How To Respond To A Crisis. A Lesson From Sungard.

I have a friend who works in Marketing for Sungardthey’re a huge, multi-national, multi-billion dollar IT Services/financial information/Software company. Massive. Bigger than big.

What interesting for us musical types is their response to the financial crisis. A situation which, naturally, they took very seriously indeed, partly because they were deeply affected, but also because it was a time when all the big finance companies were being shaken up, and previously held notions of who were the ‘big players’ could be re-jigged. It was a chance for companies to rebrand, reposition, and use the recession as a chance to do some fairly risky thinking, and ask some massive questions.

Which is what they’ve done. Sungard have gone round the world and interviewed pretty much anyone who’s anyone in the world of Big MoneyCEOs of NASDAC, European Cental Bank dudes, bigwigs from newspapers, big bankseveryone.

And then, they’ve put the videos online. Not only on their own site, but also on youtube. And they’re blogging. Under the heading of ‘What Happens Next?’, they’re facilitating discussion about the future of the finance industry.

They’re also hosting events – free to attend – where these questions are presented and discussed.

This is, clearly, a fairly risky strategy. Despite the options for moderating the discussion on their own site, they’re still setting themselves up as THE lynchpin in the discussion. The benefits – and the dangers – are obvious.

It’s brave, but it’s also vital. They’ve seen that without a conversation happening across the industry – and happening in the open – the chance of anyone doing things differently within the industry is pretty small. Business as usual won’t cut it, but they clearly aren’t about to be advocating the collapse of banking and a reversion to feudalism either… (and if financial businesses don’t appear to be putting their own house in order, the level of Government regulation will far exceed even those measures so far introduced this year)

The tools they’re using are all the open ones the rest of us use WordPress, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube (they’ve got a custom scrolling video thing on their site, but all the vids are on Youtube too.) – inviting people to take their videos, embed them, and continue the conversation as started in the videos.

Imagine if one the major record labels had done that.

Instead of doing what Virgin and Universal have just done – setting up their own ‘all you can eat’ download service, bundled with Virgin’s broadband etc. They’ve done it without, it seems, any consideration for how it affects indie musicians, how it serves the culture of music in this country or further afield. They don’t want to be ‘a’ player, they want to be ‘the’ player. No-one comes to the music except through me. It’s a land-grab for the space where ‘people get all their music’ – if they can tie it in with TV and internet, why would anyone go else where?

The simple answer to that seemingly rhetorical questions is they’d go elsewhere because, as Andrew Dubber once brilliantly said ‘it’s not just about music, it’s about MY music’
– music isn’t even remotely ‘like Water’ (sorry, Gerd, it just doesn’t stand up as a metaphor) – music is music, it’s not ‘necessary for life’ in the way that water is, but it does have vitality. Expensive music isn’t just a bottled version of ‘free’ music. There are no ‘taps’, no Evian-style branding. There are songs and stories and meaning and relationships and stars and fan-clubs and posters and t-shirts and gigs that change our lives and the chance to play the songs at home.

Our relationship with music:

  • with musicians
  • with music culture
  • with music-branded tribes
  • with playing our own music
  • with the artwork that we wrap around music
  • with the TV programmes and ongoing reality-web stories of the people who make music

is so complex is completely unmappable in any accurate way. We have massive trends and we have the ultra-personal. Very little in between.
I’ll believe that music is ‘like water’ when people start doing cover versions of expensive water at home, wear ‘Vittel’ t-shirts and go to water gigs. Til then, the metaphor is pretty much, if you’ll pardon the pun, dead in the water.

Virgin are peddling ‘all the music you’ll ever want’, but claim they’ll police it rigorously – don’t you dare be social with it! So basically, you can have all the MP3s you want, we’ll take your money, you’ll stop looking elsewhere because music is now ‘that thing you subscribe to’ – anything else is ‘premium content’ (the stuff that Mr ‘music like water/porridge like transport/kindness like trousers’ etc. thinks of as Evian) – but that 2-tier notion of ‘value’ is utterly spurious, and is clearly designed to claw back some territory the only way they can – by using the only leverage they still have: size and infrastructural control.

(It might even be considered monopolistic, but of course, a coalition of tiny people like me can’t afford the challenge in the courts…)

So in the meantime, we just call ‘BS’ on it, and look wistfully at the way that a financial services giant like Sungard can open up their stricken industry to a public consultation, in which they brand themselves as the thought leaders, but invite anyone to the table who cares to comment on their blog, or embed one of their videos and add their thoughts to the pool of wisdom on what happens next.

Fortunately with music, the people who care about music as culture are continuing the debate without worrying too much about the machinations of the fuckwits at the major labels. It’s just a shame they won’t be part of the discussion…

So where do we go from here? Feel free to use the comments to discuss anything raised here – from the financial crisis to the nonsense of Virgin/Universal’s deal.

How do we as indie artists tell the story of our music in a way that has value beyond the firehose?
How do we differentiate between ‘music’ and ‘my music’?
What lessons can we learn from Sungard?
What more could they be doing, particularly in their use of social media, to open up the discussion on the future of finance culture? It’s such a HUGE question…

The floor is yours…

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