The Artist As Technology, Part 2: What Is Your “Whole Product”?

Come for the music, stay for the… music? Think again.

Cherie Hu
Cherie Hu
Sep 24, 2019 · 21 min read
Taylor Swift — the celebrity we all love to hate, but commercially is doing everything on point.

This is part two of a series of posts about what happens when we market musicians like tech products. You can read part one, “Breaking the Adoption Cycle,” by clicking here.


“Come for the X, stay for the Y.”

The above quote is a common maxim in tech marketing and entrepreneurship. It points to two levels of value that consumers might find in a given product: the surface-level, immediately apparent value that speaks to a direct customer pain point and inspires said customer to buy your product, and then the augmented, long-term, “discoverable” value that comes from ancillary features and deeper habit transformation in the process of using the product repeatedly over time.

Increasingly, it’s also becoming a marketing imperative for the music industry — although it might not always seem that way.

As with most advertising, a lot of music ads seem to shove transactional relationships down potential fans’ throats, instead of presenting content or experiences that are actually interesting. “Go stream my music on Spotify!” “Go buy tickets to my show!” “Go buy my CD/vinyl record/merch/etc.!” In the case of streaming, the goal is not just to initiate that first transaction of a stream, but also to maximize the users’ “stickiness” with the given catalog or service, as repeat listening is a key metric for identifying loyal fans.

The underlying message beneath that approach is “Come for X, stay for X” come for the music, and stay for the music — which has the potential danger of becoming a tired, closed loop, leaving little room for growth and development for both the artist and the fan.

Streaming platforms nowadays are collectively ingesting hundreds of thousands of tracks every single day, which makes it more difficult than ever for the typical independent artist to stand out from the noise. In addition, the economics of streaming makes it difficult for said artists to make a substantial, full-time living from recorded music alone. As a result, it’s become more important to think about what additional value they can offer fans aside from just a recording, particularly if they’re trying to earn the attention of mainstream audiences.

In Part 1 of this series, I outlined how an “artist adoption lifecycle” (adapted from the popular tech adoption lifecycle) could be a valuable framework for understanding why it’s so difficult for artists to transition successfully from niche to mainstream audiences. Drawing inspiration from Geoffrey Moore’s marketing book Crossing the Chasm, I discussed why entering the mainstream market is far from just a smooth, linear continuation of what one did previously in earlier markets, contrary to what the simple bell-curve visualization might suggest.

More specifically, if you try to strike a deal with late-adopting Pragmatists using the same pitch you gave to early-adopting Innovators and Visionaries, you will likely fail. That’s because Pragmatists care about incremental, measurable, predictable progress and are much less willing to take risks beyond their existing infrastructure, operations and core revenue streams; in contrast, Innovators and Visionaries are more open to higher-risk projects and are freer to prioritize technological innovation over financial performance.

One major conclusion from Part 1 was that going mainstream as an artist — i.e. attracting Pragmatists once you’ve gotten the attention of Innovators and Visionaries — requires augmenting your value proposition to potential fans and customers beyond just your music. For Part 2, we’re going to dive into a helpful model that artists can draw from to prepare for this transition from niche to mainstream, known as the Whole Product model.


Going Mainstream: The Whole Product

Transitioning a product successfully from Visionaries to Pragmatists — from early- to late-stage adopters—requires understanding the Whole Product opportunity around your idea.

Originally conceived as the “Five Product Levels” by author and business professor Philip Kotler, and later refined by Regis McKenna and popularized by Moore in Crossing the Chasm, the Whole Product model consists of four concentric rings, each of which is larger than the previous one (my scrappily hand-drawn version is pictured below):

The Whole Product Model.

Companies typically travel from the inside to the outside of this model as they grow. In other words, every new company starts in the smallest ring (Generic), and must expand its offering over time to the largest ring (Potential) if it wants to transition successfully from serving niche audiences to mainstream ones.

Let’s break down what each of these rings means — using a well-known consumer-tech product, Apple’s iPad Pro, as an example.

In the case of the Apple iPad Pro, the generic product is simply the iPad device, USB-C charge cable and power adapter that come in the box. Depending on the plan you buy, you may also get a built-in cellular connection.

