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Seth Godin on spreading music and selling intimacy

Reading Seth Godin’s new book called Linchpin, I had some lingering questions on behalf of all the musicians I know.

So I asked him. Here are my questions and his answers:

You say, “the winners are the artists who give gifts”, but many artists I know are feeling like the losers. How would you explain your philosophy of the linchpin economy to a musician who’s making great music, giving it away online, but getting only apathy in return?

Feeling like a loser is part of being an artist, but I want to challenge the notion of “great music.” Sure, some music that’s great is great for the ages and it’s okay that’s it’s not being heard, but so much of what people call great art (whether it’s a book or a song or a way of doing customer service) isn’t actually great, it’s merely “very good.” Very good music is unheard every day, because very good music is not in short supply. There’s a huge surplus of it.

I’m not equating “great” with “commercial.” I have no doubt that there’s great art that doesn’t sell. But most musicians you and I know are TRYING to be commercial, if commercial means successful, heard, lots of stuff sold, lots of people at the concerts. And in the rush to be successful, sometimes great gets pushed out the window. I’ve sampled hundreds of songs on CDBaby and I can say that almost all of it is very good. And virtually none of it is great, if we define great to mean music I need to buy, to give away, to talk about to everyone I know. Almost none of it changed my life, and that’s what great music does.

Great means unsettling. Great means open to criticism. Great means booed off stage. And great music, like great a idea, spreads. Ideas that spread, win, and so the goal today is not to make great music for 1970 or 1990, but great music for today, for a market that’s super picky and selfish and has ADD. Great is in the ear of the listener, of course, and the definition is simple: if it spreads, then for this market, it’s great.

By definition, Great cannot create widespread apathy.

People often use price as an indicator of quality. Even connoisseurs rate wine higher if told the price is higher. So many artists are averse to sharing their work online for free, because it might be seen as valueless. Since I’ve heard you argue both sides of this, how do you reconcile it in the case of an artist choosing how to share their work?

This is a conundrum, and probably worth thinking about a bit. Paintings, for example, have been free to experience as long as there have been art galleries. The difference today with music is that there’s a mammoth change going on - and it’s about control. Music has always been free on the radio (in fact, record companies PAID to get it on the radio). Now, though, every song is on the “radio” all the time, because the radio is Pandora and Limewire and the rest.

So, if the radio is already there, and music is free-er than ever, it’s not clear that music is valueless. There’s more music being listened to (not just played, but being listened to) than ever before in history, and that listening is proof that people value it. At least they value it enough to spend their time.

Get over the idea that your success is equated with selling the right to listen, or selling control over when people listen. Relinquish the opportunity to make money by controlling who can listen and when. That’s gone. It’s over. It would be like a bakery selling the right to sniff the fresh bread or a wine maker selling the right to look at the cool label. It’s now a public good, something you see as you walk by.

What you can sell, what you better be able to sell, is intimacy. It’s interactions in public. Souvenirs. Limited things of value. Experiences. Memories. People will pay for those things, IF: your art is actually great and if you make it possible for them to buy them.

If it’s great, let it go. You’ll do fine. If it’s not great, figure out what great is and do that.

A tall order, but a huge opportunity.

Thanks, Seth!

Hugh MacLeod has many more interesting questions-and-answers about Linchpin, here.

Reader Comments (17)

I love Seth Godin, but I must respectfully disagree with his main point: There is no dearth of great music, but I'm quite certain there is a severe shortage of great listeners. In the same way that people who don't bother to taste the food that goes into their mouths are content with greasy fast food, there are lots of people who never get past the Top 40 to something more nourishing. Seth argues that the market defines what's great (and this is an optimistic philosophy, that the cream will rise to the top through the collective wisdom of the crowd), but what if the market is lazy and stupid? "Figure out what is great and do that." Easier said than done, Seth's advice pre-supposes an educated market. If the market was so well educated in all facets, there would have been no financial crisis, no housing meltdown, and there would certainly be no Kanye. When Seth writes "Great cannot create widespread apathy" the rejoinder is "Great is met with apathy when listeners have no knowledge of music, tradition, history, variety, connection to their heart and an open spirit".

