An article in the May 14, 2012 New Yorker profiled Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who examined the effect of disruptive technologies on large corporations. Here is an excerpt from the article about one of his first case studies:

“The first industry that Christensen studied was disk drives. He saw that the companies that made fourteen-inch drives for mainframe computers had been driven out of business by companies that made eight-inch drives for mini computers, and then the companies that made the eight-inch drives were driven out of business by companies that made 5.25-inch drives for PCs.

What was puzzling about this was that the eight-inch drives weren’t as good as the fourteen-inch drives and the 5.25-inch drives were inferior to the eight-inch drives. In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior.

But the new products were usually cheaper and easier to use, and so people or companies who were not rich or sophisticated enough for the old ones started buying the new ones, and there were so many more of the regular people than there were of the rich, sophisticated people that the companies making the new products prospered. Christensen called these low-end products “disruptive technologies, ‘because, rather than sustaining technological progress toward better performance, they disrupted it.’”

To repeat, here is the key insight of Christensen’s research: “In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. “

Christensen found that big successful companies typically saw no threat from inferior products with poor performance and so ignored them in favor of their existing high-end, high margin products. Why try to manufacture millions of 5.25 inch PC disk drives for just a few dollars profit when your much better eight-inch drives were already selling for hundreds each in the minicomputer market? But when the disruptive technologies became accepted – and improved – it was too late for the fat corporations living off legacy products.

Is there a lesson in this for new music? I think so. Let us assume that the tools used by traditional performing organizations – the concert hall, the expert players, the rock-star conductor and the traditional commissioned composer – all produce a much better product experience than the computer-generated MP3 realizations posted by Internet musicians and composers on-line. And the revenue coming from down-loadable music is certainly minimal. So if you are John C. Adams, for example, why would you undertake to realize your music for the on-line audience when the result will likely be less satisfactory and much less lucrative than writing a new score for the Los Angeles Philharmonic?

This, I submit, fits the classic Christensen pattern of a disruptive technology. The computer-realized music is perhaps less impressive than what is heard in the concert hall, but it is also very easy for the composer to get his music out there and very easy for millions to hear it. So, while new music realized electronically is perhaps inferior in quality, it is also low cost and widely available at a time when the traditional performing organizations are doing less and less with new music. Will our philharmonic orchestras perceive the disruptive effects of this technology and will they be able to stay on the cutting edge of music? Clayton Christensen would say no.

What do you say?

One Response to “Disruptive Technology and the Arts”
  1. Technological disruption is in the news again; the Salon story on Netflix appeared today. The piano itself was a disruption as its equal temperament lay waste to the subtle temperaments that made the music of Byrd, for example, so exquisite.

    I don’t think disruption as you present it will affect the concert hall as much as one might expect (hope?). You ask, “Will our philharmonic orchestras perceive the disruptive effects of this technology and will they be able to stay on the cutting edge of music?” The classical/symphonic concert halls have been moving back from the present for a long time. They are like museums with a large historical collection in the vaults and occasional exhibits of the new. They aren’t disrupted by technological change because they collect and absorb change. The concert halls today are the same spongelike creatures. They were disrupted by recordings over a century ago, which provided the mechanism for their continued existence — the listener’s psychological investment in the recording. If the recording is new and expensive (as it was), then the listener re-listens. Once the investment is repaid in enjoyment and expectation, the listener seeks more of the same. The expectation of the new is tempered and gradually eviscerated (if that doesn’t seem right, just think of any band that tries to play its hit song in a new and different way on stage). Instead, the old becomes the product that is sought as concert hall performance deliberately slips behind the arc of composition to meet its market. As there are more historical rediscoveries, the concert hall remains familiar and has no need of new music. That they still play it at all remains a surprise; what does it gain them?

    So the concert halls absorbed recording technology once they felt the disruption, and included radio and television and recordings. Jon Silpayamanant was just writing about this from the perspective of baby boomer change. http://silpayamanant.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/what-really-handicapped-classical-music/

    By the time we find ourselves in 2012, that work is done. What I think is being disrupted now is the process of composition. Maybe that’s another story.

    Dennis

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