In Moore’s words, it is the “minimum configuration of products and services necessary to have any chance of achieving the buying objective.” If you’re buying an iPad Pro, you likely prioritize high-quality and premium visuals, security and processing power, which make Apple’s “Liquid Retina” and “ProMotion” display tech, Face ID and A12X Bionic chip all part of the expected product.

The iPad Pro’s official page lists several adjacent products and services — including the Apple Pencil, Smart Keyboard Folio and AppleCare—that are not necessarily expected in the generic box, but that demonstrate concrete added value and increase a potential customer’s chance of purchasing the device. Similarly, Apple recently announced that one year of their upcoming Apple TV+ subscription would be included with every new purchase of an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac or Apple TV device; that’s neither a generic nor an expected product, but rather a “nice-to-have” that makes owning an Apple device more appealing. The user experience of native iPadOS apps such as FaceTime, Podcasts, Books, Mail, News, Maps, Reminders, Stocks, Photos, Notes and Voice Memos may also add concrete value to buying an iPad Pro versus, say, a comparable Samsung tablet (especially if you already have another Apple device).

Last but certainly not least:

The most obvious example of a “potential” product around the iPad Pro is the App Store, which houses millions of apps that customers can potentially download to extend their devices’ operational capability and value, in a way that’s customized to their own needs. In addition, what Apple does much better than any of its competitors is advertise to consumers that the potential product around a single device is the entire ecosystem of that company’s products — i.e. one of the most powerful ways to maximize the potential of your iPad Pro is arguably to own a MacBook, iPhone and/or Apple TV as well, so that you can sync all of your work and entertainment across multiple devices and never feel tethered to a single device or geographic location.

As Moore discussed in his book, the generic-product ring is the primary battleground for new companies competing for the biggest share of a niche market. Once these companies grow and pivot to targeting mainstream markets, however, competitive products in the generic center look more and more like each other, shifting the battle further out to the surrounding concentric rings.

In other words, over time, the question is no longer which competitor in a market has the best “core product,” but about which competitor can provide the most compelling potential augmentations around what’s initially included in the box.

This actually aligns well with the “Digital Hub” strategy that the late Steve Jobs formally revealed upon releasing the first generation of the iconic iPod in 2001. Jobs imagined the iPod not as a standalone device, but rather as a multi-pronged system that combined hardware, software and an expansive online store. As the iPod’s capabilities expanded, so did both the scope and the interoperability of its surrounding ecosystem. In the words of Leander Kahney, technology writer and author of Inside Steve’s Brain:

“The tight integration of hardware and software makes for a more manageable, predictable system. A closed system limits choice, but it is more stable and more reliable. An open system is far more fragile and unreliable — this is the price of freedom … Instead of making stand-alone computers and gadgets, Apple now makes whole business systems.”


Before going into specific examples from the music industry, it’s important to discuss two important pillars of any product that wants to scale the Whole Product model successfully: providing a service, and creating an aftermarket.

Moore makes a great point early on in his book that the importance of the generic product itself decreases as you progress further along to the right of the tech adoption cycle:

The longer your product is in the market, the more mature it becomes and the more important the service element is to the customer. Conservatives*, in particular, are extremely service-oriented.

(In this context, “conservative” is another term for “laggard” or “skeptic” — i.e. the customer segment that is most resistant to adopting new technology, represented as the rightmost slice of the tech adoption curve.)

Multiple business analysts and theorists have recognized this concept of late adopters as more service-oriented in various forms. For instance, renowned Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has referred to this primacy of deeper service over surface-level product as the “Theory of Jobs to be Done.”

“When we buy a product, we essentially ‘hire’ something to get a job done,” says Christensen. “If it does the job well, when we are confronted with the same job, we hire that same product again. And if the product does a crummy job, we ‘fire’ it and look around for something else we might hire to solve the problem.”

In other words, between two nearly identical products, consumers will usually choose the product that offers a better service and experience around accomplishing a particular task given their current circumstances. Crucially, most companies are not structured this way: in Christensen’s words, they are instead “organized by categories of customers or competitors or products, so that nobody is responsible for experiences. Nobody is responsible for the processes that lead to the experiences. So very quickly you lose that focus.”

