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What CD Sales Teach Us About the Future of Work

In which I drop a panoply of music references and liken the idea of returning to an office to a nearly obsolete product.
Dec | 13 | 2021

Dec | 13 | 2021
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Those of us of a certain age remember the compact disc. At the turn of the century, consumers bought about a billion of them per year. Even if you only liked a single song, you grudgingly paid $16.99 for one simple reason: there really wasn’t another choice.

Of course, we know what happened to the CD: Thanks to Napster, the iPod, iTunes, and early streaming services such as Grooveshark and Rhapsody, rare is the individual today who will plunk down any amount of money for a physical album.1 Today, CD sales have dropped 97 percent from their halcyon days:

(If you think that DVD sales have followed an eerily similar trajectory, trust your judgment.)

If you can tolerate ads, then music today is basically free—and it has been that way for a while. (For an excellent history of how this happened, see How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Richard Witt.)

Musicians aren’t happy with the current state of affairs—and they shouldn’t be. The status quo benefits consumers at their expense. Still, a few in the know saw this coming a mile away. Exhibit A: David Bowie famously predicted as much back in 1997 and issued bonds against future song royalties. Also, it’s essential to include Radiohead and Marillion in the pantheon of music pioneers.

At a high level, these folks and bands saw that low-cost or free music was entering what Steven Johnson calls the adjacent possible in his superb book Where Good Ideas Come From. Fast forward nearly a quarter-century. Yeah, vinyl is making a comeback, but when was the last time that you bought a CD? Streaming is a far more convenient, user-friendly, and affordable—if unfair—method of listening to tunes and exploring new genres and artists.

A Strong Parallel

The history of the CD is particularly instructive when thinking about the future of work.

The history of the CD is particularly instructive when thinking about the future of work. In both cases, entrenched interests want to preserve an increasingly untenable status quo. These days, it’s not hard to find old-school leaders who think that remote employees are stealing from the company. As a lot, these folks are hoping that employees will soon forget the qualitative life improvements that the pandemic has afforded them.

Good luck with that.

We’re no longer willing to buy A Night at the Opera because we like “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

By the same token, we don’t want to commute 35 minutes each way to the office, especially if it’s only or primarily so our bosses can watch us work. (Thanks boss, but you can keep your free lunch.) Put differently, now that hybrid and remote work are legitimate options buttressed by powerful tools, we are loath to forgo what is clearly the better option:

Say that you changed the axes in the chart above. Replace “time spent working remotely” with “time since the launch of viable streaming services.” Do the same with the other axis, swapping out “willingness of employees to return to pre-COVID work-life” for “willingness to buy a CD.” The trend would be identical.

Simon Says: Learn from Bowie.

Try to cling to the past if you like. Odds are, though, your team, group, department, and/or company will struggle if it insists upon returning to pre-Covid life. Rather than trying to stem the tide, get on board. Find creative ways to engage your workforce and minimize employee burnout.

I’m betting that we’ll look back at Automattic, Gitlab, and Basecamp as the work-life trailblazers à la Bowie, Marillion, and Radiohead.

Footnotes

  1. I used to show my students a picture of a Discman. Only a handful could name it.

 

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