#3: Commonalities among Founders in Music and Software
When we speak about the history of innovation, particularly in the realms of software and technology, we speak about people: the history of Apple is the history of Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg is synonymous with Facebook. At the early stage, maybe I can’t remember every new company’s name, but I will say so-and-so’s new company. The project is almost always best described by the people behind it. There’s continuity to that, where people who work especially well together — a rare quality — will continue doing so over the course of their careers. Even if they’re not explicitly building companies together, they will talk, jam on ideas, refer each other here and there, prototype things, invest in one another, and so on.
This style of creative partnership bears similarity to what you see in the music industry. Perhaps even more clearly than in tech, any musical project is best described by the people behind it: what is an album but people, followed by instruments and time and place? And those artists who find that they resonate well with one another will work together for decades.
Commentators will occasionally liken the software industry to the arts. Paul Graham wrote Hackers and Painters, but visual art is a solitary discipline. There are industrial commonalities between venture capital and Hollywood — similar relationships between capital and talent, occasionally similar investment styles — but again, the analogy breaks down quickly. In its creative process, making music appears to hold a much stronger parallel making software. Some examples between technology foundersand musical artists below:
Though there exist talented soloists, the vast majority of work is heavily collaborative.
Those collaborative efforts comprise small groups of people who resonate well creatively and can bounce ideas off one another.
At their best, such efforts can produce staggering levels of output, revolutionizing entire sectors/genres with a single major work in the course of a few quarters.
The best creators are deeply passionate, often from youth.Some are precocious talents who drop out to go all-in.
The best creators have strong conviction about what they’re trying to produce, what something should be like, and strive toward that creative self-actualization.
The field is heavily impacted by young people, and those with new perspectives who radically re-imagine how things are done.
Strong and occasionally eccentric personalities are par for the course.
Different groups are in perpetual soft competition, getting inspiration, and riffing off one another.
You don’t have to be interested in music or like the work of the Beatles to appreciate what they did: four twenty-year-old guys get together to build a musical project. They go from zero to one turning out cheerful teenage pop music, strike product-market-fit gold, achieve unprecedented commercial success. That’s the first five years. Then they turn the ship, mashing up all kinds of influences, releasing a lightning-quick eight studio albums in five years, pretty much turning over everything that had ever come before, influencing everything to come for decades thereafter, and in the course of that cementing the studio album as the default form factor for the entire music industry. They build and shatter cultural empires in these two massive arcs, and close the whole thing out before they’re even all thirty. The level of innovation, output, creative partnership, whatever you want to call it, is off the charts, and that should impress any serious technologist who is interested in global impact.
That observation brought me to writing this piece: as a technologist, I am always looking for new and differentiated perspectives, which I believe will give me insights that allow me to build useful products. Having noticed these high-level similarities, I’m asking: what can we in tech learn from musicians, especially about creative collaboration?
As it happens, asking this question is yet another thing we have in common with musicians, who are relentless in collecting and mashing up influences. The history of modern music is not just a history of people, but a history of people looking far and wide for new sounds. That can happen both via harnessing new technical innovations, like the Moog synthesizer, or by borrowing from some outside inspiration, the way that late-1960s rock music was partially shaped by a wave of interest in Eastern spirituality.
The strongest popular musicians — much like the greatest product minds — are able to both leverage what technology has just made possible and tap into some kind of contemporary zeitgeist to hit a resonant frequency with the public and produce stuff beloved by millions. These topics are touched on in Rick Rubin’s recent book on music production, The Creative Act, which could double-up well as advice to budding product designers. Building an early-stage company is to work together to design products that people love, and it’s not a far stretch to draw the connection to “traditional” creative work.
I don’t know enough about music history to take the next step and suggest specific innovations or practices that technologists should adopt from musicians, but the preliminary message is clear: as creative, founding pursuits, making music and making technology have more in common than might appear at first blush. As technologists, we’d do well to keep our minds open for lessons and analogies from the other side.
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In this piece, I use various terms — software founder, technologist, product mind, etc. — all interchangeably.
It’s a little more controversial, but I think that for the strongest creators, it’s a labor of love: if they weren’t doing it for money, they’d probably be doing it for free. They do something they enjoy first and foremost. Material success is a pleasant byproduct.
For the sake of a practical example, two of the most influential bands of the 1960s were the Beatles and the Beach Boys — who each released several albums that could be seen as their “answer” to the other one’s.