Market-leading products create an aftermarket that other vendors serve. This is a crucial component of the “potential” product ring, and tends to emerge only after a given product starts infiltrating mainstream consumer bases. By cultivating an aftermarket, you empower other vendors — who may also be your customers — to grow their own businesses, social influence and/or cultural value using your product.

In this vein, Apple’s App Store is one of the most powerful and vibrant aftermarkets in the world. It offers a platform, built into any of its generic device, for independent developers to share and sell their own apps for the tech conglomerate’s various operating systems, ultimately driving over $50 billion in sales a year.

A less obvious but perhaps even more scalable example: In the digital age, media is its own aftermarket.

In her seminal work Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray explained how the “unit of storytelling” in digital media has expanded from individual pieces of content to potentially endless extensions of a given, imagined world:

The unit of storytelling in the early twenty-first century has become not the individual novel, film or television series, but the “transmedia” storyworld, which usually includes websites, games and social media extensions of mass-media story franchises … Everything we create in digital form is potentially an element in a larger archive, available for re-viewing and recombination.

Whether through cross-promotion, fan art or professional criticism and commentary, every song or other piece of musical content has the potential to serve as a platform atop which other creators can tell their own stories and build their own brands. This is a powerful dynamic that, in my opinion, remains highly underutilized in the music business.


Case studies: what do Whole Products look like in the music business?

Now let’s walk through some examples of what “Whole Products” could look like in music. We’ll start with a digital consumer-subscription offering (Spotify Premium), and end with a more analog product with no hardware or software included at the outset (a branded T-shirt).

As you’ll see, in a manner similar to software companies, artists who embrace the whole product model think “end-to-end” about the dream experience and ecosystem for their most loyal fans, and then deliver on that entire spectrum of possibility and value, far beyond just an album release or another traditional “unit” of sale.

Executing on this end-to-end thinking isn’t always easy — nor is it always desirable, in the case of recording artists who want to maximize focus on their craft, as we’ll explore in the examples below.

In addition, it’s important to note that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all answer for what aspects of a product fit under which ring in the Whole Product model, and I’m happy to have you disagree with my categorizations below. While the generic product is typically straightforward, whether a specific feature or service should be part of the “expected,” “augmented” or “potential” product usually ends up being debatable.

Such debates illuminate the different types of added value that different types of customers might see in a given product; part of going mainstream as a company is weighing these different sources of perceived value, and choosing which one(s) make the most business sense and have the most potential for bringing your own vision to life.

Generic: At its core, a $9.99 Spotify Premium subscription gives you access to an on-demand catalog of over 40 million songs and podcast episodes, through both desktop and mobile apps. This makes Spotify Premium’s generic product virtually the same as that of Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music Unlimited or other paid streaming services, because they all provide more or less the same catalog.

Expected: The minimum configuration of products required to activate Spotify Premium’s generic offering are primarily utilitarian:

  • Offline downloading/listening capabilities
  • Unlimited skips
  • No ads
  • Multi-device sync functionality (e.g. ability to access the same playlists on mobile that you created on desktop, and vice versa)

All of these features are listed on the official Spotify Premium page, setting expectations for potential customers from the outset.

Augmented: What Spotify Premium features give prospective users the maximum chance of paying for the service? Which features distinguish Spotify’s service itself from its competitors? There are multiple features that fall under this category, including but not limited to:

  • Algorithmic discovery channels (e.g. Discover Weekly, Release Radar, Daily Mixes).
  • A vast range of editorial playlists (e.g. RapCaviar, New Music Friday, Peaceful Piano, Pollen) to fit not just every genre, but also every moment and experience.
  • Partnerships and integrations with various hardware and software companies (e.g. Spotify’s integrations with a wide range of apps, game consoles, speakers and smart watches).
  • Content bundles (e.g. Spotify’s limited bundle with Headspace, student bundle with Hulu and Showtime and free-trial bundle with Samsung’s S10 devices).
  • Low-data features (e.g. Data Saver and the new, standalone Spotify Lite app).
  • Expansion into podcasts. Largely for financial reasons, Spotify is now trying to pivot away from being just a music company by investing aggressively in podcasts, news, audiobooks and other kinds of non-musical audio content. While podcasts are available to any Spotify user for free, they are a recent augmentation above the original, music-driven Premium offering, and come with their own editorial playlists, exclusive content deals and other features that may increase Spotify’s value to existing users.