January 25 | Unregistered CommenterJay Daniel

The executive summary of every business plan I've ever read identifies a specific market's needs and how the company is going to meet those needs. But in art, "great" art, traditionally a true artist hasn't paid attention to "market's" but rather the muse. Well, that is unless the artist was commissioned to do a portrait of the king's daughter.

Now that the musician is the Creator and CEO on down to the sales exec, the conflict escalates over "art" and "commercialism"

I'd love to hear what Seth recommends to musicians who are "Spreading Music and Selling Intimacy" how to maintain a true sense of artistry and develop "great" art?

In the age old paradox of generating livelihood via creative acts - how does one make "great" art if one is perpetually taking and analyzing the tribe's temperature prior to creating a product most likely to be purchased and consumed by the tribe? This strategy has musicians trading in one bank of gatekeepers (record labels, radio program directors, internal and external critics for a new one - i.e. the consumer. This paradigm flies in the face of Hugh MacLeod's "Ignore Everybody" philosophy.

Seth's "Spread Music and Sell Intimacy" directive to musicians/artists sentences them to continue wrestling with that circuitous art/commerce conundrum rather than finally skating blissfully on an uninterrupted creativity continuum.

And I also wonder what gives Seth Godin, who is a brilliant marketer, the confidence to speak so authoritatively about what is and isn't "great" art? Some of us professional musicians have also had successful business careers in marketing/sales in order to pay the mortgage. So we might have an opinion on marketing. Has Seth has had a second career as a concert pianist? Painter? Yes, I do recognize the artistry in entrepreneurialism, but I've yet to see venture capitalists get excited about an indie musician.


Pam Mark Hall

January 25 | Unregistered CommenterPam Mark Hall

In advertising, my industry by trade, people like Seth Godin are common. They're always the ones in the meeting who, having had no experience at all in whatever client industry is being discussed, take over the room and spout platitudes that get heads nodding and in the end add zero value. In fact, they are a cost because of the time they waste. Why do people listen? Almost always it's because there is some sort of "celebrity factor", which just means the person has a reputation because of some past accomplishment. Seth definitely has some past (and present) accomplishments, but there is no reason at all to consider him a sage on the subject of music and art. More important, he should know better and couch his advice in a humble admission of his limited expertise.

January 25 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Shattuck

Thanks for sharing. Great post.

I completely agree with both Seth, and Jay Daniel. First off, the cat is out of the bag and music is free wherever you want it. Intimacy is what sells in this industry now. Also, the listeners are far short of "great" as Jay explains. How do we change that? Transform the listeners through intimacy. That is the answer in my opinion. The truly great artists must value and express intimacy with their fans (and future fans) to get them interested and listening to greater music.
In my opinion, this is how we fix the listeners AND the music industry.

I loved this post. Great conversation too.


January 25 | Unregistered CommenterJake Larson

@Jay Daniel, I feel your pain. Compared to you, most of the humans on Earth are just total fucking idiots with no concept of taste. If only the millions of kids limping out of American public schools had a fraction of the knowledge and experience that you do. Being an artist is so hard.

@Jeff Shattuck, I definitely appreciate the perspective and I'm glad Godin comes off the same even in his native industry. Still, there is great wisdom in brave fools and I think Godin has a lot to contribute in a Lao Tzu sort of way. It's not all actionable intel, but it's usually worth thinking about. Weird question: Are you related to Mayo Shattuck, of Deutsch Bank fame?

January 25 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

@Justin: I'm not an artist, nor do I claim to have cornered the market on knowing what's great and what isn't, though I've got my opinions, like you do. It's interesting that you didn't level the same criticism at Seth for wanting music that will "change [his] life" and is "unsettling" - because that seems to erect the same "elitist" wall. Why has classical music endured, why do people go back to John Coltrane, why do the Beatles stand the test of time, why does the Motown sound get people moving 30 years later (and spark revivals and tributes), to name just a few? Because many people (critics and musicians and casual listeners and everyone in between) have come to appreciate the many layers in the composition, lyrics, tones, musicianship -- you name it. The music is stuffed full of things to appreciate.

Can anyone seriously say the following will last through the ages?

