Attempting to explain what’s going on allows me the opportunity to bring into this blogular conversation a concept that (much to my student’s dismay) I’m obsessed with.
Basically, I believe that the life cycle of all products can be charted along a normal distribution curve. Perhaps you remember seeing one of these bell-shaped curves in your statistics classes.
I’m over-simplifying this, but I believe it can be constructive to break the product life-cycle down into the following user groups:
- Early Adopters
- Early Majority
- Late Majority
- Late Adopters
So, looking at the curve, and its respective categories, you can see not only the temporal progress (along the X axis) of the product’s life cycle, but also the related percentage of users for each category (along the Y axis). It works, in essence, like a histogram, where what I’m calling the mavens represent a very small percentage of the market, while the majority represents a vast percentage.
Viewed this way you could, for instance, chart the path of a band.
Consider Arcade Fire. They started with only mavens knowing about them (I’m using the term “Maven” as defined by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point). This could be people in the band’s hometown who began building a buzz; through blogs, word of mouth, whatever.
Once enough of these people did this, and in combination with the band’s talent and drive, you start getting some early adopters, such as, Pitchfork, who gave the band a 9.7 review back in September of 2004.
Now, a lot of products/bands/ideas/start-ups, etc., get caught at this stage. While Pitchfork doesn’t give out 9.7 reviews very often, they do give out good reviews to bands that never achieve anywhere near the level of success Arcade Fire has achieved.
The jump from the early adaptors to the early majority, in other words, is a very difficult one to make, and very few do. This is what I refer to as the “adoption chasm.” If you can jump this chasm, and find your way into the early majority, you have achieved something significant, because you will have gone from basically a “cult” item (be it a band, a web app, a product, whatever), to something that is really being embraced by a large number of people.
Again, look at the relative sizes of the segment for early adopters, versus the segment for early majority. It’s a big difference, and basically – for an artist – means the difference between their art being able to support them or not.
What causes a product to make this jump is the subject of countless books…though few (if any) identify the jump being from between early adopters to early majority.
So, returning to Arcade Fire, the Pitchfork review built upon and fed other early adopters until the momentum pushed it across the chasm. Perhaps this moment could be defined when “Funeral” was reviewed in Rolling Stone, which occurred in December of 2004.
At this point, the momentum is really building, and you start to get the “halo effect” of those early majority members intersecting with the majority.
Think of the halo effect this way. You go to a cocktail party; there is likely one person who is maybe a little “edgier” than the rest of the people. This person commandeers the stereo, and turns off Norah Jones (who, by the way, is a very interesting chart on the product life-cycle curve), and puts on Arcade Fire. Now, all those non-edgy people at the cocktail party who had never heard of Arcade Fire, but have “edgy” friends who represent the early majority who are in love with the band, are exposed. In essence, the halo effect means that a single person’s enthusiasm can begin to spread like a halo and impact on those in their immediate vicinity.
This is essentially word of mouth, once again, but it too gets ratified by the media, such as when Entertainment Weekly reviews the “Funeral” album, and/or a performance on Saturday Night Live.
As you reach the majority level, the world starts to get weird and unpredictable. Some are able to maintain their status in the majority for long periods of time (typically through processes of re-invention/innovation; which essentially starts the process over again for new audiences), while others begin the slide down.
It is also at this point, where you begin to lose those mavens and early adopters who feel that “their” product has been co-opted. In other words, it’s no longer the cool new thing, because it’s not their little secret.
This moment is most emphatically driven home when, for example, your Mom asks if you’ve heard of a band called “The Arcade something or other”; or when your Dad asks how he can get one of those MySpace things.
These so-called jumping-the-shark moments are very firm indicators that a product is in serious danger of cascading down the curve towards death.
In order to stop this, as stated above, the artist/product must innovate, which confuses (and shakes loose) those late adopters, but can potentially begin the cycle of adoption over again.
This would explain albums like “Pop” by U2, various segments of Madonna’s career, “indie-cred” roles actors take, or even “Self Portrait” by Dylan (which he, in “Chronicles” basically stated was an attempt at shaking loose people who had adopted him that he didn’t want to adopt him). Of course, in the products world, new versions of software, new models of cars, etc., are meant to have a similar effect.
Sometimes this works.
Sometimes you slide down the curve to death, and no amount of attempted re-invention can save you (see: Vanilla Ice, various x-boy band members, or Friendster).
Arcade Fire is in the majority. They’ve crossed over. Yet, they’re still on an indie label (Merge), they’re still writing compelling songs, and they still seem like they mean it.
In some ways, what happens from here for them, vis-Ã¥-vis the product life cycle curve, is both out of their hands and meaningless. I sense they’ll continue to make the music they want to make, and if they don’t remain in the majority, they’ll be plenty happy in the early adopter/early majority realm. One way or the other, they’ll likely avoid death.
There are plenty of other artists who have had their time in the majority, avoided death, and have found a good spot in the pre-majority sectors. I think of, for example, Mike Patton, or R.E.M.. These artists, and others, existed in the majority, and lived to go on creating the work they wanted to create on their terms in spite of (and, in some ways, because of) this dalliance with the majority. You see this in film and other disciplines too.
As the market changes, and surprising things enter the mainstream more frequently due to technological advances, and this combines with niches becoming more sustainable due to emergent efficiencies, we’ll see more of these artists popping into the mainstream only to pop back out, and less artists careening into the rocks of death at the other end of the life-cycle curve.