Customers aren’t technically required to activate any of these features upon purchasing a Premium subscription, but doing so may certainly make their lives easier and their wallets fuller.

Potential: Much more than its competitors, Spotify has proactively helped shape a vast ancillary ecosystem of owned-and-operated products and experiences around its core streaming service — a handful of examples of which are listed below:

  • The Spotify Developer Platform, a collection of SDKs and APIs to encourage third-party app development around the streaming service.
  • A live-events franchise around flagship playlist brands such as Who We Be and RapCaviar.
  • Proprietary hardware. As of May 2019, Spotify is testing a voice-controlled audio hardware device for the car, known simply as the “Car Thing,” with a select number of Premium subscribers. While there are no publicly-announced plans to make it available to everyone just yet, the device gives Spotify more control over distribution and the end-user experience, while end users hopefully get a more convenient experience as well as a deeper association with a well-known brand.
  • Exclusive events and perks for superfans. Under the umbrella of “Fan First,” Spotify operates a fan reward program that gives artists’ most loyal fans on the platform access to exclusive tour presales and merch items, as well as private, intimate concerts, meet-and-greets and other events.
  • Integrated tools and marketplaces for artists and creators. More than any of its competitors, Spotify is trying to appeal to another set of consumers — the artists who supply the platform with music — by owning the“full stack” of resources to help them run their careers behind the scenes, in addition to building an audience. This is evident through the company’s recent acquisitions of Anchor (a multi-pronged podcast app spanning creation, hosting, monetization and distribution) and SoundBetter (a marketplace for finding vocalists, producers, engineers and other music professionals for hire, plus a new ready-made tracks database).

Remember: as previously discussed, the battle for customer acquisition and loyalty turns increasingly to the “augmented” and “potential” product circles as one enters the mainstream. Based on the lists of augmented and potential product features above, this creates an interesting dilemma for Spotify, and for most on-demand media-streaming platforms: as Spotify continues to grow, should it focus on content, or on technology?

Many music-industry insiders will argue that the winners in the streaming sector will win on their tech ecosystem, not on proprietary content. For Spotify on the music side, this could mean building a completely “full-stack” solution for the music industry, whereby artists and labels could create, distribute, promote and monetize their music all through the same platform.

Yet Spotify has struggled to pull off this vision to date, due to its awkward tango of mutual dependency with major labels. In July 2019, the streaming service abruptly shut down its direct-upload tool for artists after less than a year of operation, largely due to low usage on the artist side.

Also, with Spotify’s recent focus on podcasts, its entire “whole product” roadmap may have to change. A customer base specific to the world of podcasting will come forward with drastically different needs and sets of behaviors, which then lends itself to a different set of generic, expected, augmented and potential product offerings from what a music-first streaming service might be used to. More than a decade of existence and innovation in music may actually be a lot of baggage for a company that, in some ways, is starting from square one again.

Generic: The generic product delivered with the purchase of Reputation is simply its collection of fifteen tracks and the accompanying liner notes. If you purchase a physical album, the generic product also includes the actual CD or vinyl record and its respective packaging (and, in the case of the Japanese deluxe edition, a bonus poster and DVD).

Expected: The minimum configuration of products required to activate purchasing interest in Reputation’s generic product depends on what version of the album a customer wants. If it’s a digital download, the expected product might include portability across multiple devices, as well as a certain audio quality depending on the file format. If you didn’t purchase the album at all, the expected product is simply continual availability of the catalog on your preferred streaming service (which, notoriously, wasn’t always the case for Swift).

Augmented: Revisiting the general question, what features around the Reputation album gave prospective customers the maximum chance of paying for it? Again, it depends on the version of the album with which a customer has decided to engage. Some possibilities for albums in general include:

  • A digital download code that comes with exclusive digital content.
  • Tickets to meet-and-greets, which come bundled with physical albums in certain markets.
  • A higher chance of getting selected for a limited tour presale, e.g. in Swift’s somewhat controversial Ticketmaster Verified Fan campaign.
  • The social clout that comes with consuming mainstream pop culture.

