Forty years ago today Steve Jobs unveiled the very first Mackintosh computer, he took to the stage carrying a beige box, stuck a floppy disk into it and as the theme from Chariots of Fire played the word ‘Mackintosh’ appeared on the computer’s screen. It was the most inspirational product launch the world had ever seen and it took 9 years before the product started selling in any volume.
The computer for the rest of us changed the world, surviving the commercial wasteland of the mid eighties and nineties because, as Jobs rightly claimed, the product was “insanely great”.
The key to Apple’s success in the early days was that its products were developed ahead of, or in spite of customer need.
It is perhaps on a related theme that the greatest record producer of all time, Rick Rubin, said recently that “the audience comes last, in service to the audience”. He went on, “if we want to make the best thing we can, we can’t care about the audience”.
The plural ‘we’ references artists but could also be shorthand for producers of digital and physical objects. The only thing that matters to Mr Rubin is the creative act, which he sees as a way of being.
Media propositions have traditionally been based on what research twonks think the audience say they want – but as Mr Rubin nails in an interview for his 2023 book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being,
“If you go to the movies, so many big movies (are) just not good, it’s because they’re not being made by a person who cares about it, they’re being made by people who are trying to make something that they think someone else is gonna like… that’s not art, that’s commerce.”
So what does art have to do with adjacent sports media streaming, TikTok content insights, the curation and tailoring of content suited to individuals; all the stuff in fact that is Mediacells’ meat and drink?
For example, if you want to compete at the top tier of professional sport, you practise a lot, it starts in your backyard when you are about five and continues until you hang up your boots, spurs, pucks, whatever.
Without putting in The Work you are never going to compete at the highest, rarefied level.
Controversial BBC sports pundit and emerging media mogul, Gary Lineker, recounts when he was playing alongside Diego Maradona in the World XI team at Wembley stadium against a combined England Football League XI, in celebration of the 1987 centenary of the Football League. This was just one year after Maradona’s Hand of God incident.
“(On the way out from the tunnel at Wembley) He (Maradona) juggled the ball all the way out to the centre circle, then he got to the centre circle, still juggling it, and then he went Bang! He whacked it as high as he possibly could (in the air) and he waited. Then it came down and he went Bang! and he did it again and he did it thirteen times and the most he ever did was walk three paces to it (the descending ball) … I’ve never seen anyone have such a beautiful affection for a football.”
Diego Maradona wasn’t thinking of the fans, his team mates or even his rivals; he was doing what he couldn’t not do, be his best possible self in the game.
In the music arena, English rock band New Order’s Substance album is commonly perceived to be a step change in the way Singles compilations were curated.
Peter Hook, the band’s erstwhile bass player, was asked why the album was so groundbreakingly successful and what creative process led to its production,
“The interesting thing about Substance is that our singles weren’t on LPs (long players). Up to this point in our career these songs had only been released as singles. It was Tony Wilson, head of Factory Records, who told us to do it. He’d just bought a new car; he’d just bought a new Jaguar. It was the first production of a car that had a CD player in it. He decided that he wanted all of New Order’s singles on a CD so he could play it in his car. It went on to be our best-selling album.”
The audience came last because of a much more pressing need; the record company owner’s desire to listen to his favourite band’s tunes, optimally, in his car – the album went on to sell two million in the first year on double vinyl in America alone and got up to the 12 million mark around the world.
More contemporaneously and still with the music industry – relative soul newcomers Sault do things differently in a world of algorithmic Spotified pop muzak – though no less data-driven.
The innovative and enigmatic British R+B group have released 11 albums in four years, five of which arrived as a single data drop at the record company’s HQ with a ‘you deal with the marketing’ message from the band.
Sault waited four years to perform publicly at London cultural centre The Drumshed in mid December 2023.
The show attracted the attention and participation of more established artists like Little Simz and Michael Kiwanuka – all because the band put the work in and let the product speak for itself.
The £100 ticket cost for the show caused music twitter to meltdown and the Drumshed event sold out within three hours.
Closer to the Mediacells heartland, the Netflix original Sunderland ‘Til I Die (2018), was a gutteral love chant to the long-suffering fans of a shipbuilding club on its knees, fans who believe things can only get better because they couldn’t get any worse.
The series was produced by Fulwell 73 Productions , a company owned by Sunderland fans, named after a stand at Roker Park, the club’s former ground.
The owners of the company were invited to film a documentary to stir infotainment interest to generate interest among prospective buyers.
The production team demanded and were given astonishing behind-the-scenes access, including the moment the audience is allowed to eavesdrop on a meeting between the management and their player recruitment team, where it becomes clear that not only is the shipbuilding club rudderless, it is Titanic in its failures.
Over the course of the series Sunderland lose 23 games, an owner, 2 coaches, several players and their place in the Championship.
If the founders had gone to Netflix with this pitch, the pioneering docuseries would never have been made.
But because it was made by people who literally love the club it was an instant success, attracting millions of streaming viewers and paving the way for Take Us Home: Leeds United (2020), Welcome to Wrexham (2022), Matildas (2023), Beckham (2023) and about 16 more.
In an increasingly AI-populated media environment, where content is instantly generated – journalists, editors, producers and creators are having their dinner eaten, byte by technological byte – there has never been a better time for the creative and commercial media communities to put the audience last, take care and pride in what they do and be more Art.
It’s what the machines can’t quite fathom how to do, yet.
The last word goes to Steve Jobs, after his prodigal return to Apple and the launch of the Think Differently campaign, which immediately converted to product sales,
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”