David Guetta featuring Akon:

"She's nothing like a girl you've ever seen before
Nothing you can compare to your neighbourhood hoe
I'm tryna find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful
The way that booty movin I can't take no more
Have to stop what i'm doin so I can pull up close
I'm tryna find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful

Dam girl
Dam you'se a sexy bitch
A sexy bitch
Dam you'se a sexy bitch
Dam girl"

I guess it's "great" from the perspective of unit sales, and it's fun (and therefore "great") if you don't think more deeply about what the lyrics say about our society, but I think that leaves a whole lot out of the picture, don't you? If this is true "greatness", then greatness is a shallow concept indeed ... but it would seem to meet some of Seth's requirements: "if it spreads, then for this market, it’s great." Well, it certainly spread!

Market success leaves out whole levels of meaning. That is why Seth's thinking on this topic is incomplete. The market is not perfect -- the economic catastrophes of the last year have certainly taught us that, and the market's imperfections apply to music as well as financial shenanigans on Wall Street.

We could debate this endlessly -- maybe the real beauty of this art form it is you and I will never agree on the greatest mix tape of all time, and that's OK.

January 25 | Unregistered CommenterJay Daniel

Great post. For those who disagree, here's my take on why he's right. I think there are two ways to look at music as an art. One is as a personal experience and the other is as a communication. I think it's important for an artist to be clear on this.

Do you want to satisfy yourself without regard to how other people receive your art, or do you want to communicate something and share something with other people?

If you only want to get yourself off then more power to you. Nobody can have anything to say about it, it's all you and there's no right or wrong way to do it. If you want to lock yourself in a room for a month and play with yourself then go for it. Just don't complain that you're not getting any dates.

If you want to communicate your art to other people, then there's a completely different dynamic. You now have to consider how the other person will receive your art.

Neither of the two is wrong. The conflict occurs when an artist isn't clear on where he or she stands. You can't have it both ways.

There's an art to communication. It's no less of an art to create something with someone else in mind then it is to create a masterpiece that's great in your own mind. In fact, I would argue that music as a communication is a more advanced art form than music as self satisfaction.

Seth is clearly coming from the perspective of aiming for a shared experience between the artist and the listener. If the people who you're trying to reach aren't receiving your music the way that you want them to then one way or another there's a problem with your art as it relates to communication. You're not connecting with other people.

If you're angry at the world for not accepting your art then you're probably focusing on self satisfaction and not on connecting with people. You can satisfy yourself all you want, just don't expect other people to care about it and don't act like it's a more noble art form.

If you're naturally very good at connecting with people and musically talented then you'll be better calibrated to create music that will reach other people. I'm not suggesting that anyone go out and try to chase after what they think other people want to hear from them. What I am saying is that if you want to be financially successful as an artist then you will have to be calibrated to other people. You will have to connect with other human beings.

People will only pay for the music that really connects with them. They will only go out of their way for the music that means something to them. You have to trigger something inside of them if you want them to take action. If you've decided that you want your music to be a communication and a shared experience then you need to figure out how to make that happen. If you haven't figured out how to do that, then your best bet is to look at yourself and your music and learn how to deliver something that will hit people right in their heart, mind, soul or pants.

January 25 | Unregistered CommenterScott James

I am actually working on an article for my website/blog about how it can actually be beneficial for artists to give their music away, especially in a day when so much music can be stolen at the simple click of a button. I also happen to have a marketing degree and have felt for quite some time that Seth Godin (can be) a brilliant man, but Im not so sure he knows what he is talking about with 'art'. Albeit art is still an industry, as with music- industries out to make money. But that does not mean he understands what it means to be inside the mindset of an artist. While I agree with him that great is different, Im not so sure it necessarily means being booed off the stage, though it may, but I think that is really a one way street. Brilliance can be hard to swallow in music, especially at first- look at Frank Zappa, or even Thelonious Monk, but I have heard more than my fair share of bands who have been booed off stages that do not, nor should they ever be considered by anyone to be brilliant.

@Jay -- thanks for taking my shit-talking in stride. While I agree with your case, I also think we could make a laundry list of artists who enjoy commercial success with zero compromises. (And Akon, without the fiction factory of Universal Motown and the label aggressively buying his albums during opening week, would sink into the ocean of identical clones rather quickly, being indistinguishable from a parody of himself.)