Potential: There are multiple potential avenues to build ancillary products and experiences around the generic, core product of an album. In the case of Reputation, here are just a few examples:

  • The Reputation Stadium Tour itself. As with any tour, experiencing the album live is so different from just listening to it alone through your headphones or speakers.
  • Multimedia, behind-the-scenes content around the album or tour, such as the Taylor Swift reputation Stadium Tour documentary on Netflix.
  • Swift’s gamified social-media app The Swift Life (although it lasted only a bit over a year — more on that below).

Revisiting our revelatory argument from earlier — namely, that media is its own aftermarket—a social network built by and for fans is a prime example of such an aftermarket. Many other examples of this abound across other areas of entertainment.

For instance, veteran Eugene Wei once called the Star Wars Franchise its own social network. “[For] all the people who watch Star Wars and are fans of Star Wars, one of the reasons we watch is that we can talk about it with other people,” Wei said in an interview on the Recode Media podcast. “It’s a shared narrative for us … It’s cultural capital for conversation and for binding us together.” Moreover, because of network effects, “every additional person adds more value to that [network]. So every additional person in the world that watches Star Wars makes Star Wars more valuable to me, because that’s one more person that we can, you know, make a joke about Yoda or something.”

Maintaining this kind of expanded potential ecosystem around your work is difficult, even for the world’s biggest celebrities. Swift announced in January 2019 that she would be shutting down The Swift Life “as the Reputation era comes to an end,” amidst a slew of other celebrity-app deaths.

But in spite of this difficulty, it might be more and more of an imperative for the majority of the music market. While the global recorded-music business has been in a state of growth for the past five years, streaming still counts for a minority of revenue for most artists. Touring, brand partnerships and endorsements, public speaking appearances and other income sources end up being much higher-margin, and pay for the losses one might expect from a new album.

This is especially the case in music markets that have both relatively less mature streaming economies and much higher rates of piracy (e.g. China, India, much of the Middle East and Africa). In this environment, independent and emerging artists don’t have a choice but to look beyond their paltry recorded-music revenue and embrace the aforementioned alternative income streams. That sounds much more like a celebrity-driven culture that competes for audiences and fame in general, rather than for specific industries.

Hence the majority of artists end up in a warped situation where the potential product becomes a primary revenue stream; the generic product, an ancillary one. One question that’s open for debate is whether this means that the generic and potential products should be switched—i.e. whether the song should be treated as merely secondary to the artist, with the latter’s brand being the generic product that consumers are really paying for.

Snapshot from The Weeknd’s pop-up merch store in Miami Beach (2016).

Generic: The generic product is just the T-shirt.

Expected: The minimum set of features required to activate purchasing interest in the T-shirt may simply be the consistency of the shirt’s visual aesthetic with that of the artist’s single/album cover art, live show, social media presence and/or overall fashion sense.

Augmented: The most powerful tool for maximizing the chance that a fan will buy any piece of artist-branded merch is its presentation, both on- and offline.

Every major label has its own internal merchandising and e-commerce divisions — Universal Music’s Bravado and Fame House, Sony Music’s The Thread Shop and Warner Music’s EMP Merchandising and dedicated Artist Services division — that can help set up visually striking online merch stores, as well as organize custom brick-and-mortar pop-up experiences (as pictured above, for example). With pop-up shops in particular, the FOMO and social exclusivity engineered simply by having a temporary storefront, and/or limited runs, is certainly an augmentation of the generic product as well.

Then, of course, there’s merch bundling.

Potential: As with most fashion/retail products, the potential product around this T-shirt consists largely on the derivative self-expression that the merch enables for fans and customers, as well as the long-term community engagement that occurs post-purchase. Some examples:

  • User-generated derivatives, on sites like Etsy and RedBubble (this inevitably gets into shady legal territory, as I’ll discuss further below).
  • Further community engagement via social media, email addresses and/or whatever other information can be collected in the purchasing process. For instance, The Weeknd’s merch line has its own Twitter account that doesn’t post often, but gets a high level of engagement when it does. Instagram’s increasing investment in native e-commerce features will hopefully extend that kind of long-term, visual-driven fan following to other artists’ brands and merch lines on the social platform.
  • The social clout that comes with showing off one’s exclusive merch purchase online, and/or with the ability to connect on the street with strangers who are wearing merch from the same artist.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to doing music merch well, because the vertical becomes most powerful when all levels of the Whole Product model align with the artist’s own message, branding and/or creative vision.

