernist composers. For example, early minimalist music was criticized for its lack of depth (though of course in historical context this was more a virtue than a failing). However over time composers working in such idioms as postminimalism and totalism were able to build on minimalist techniques and produce works of comparable depth to traditional modernist compositions.

In the case of telephony companies such as AT&T were eventually able to leverage their asymmetric skills to move from providing local service to providing long-distance service, and eventually displaced Western Union as the dominant provider of long-distance communications for businesses. An analogous example of displacement in the aesthetic realm is the rise of hip-hop and its competition with rock to become the most popular musical genre in the US and elsewhere.

In the decades since rock and roll’s creation in the early 1950s rock artists used a standard set of compositional techniques (originally derived from the blues), instrumentation (most notably the electric guitar), ensemble structure (the classic rock band featuring lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, and drums), and other aesthetic innovations to become the dominant popular music genre and achieve worldwide success. As part of that process rock artists were able to move up-market to satisfy the needs of more demanding listeners, in the process almost totally displacing existing genres like jazz.

When hip-hop was invented in the 1970s hip-hop artists used a much simpler set of aesthetic resources than their rock contemporaries, at heart just a beat and spoken words. As an outgrowth of urban dance culture hip-hop initially addressed a much different market than that of rock (traditionally focused on white suburban teenagers and the adults they became). It was also evaluated along different dimensions of performance (e.g., the quality and novelty of beats and samples, cleverness in rhyming, and verbal facility and flow) and gave rise to a separate value network (e.g., new distribution mechanisms for hip-hop releases that bypassed the traditional major recording labels)—all hallmarks of a classic disruptive innovation.

Because hip-hop did not compete for the same audiences and share the same value networks as rock, traditional rock artists were not motivated to competely directly with hip-hop in its initial market. Under this shield of asymmetric motivation hip-hop artists were then able to develop asymmetric skills—for example, the ability to achieve aesthetic depth through building a dense collage of samples (as in Public Enemy’s releases).

As hip-hop evolved (most notably with the advent of gangsta rap in the 1980s) it was eventually able to take over the original (and still relevant) job of rock, namely to provide a compelling vision of rebellion and excess to white suburban teenagers. In this context hip-hop can be seen as a low-end disruptive innovation that could accomplish the same job as rock but in a simpler (in our context, lower cost) manner, both from the point of view of producers (since hip-hop could be produced by a single person working alone) and consumers (since hip-hop’s elements were stripped down and thus arguably required less engagement to produce an aesthetically satisfying effect on the listener). Thus hip-hop was able to displace rock in many of rock’s traditional markets.

However would-be disruptors are not always successful. In many cases incumbent vendors are able to fend off competitive threats by co-opting disruptive innovations, i.e., incorporating them in some manner in their existing products and business models. For example, as noted above mobile phone service was originally a disruptive innovation relative to traditional wireline telephony, enabling users to make calls in new contexts, and as such was pioneered by new market entrants (e.g., McCaw Cellular), not the incumbent service providers.

However in the end incumbent vendors were able to co-opt wireless telephony and incorporate it into their service offerings, either through acquiring existing cellular providers (as AT&T did with McCaw) or by building their own cellular networks through dedicated subsidiaries (e.g., Verizon Wireless). As Christensen and his co-authors note (SWN, p.64), this co-option was made possible in large part because of overlapping markets and value networks: Wireless providers focused on integrating their own offerings with the existing landline networks and with those of other wireless providers, so that wireless service came to be seen by consumers as simply an extension of traditional phone service. This in turn enabled incumbent telephone companies to leverage their traditional strengths in network operations and interconnection, billing, and so on, to provide wireless services as good as or better than what new entrants could provide.

Analogous attempts to co-opt disruptive innovations can occur in music and other arts. In some cases attempts at co-option are really just cramming as defined by Christensen: trying to stretch an underperforming disruptive innovation to meet the needs of demanding customers in a mainstream market (SWN, p.292). One thinks for example of many of the early lame attempts to incorporate rapping into rock music, or the more risible experiments in enlivening orchestral performances by including rock musicians. In other cases attempts at co-option can achieve some success but still not protect incumbents against displacement. For example, the attempts by Miles Davis and others to incorporate elements of rock into jazz spawned the relatively popular fusion subgenre but did not ultimately prevent rock displacing jazz in overall popularity.

In general successful co-option is more likely when incumbents are motivated to respond, when they have resources, processes, and values similar to those of new entrants, and when the respective value networks overlap. As an example, many contemporary classical composers and performers are attempting to go after new markets by introducing more informal performance practices, playing in more casual venues, organizing in smaller and more flexible ensembles, and the like—essentially trying to attract many of the same listeners who currently make up the audience for indie rock and pop.

I think this is a great idea, and I myself am a fan of several of these artists; however I’m not sure that indie classical will ultimately be successful as an independent movement. After all, rock has already successfully incorporated practices such as creating extended instrumental compositions (as in post-rock), using classical instruments and orchestration (as in chamber pop), and others traditionally associated with classical music. It’s not out of the question that rock could incorporate even more classically-derived elements.

The value networks for indie classical and indie rock also overlap significantly: they appeal to many of the same listeners, are played in some of the same venues, reviewed in some of the same publications, and so on. Many contemporary classical artists also perform or collaborate with indie rock artists. If I were a betting man I’d lay odds that the majority of what we know today as the contemporary classical (or new music) scene will not survive as an autonomous movement but rather be absorbed into the broader indie rock genre as rock (or at least certain segments of it) moves relentlessly up-market in response to competitive pressures from below.

Suggestions for further research

This concludes (finally!) my sketch of the possible connections between Clayton Christensen’s ideas and aesthetic innovation in music and other arts. When all is said and done this might simply be an example of muddled thinking and forced analogies carried out to absurd length. However if there are any useful insights at all contained within this post, it’s worth taking a moment to outline some ways in which this picture could be filled out:

  • One could do a full treatment of the jobs to be done by music and other arts. As I noted previously, I think that some of the answers here are to be found in human physiology and psychology, and other answers in sociology and economics.

  • One could also construct a reasonably comprehensive list of the dimensions of performance against which aesthetic experiences might be evaluated. This would essentially be a formalization and expansion of the ideas on aesthetic virtues and their combinations discussed by Gann, supplemented perhaps by some other dimensions of performance relevant to music’s social and economic aspects.

  • An investigation of the historical evolution of music or other arts could identify candidates for sustaining or disruptive innovations. Such an investigation would look at the exact techniques used by artists to create sustaining innovations, as well as the ways in which disruptive innovations were characterized by new dimensions of performance and new uses and users. A full treatment would also address how disruptive innovations were either co-opted by existing movements or eventually succeeded in displacing them, including the effects of the value networks associated with particular artists and artistic movements.

  • Finally, if the overall theoretical framework seems robust based on the historical evidence then it could be used to predict future developments in the arts, including identifying areas where nonconsumption presents opportunities for new disruptive innovations, and projecting whether nascent artistic movements are likely to be successful or not.

If this outline is indeed of interest to anyone then perhaps they’ll be willing and able to take it further. For myself this will be the last word, as I’ve gone much further than my very limited knowledge might justify and have exhausted anything useful I might have to say on this general subject.

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