Do You Want to Do What You Did Before … or Do You Want to Do Something Interesting?

Recently I produced a CD. It was independently recorded and distributed–and it was available for free on every peer-to-peer service on the planet weeks before it was officially released, so it was only a modest commercial success.

Don’t feel bad. It was entirely expected. Even if there was such a thing as a record industry anymore, no one would expect a double-disc tribute to a 27-year-old album by The Clash to keep Avril or Pink from the top of the charts. But there’s one reaction the record has received that has helped me understand something about the broader media business: the danger of looking backward.

Back when I started the project in 2003, I was delusional enough to think I could get someone else to fund it. I spoke to executives at large multinational record companies and small independent companies, and they all told me, with varying degrees of politeness, to get lost. A few told me it was a crazy idea, a few more told me it was a bad idea and some told me, with that level of snideness only record-company executives can manage, that I’d never finish the project.

But when the record came out, I heard from several record-company executives. Some of them just wanted free copies, some wanted to offer me mild kudos and almost all of them–including one who had rejected the record back in 2003 but forgotten–asked me some version of “Why didn’t you come to us so we could have put this out?”

Aside from reminding me that some people in the record industry view memory loss as a core competency, this reversal in my fortune now that I could no longer do anything about it gave me a clue to where the media industry is right now. Around the same time the record came out, the founder of a dot-com magazine that crashed and burned reminisced with me about an email newsletter I started while the ashes of that magazine were still warm. The newsletter failed, too, in large part because in 2002 online advertising had fallen off a cliff and hit the bottom of the canyon a la Wile E. Coyote. “If you started that now,” he said, “It would be a big success.”

Perhaps. But I don’t have to start it now. The media and technology businesses are now different than they were in 2002 and 2003. When I started the online newsletter in 2002, no one else was dumb enough to try that. Now it seems as if everyone has at least a semipro blog. When I started soliciting performers for the record in 2003, no one else was stupid enough to try and assemble 36 performers to redo–for free!–a long-forgotten record. Now tribute albums are all the rage. Is it just that I have uncannily bad commercial timing?

It is true that I would have an easier time funding something now than four to five years ago. Everyone else is. Indeed, as uncov and others report so gleefully, moronic ideas are getting funded again, while five years ago even a recipe for eternal life might have had trouble scoring a meeting on Sand Hill Road.

But the response I received should make entrepreneurs–and the people who fund them–wary. In both the case of the record and the email newsletter, I was told by experts that something I did at a different time would be successful now. Wrong! If I merely updated or replicated an old idea, it would still be an old idea. But today’s business environment is all about innovation. At its best, it’s about the next thing, not a redo of the last thing. The start-ups most likely to fail are the retreads, the wannabes, the copycats, the ones that mistake features for full-fledged services.

Look at the record industry if you want to see what happens to an industry that reflexively looks backward for ideas. Know your history but don’t be limited by it. At their best, media and technology are about the new. If you had an old idea that people like, say thank you. But, if you want success, keep that old idea where it is and come up with something fresh.