Perhaps the best example of this today is Rihanna’s sprawling retail empire — from partnerships with the likes of Puma, to fully-owned brands such as Fenty Beauty, Savage X Fenty and the luxury house FENTY. Even with her more luxurious lines, Rihanna instills all of her fashion ventures with a sense of accessibility, taking into account more body types, skin tones and genders than many of her competitors (as was evident at the flashy Savage X Fenty Show at Barclays Center, during the latest New York Fashion Week). Such a positioning helps Rihanna stand out in a landscape where, otherwise, “every artist wants a deal with Gucci.”

Importantly, the augmented and potential products of exclusivity and social clout don’t necessarily have to be limited to artists with millions of followers. As influencer marketing travels further and further down the long tail to the scale of micro- and even nano-influencers, so is the “celebrity” merch economy.

New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica recently covered the emerging phenomenon of “micro-merch,” which he described as “the modern-day equivalent of the private-press LP or the small-batch zine … In an era when personal branding is presumed, no following is too small to monetize.” In fact, in this landscape, some kind of perceived social clout is no longer a potential product, but rather an expected one — a minimum requirement for making a purchase happen.

Another important point: financially speaking, most of the “aftermarket” for merch lies in the secondary market — of flipping limited-edition merch items for a profit, often with a 10x markup or higher. As one of the first three fans in line for Kanye West’s pop-up shop in NYC declared to Vogue: “I’m here to make money.”

Understandably, artists and music companies who care about controlling their brand are constantly chasing after secondary and user-generated markets for merch, issuing takedown requests from sites like Etsy and RedBubble on a daily basis. But while secondary merch sales may not benefit the artist financially in a direct way, it certainly elevates the long-term value of that artist’s brand. The question here is how comfortable artists and their teams will be with that kind of aftermarket potentially ballooning to a size beyond their control.


So what?

Critics might think that the “Whole Product” model defeats one of the fundamental purposes of the music business: to monetize, and preserve the value of, recorded music as a standalone entity. Constantly looking beyond music for added value and revenue, critics might say, only drives down the value of recorded music further than it’s already dropped — making the quip “music sells everything but music” even more of a reality.

But as I’ve written previously, financially serious musicians—whether looking to break into the mainstream, or simply to maintain a sustainable independent career—are in the service business even more than they are in the self-expression business. I fleshed out this argument in a recent issue of my newsletter:

As long as music can be materialized as an item or activity whose purchase generates revenue for somebody, music is a product. People who buy or engage with a musical product are referred to by the industry as “fans,” so “fan” is just another word for “customer.” Customers buy the products that best satisfy their own needs and desires. So, like in any other industry, the best music products most effectively address customers’ needs and satisfy clearly-defined gaps in the market that other products haven’t filled.

In addition, music consumers aren’t “just” music consumers; they’re also human beings with myriad interests and passions that they pursue every single day, and over whom the mainstream products with the most concrete added, service-oriented value will win.

So in short: if you’re an artist or are working with one, and want to go mainstream, start thinking about the diversified service and aftermarket that you and your fans can build around your music and brand.

If this sounds undesirable or just plain annoying, that’s also totally OK. In fact, one important purpose of the Whole Product model is to provide a helpful gauge for measuring whether you’re truly ready to transition towards the more mainstream, late-adopter market, or if you need to take some more time to plan your long-term roadmap and added value beyond just your core product. Don’t engage the mainstream market before you’re really ready for them — or before they’re ready for you.


To read more of my thoughts on music, creativity, technology and business, you can follow me on Twitter, browse a select portfolio on my website and/or sign up for my biweekly newsletter, Water & Music.

Cherie Hu

Written by

Cherie Hu

I run Water & Music, an independent media ecosystem (newsletter + podcast) unpacking big ideas in music and tech. bit.ly/waterandmusic

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