Human ignorance is an unavoidable fact of life, and really the central problem our species faces on every front: most of us are deeply stupid and easily manipulated. But it's a problem so ubiquitous we might as well be complaining about gravity or rain, and that's why I took issue with your comment.


January 26 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Nothing like "grey area" discussions...

The thing is, if selling intimacy works for you, do it. If it doesn't, don't do it. If the bit of information in in Seth's article propels you to greatness, congrats, you were probably destined to get there anyway. If it doesn't, un-bunch your panties and move on...

January 27 | Unregistered CommenterNRichards


I agree with you completely.

January 28 | Unregistered CommenterFebreze

I'm glad to see this post because I believe the idea enough that I have co-founded a business based on this idea.

Digital media has very little friction on distribution and is progressively harder to charge for as the friction to copy it goes down. Your attention and presence as an artist is a scarce resource and increases in value the more fans you have. It makes sense to charge for the scarce resource - your attention (VIP access), your instruction (lessons where your attention is on the fan), and of course your presence (concerts).

If you are interested in this approach, check out Ashbury Music Hall. We started as a platform for 2 way online music mentorship, now we are also enabling online pre-show VIP style relationships. Get in touch if this interests you.

February 8 | Unregistered CommenterNoah Thorp

Since I have benefited from so many of Seth Godin's ideas, I wanted to make another attempt to understand his intent. I've reread Seth's remarks several times, have listened to an interview with David Hooper he recently gave in Nashville at a Country Music Seminar, have read through his new book "Lynchpin," have read his emailed blog posts around the release of the book. I see him walking the talk, adding value to his followers and being more interactive. I do agree that professional musicians, as any person in business is not just selling the widget, they are selling the experience. I do want to point out that music on the radio has not been "free." Advertisers pay the stations and out of that revenue, the stations pay the performance rights organizations who then pay the songwriters. Yes, the model has shifted, and songwriters like so many others are having to supplement their income. But, I am not ready to throw the towel in and accept that revenue streams can no longer be attached to copyrights. Altered? Yes. Eliminated? No. Also, back to the concept that drew me to Seth in the first place - tribes. In this new economy, I am not trying to connect with "markets" I am trying to connect with my tribe or tribes. In general, I think we agree in principle. Do the work to be the best at whatever it is you choose to do and be. Build relationships, really care and provide value.

February 9 | Unregistered CommenterPam Mark Hall

What you can sell, what you better be able to sell, is intimacy. It’s interactions in public. Souvenirs. Limited things of value. Experiences. Memories. People will pay for those things, IF: your art is actually great and if you make it possible for them to buy them.

If it’s great, let it go. You’ll do fine. If it’s not great, figure out what great is and do that.

I haven't responded to this topic because when I first read it, I didn't really get anything out of it. Telling people to make great music really doesn't tell us anything.

Right now my main thought is that "intimacy" doesn't seem to be the right term. Intimacy doesn't scale. The more people you get involved or sell to, the less intimate the process tends to be. How can you make a living selling "intimacy?"

February 9 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne Lainson

@ Suzanne...not sure but suppose he means PERCEIVED the manner of "Experiences. Memories."

A concert with 40,000 other rabid fans would probably qualify in that sense, especially with some unique vibe - Grateful Dead sure made a living selling that "intimacy", so has Jimmy Buffet, to name just two of many.

Never thought of it before, but maybe the lack thereof is why hip hop has perenially lagged in live ticket sales...

February 9 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

Deadheads felt like they were part of a community, but that's not the same as intimacy.

Buffett sells a party. Again, not intimacy.

I get the concept of selling some sort of emotional connection to music, but "intimacy" is a poor choice of words on Godin's part. In many cases the fan has no intimate connection with either the artist or with other fans. Selling a good time isn't necessarily intimacy.

February 9 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne Lainson

That's why the caps in PERCEIVED intimacy...but I like "emotioanl connection" much better, actually. Which embraces "community" and "party" more accurately.

So agreed, his choice of words may not have been spot on, but his underlying MESSAGE was - let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater...

Artists everywhere could benefit a LOT from focusing on making emotional connections with fans - in authentic ways, starting with PASSIONATE expression...let it GO, keep it REAL to who YOU are.

Far too many generic, me-too artists emulating a few - dare to be ORIGINAL!!!

February 9 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

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