Seth Godin’s idea of giving away one of his books for free as a new model for publishing wasn’t a new model. I still have CDs from upstart rap artists who 20 years ago walked up to you and along with a 5 second elevator pitch, placed a free CD in your hand out of the trunk of their car. Even Wikipedia logs an elaborate discussion of mixtapes and a working definition saying “Mixtapes are now commonly used by labels and new artists as a promotional tool, as a way of generating hype.” I remember filmmaker Spike Lee’s sister, Joi Lee handing me free movie paraphenalia out of a glad trash bag in promotion of Lee’s movie School Daze. Proctor and Gamble passes out free toiletries in dormitories in the first week of school.
Seth Godin’s latest bestseller, Linchpin, says on page 5:
“It’s futile to work hard at restoring the take-care-of-you bargain. The bargain is gone, and it’s not worth whining about and it’s not effective to complain.”
I love the quote. But it’s not a new observation. It’s just gone mainstream.
Whole American demographics have never had or known the take-care-of-you bargain—the deal where you work hard for 1 or 2 companies for life and one day retire well. It’s efficient to ask what they did. There are already models for what to do: A black man–Master P– with no money or connections who amasses a net worth of nearly $400 million by the age of 29 is an example worth reviewing. But I don’t think it informs Seth. The whole genre of Hip Hop was born of the lack of any take-care-of-you bargain. It could never have come from the middle class.
In this 2007 unrivaled interview, Jay-Z—who was never going to be any Fortune 100’s “Chief” anything despite having what Charlie Rose calls “natural executive talent” in the interview—with an estimated net worth of several hundred million of his own (the Rocawear line alone selling for more than $200 million to Iconix)— says he couldn’t get a deal at the start of his career. Really smart business people told him no.
Hence, he was forced to be an executive in addition to artist managing his brand at the outset. He was forced to build his own platform. From scratch. His own brand, his own market and his own distribution channel. Word of mouth–Seth calls that “going viral”. What Seth is talking about is the new thing, is the only thing Jay-Z or Master P or earlier Hip Hop brands knew. And it pre-dates Hip Hop. These weren’t people adapting to a changing economy. It was already bad. They weren’t experimenting with alternatives to some dying middle class American deal due to relocated factories to China and hypercompetition. These were folks living in the U.S. for whom traditional, even cog-in-machine styled opportunity was never an option.
Today’s marketers like Seth say we have to be artists and have meaningful non-duplicable interactions with customers to be linchpins. Exactly what blues and jazz artists did.
Last year one of the most drop dead American things I heard was Jay-Z’s Empire State. It’s a story. Americans tell stories. We live by narratives. It’s how we find our way.
Jay-Z isn’t a rapper. Like Coca-Cola, Disney, and the Cadillac he’s a story. A narrative encapsulate.
And he talks to the world in stories like all brands do. Just the brass theme in Roc Boys is a story. Perfect polyester. And he clearly knows a brand’s value when he sees it and gets M&A big time, marrying one of the biggest “full package” entertainment brands yet in Beyonce.
If you want to understand how to be a lynchpin in an organization or how to make yourself indispensible or how to own your own means of production, you aren’t confined to ideas in Linchpin or to any book by someone whose 90% pre-ordains a chunk of their success–their legitimate success notwithstanding. You can read Master P or Jay-Z’s journey. They have more money too. And arguably, as African Americans, more arduously and creatively amassed than that of the 90%s. Plus their start lines were in the hole.
A few years ago in a Venetian market one morning I went grocery shopping. No one there spoke English. I was moving my head. Because playing overhead in the market was 50 Cent’s Hate it or Love it . That’s being viral. It’s unique and creative human interaction. And, love it or hate it, it’s a brand.