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I have read the following blog post recently and it got me thinking (the article is here) – how can we apply this question to more areas than just music? Can we do this at all? I think that the answer is yes and that we can extrapolate from that idea to more important issues, with the one underlying it all – the innovation.
If we start from music, it has been, long time ago, created by maybe many but was heard by few. Early works reached small audience, which needed certain sophistication in order to appreciate music at all. This “sophistication” often meant social class, or income level, or both. In small numbers of people who could afford to listen to music lies the reason why not many musicians were appreciated during their lifetimes. Here also lies the reason why many found their fame after their deaths –  later the general audience has become bigger, and bigger were the chances that someone (even a dead composer) would find enough followers to become famous. The “fame” or its demise lied (and still lies) in numbers. Then, as well as now, one needed enough people to create a snowball effect, or reach a “tipping point” number pushing you over to fame.
Today though the problem with fame (and money, which usually follows) is what constitutes a popular product (music, book, film, service, etc). The size of potential audience or potential consumers has become so large, that previous meaning of “sophistication” has lost its meaning. Now we are dealing with something I will call “rampant improvement era”. In the days, where recipient of a product (music, machine, computer, innovation in general) was in small numbers, you needed to convince that recipient that your product is innovative almost in person, you needed to win your consumers over almost one by one – the relationship of innovator with recipient was much closer and personal. The features were aimed at few that knew what the product is all about and could understand its advantages and afford it. Now the product aims and “general population”, which is to say, is aimed at everyone (or no one in particular). Everyone does not know much, is not intelligent, is easily bored and is susceptible to whims, moods and fads. Enter a product which is in its mass approach simply stupid in its simplicity – it fulfills many wishes, not really fulfilling any special task perfectly.

The article I mentioned above I think arrives at a wrong conclusion – it has become easier to produce and record music, same as it has become easier to produce and distribute many other products. But the “general recipient” is stupid – and so the quality of the product provided must be so adapted in order to sell. We produce things for different audience now to what humans did fifty years ago. A knowledgeable music audience only would not accept stupid pop music and such would die natural death.

Today the successful product is judged by the numbers it sells, not by its particular value. BlackBerry is a better business phone than iPhone, but it lost its battle because it was not a mass product, offering little of everything. Instead, it offered good features in one or two areas. Too narrow consumer base put RIM in trouble. Many products follow that path, and Apple become master in taking some idea and making it main stream. Not an innovation, rampant improvement.

Downside of this is, that specialist products are as expensive as those are rare. It simply does not make sense to innovate in the true sense of this word – bringing something new to the world, as this will not sell.