What Jay Z and TIDAL can teach us about adblocking

History doesn't always repeat itself

March 13, 2016

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So what can Jay Z and TIDAL teach us about how to face the challenge of adblocking? Well, quite a bit, in fact, although not from Jay Z directly.

It so happens that Thomas Walle and myself, founders of Unacast, were part of the founding team at the streaming service WiMP. WiMP was later rebranded to TIDAL and sold to Jay Z (and the rest is history as they say, and also well documented).

WiMP, alongside Spotify, Deezer, Rdio and a select few others solved the music industry problem of illegal downloading kickstarted by Napster in 1999. The solution was in hindsight simple, really: Launch new products that the end users wanted to pay for and that offered superior convenience. I argue that adblocking is a similar reaction to advertising as Napster was to the music industry, and therefore that the existence of TIDAL can teach the advertising industry a thing or two.

Come with me on a journey to a land where the consumer is always right, and always win.

Something is rockin' in the state of Denmark

Thomas and myself met before WiMP, actually on the first day we enrolled to Copenhagen Business School, and there we would work together for three years, mainly tearing down and rebuilding the music industry from a theoretical perspective. This intensive work culminated in the “masterpiece” dubbed “Liberation from the Atom” (found here, although in Danish) that was awarded the highest grade possible in Denmark at that time.

So, what did we find in Copenhagen that would become the practical platform of the streaming revolution?

Bourdieu built TIDAL

I won’t bore you with all the details, where we with some assistance from Pierre Bourdieu and his theories on Fields, Doxa and Capital, analyzed every (and I mean every) bit of information published 10 years before and 10 years after the launch of Napster in 1999 to understand what was really going on. Why on earth would an industry go to the extreme step of suing their own customers, like the music industry threatened to do (and did) to file sharers?

We found was that the music industry and the consumer did, in fact, exist in the same Field pre-Napster and that the laws (Doxa) created by the music industry was accepted by the consumer: “You shall only consume music in the ways we decide”. There were only some scarce signs of individual uprisings.

Post-Napster this fundamentally changed, and while the music industry still thought they were engaging in a dialogue with their consumers and could enforce the Field’s Doxa, they were in fact only engaging in a monologue.

Hence the suing.

The customers had left the Field and now operated under their own sets of laws.

Hence the non-effect of suing.

And what separated the old and the new Fields? Yes, you are of course right.

Technology, as exemplified with file sharing and peer to peer distribution, was the newfound Capital that, in opposition to the cultural and monetary Capital the music industry controlled, blew the Field wide open.

Technology was the great liberator, as it has been so many times before and will be so many times more.

History doesn't always repeat itself

The parallels to the advertising industry and adblocking are so blatantly obvious that I won’t TL;DR you, too much. Let me instead leave you with some advice.

Don’t:

  1. Don’t rely on the past to understand the future. Your laws only apply in your Field (Bourdieu's Doxa), and are you sure your customers are still there to listen?
  2. Don’t sacrifice the long term for short term. Building a business on short term goals is not really building a business; that’s just keeping busy.
  3. Don’t be religious about reach (be religious about relevancy). Advertising has traditionally been about hitting as many as possible for the lowest amount. With new technology and new granular data sets, it is changing to reaching the relevant few (or many).
  4. Don’t work with shady players. Make sure that everyone you partner with share your horizon. Don’t compromise on ethics.
  5. Don’t fight your customers (come on, blocking adblockers... really?). They are the many, and you are, well, just you.
  6. Don’t underestimate your customer. It is not you that decide, and it never has been. The inefficiency of marketplaces of the past has led you to think so, but you are wrong. It has always been the customer.

Do:

  1. Get better data/insights. The difference between advertising and communication is relevance.
  2. Get better load times. The addition of advertising, or any other side product to the core product, should not harm the base user experience.
  3. Get better content. Delight, don’t disappointment.
  4. Get better creatives. Delight, don’t dissatisfy.
  5. Get better at privacy. You don’t own the data, you only borrow it, and you have to give more back than you borrow.
  6. Get better! Come on, you all know it. You are cutting corners. Be the best that you can be.

Lastly, do not forget that the music industry almost halved their revenues before they learned to stop worrying and love the customer. The advertising industry can avoid the same scenario.

Come with me on a journey to a land where the consumer is always right, and always win. It’s a great land to live in.