When the Beastie Boys formed in 1979, they were a hardcore punk band that dabbled in performance art, a fixture at clubs like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. Their first full-length album, Poly Wog Stew, with bombastic minute-and-a-half paroxysms like "Transit Cop," "Jimi," and "Holy Snappers," owed as much to the Sex Pistols as it did Dadaism. Always on the prowl for the absurd, they started rapping in rehearsals, mainly as a joke. But when they tried it during performances something magical happened: Audiences liked it better than the punk.
So in Eric Ries’ parlance, The Beastie Boys performed a "zoom-in pivot," turning a feature of their product into their main offering. In 1983, they recorded "Cooky Puss," their first track that incorporated elements of hip-hop, using a prank call to Carvel Ice Cream as inspiration. It quickly became an underground hit in nightclubs, so they added a DJ and layered hip-hop into their sets, until they had mastered a sound all their own.
Three decades and 40 million records sold later, the group was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Although the late Adam Yauch (MCA), along with Mike Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) were and are prodigiously talented, it’s likely we never would have heard of the Beastie Boys if they hadn’t pivoted to hip-hop.
Now, pivoting is usually reserved for businesses that do a triple axel into a new business strategy, but Patrick Vlaskovits and Brant Cooper, authors of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development and the forthcoming Lean Entrepreneur, say it can apply it to whole raft of disciplines. In fact, many Lean Startup methodologies—pivots, minimal viable products, product-market fit—can be used as an analysis tool for consumer-packaged goods, finance and investment, social entrepreneurship, art—anywhere there is innovation. Pivots and the like are as relevant to musicians and artists as they are for startups.
But what's the difference between a pivot and, say, an "iteration" or "reset"? For an apt analogy they say you should turn your radio dial. "If you’re twisting the dial to tune into a new station, going from 98.5 FM to 93.1 FM, then you’re pivoting," they say. "If you’re trying to tune into a strong signal, and switching from 98.7 FM to 98.5 FM, then it’s an iteration. A reset is a ‘leap’ to a new business model, and that change is not based on real validation or learning."
That last part is key. Pivoting has to be evolutionary, based on sifting through the appropriate data. It’s at the heart of the "fail fast" concept. The sooner you realize a hypothesis is wrong, the faster you can update and retest it. "It’s paramount to understand that a pivot isn’t simply a change in one element of the business model," they add, "but rather a change precipitated by something the founder has learned and validated to be true or untrue about a hypothesis she has tested."
This, of course, is exactly what Adam Yauch and his Beastie bros did. They market-tested punk and when customers gravitated to a specific feature of the product (hip-hop) they pivoted to that. And they aren’t the only ones. Pop music and artist development are clearly domains where artists can be viewed as startups trying to find product-market fit. Vlaskovits and Cooper, who say they’re working with L.A.-based music producers on how to apply these principles to artist development, point to Katy Perry as an example. She began her career as Katy Hudson, a Christian gospel singer, releasing an album aimed specifically at specific audience, and the album didn’t make the charts.
What did she do? She underwent a "customer segment pivot," repositioning herself to reach a different audience by altering multiple elements of her business model, including:
- Her marketing/look: Christian girl-next-door to sexy pop princess.
- Her product/subject matter: Christian worship themes to edgy, sexually suggestive songs.
- Segment: Teens who listen to Christian soft rock to mainstream teenagers.
It wasn’t a smooth road. Between her first album and second, she was dropped by two record labels. Nevertheless, she persisted (like any good entrepreneur) and went from her Christian-themed debut album praising Jesus to "One of the Boys," which featured the hit "I Kissed a Girl," as well as three other Top 40 singles. The album, which boasts some explicit lyrics and themes, went on to sell more than 5 million copies.
Vlaskovits and Cooper are even willing to stretch Lean Startup methodology to Picasso, who, they say, pivoted from work that was photo-realistic to cubism and the distortion of the human form. They also see clear connections between musicians/artists and technology startups. Both innovate in uncertainty and endure financiers: Musicians have record labels and startup entrepreneurs have VCs, with both historically playing the roles of arbiters of good ideas. And because of digital technology, it’s cheaper than ever to record and distribute music and launch a startup.
"Musicians can and do build Minimal Viable Products starring themselves," they say. "This allows for faster and better market feedback on how to inform their ultimate vision for success."
In other words, while the odds may be stacked against her, that guitarist croaking Adele's "To Make You Feel My Love" on the subway platform could be the next PayPal, which, like Katy Perry, performed a customer segment pivot that also paid off.
Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.