By Dan Vedda

I’ve been thinking about Disney a lot lately. Not the company but, rather, Walt himself. It’s easy to quibble about the current state and offerings of the entertainment behemoth, but the House That Walt Built sprang from the genius of a man who was in tune with his times, was always looking forward and never lost touch with the past. It’s a pretty impressive juggling act, and Walt Disney is one of the few to pull it off consistently in the entertainment industry.
What I’ve always admired about Walt Disney, though, was his absolute focus on the experience of his audience. His vision was always harnessed to the goal of making the connection more thorough, enjoyable and authentic. Stories abound of his attention to detail: walking Disneyland daily and instituting large and small changes, including color adjustments to buildings and signage lettering; cutting a great comedy sequence from “Snow White” because it “didn’t move the story forward”; bailing on a business lunch to take a youngster through the “Mary Poppins” sets and ask his opinion of the magic he was creating. Walt didn’t insist on his ideas alone, though he had plenty of them. His corps of immensely talented Imagineers ran with the ball and put their own stamp on the tasks they were given. However, he did insist that the ideas that were used conform to his ever-refining vision of the best possible audience experience. Everything I’ve ever learned about Disney suggests that he felt that Job One was to create the most enthralling, entertaining product possible—from media to parks to merchandise—and, if it was done well enough, people would come, buy and enjoy.

Walt never pandered to his audience; he simply knew them better than most purveyors do, and constantly strove to increase his understanding of them. As a futurist, he understood the excitement of new horizons. His nostalgic side played to the heart. As an observer of American life, he also knew every trend that passed through our collective consciousness. Walt Disney was the ultimate auteur, the curator of our mid-20th century zeitgeist. I grew up during Walt’s last decade at the helm, and a big part of my viewpoint today shows the Disney touch.

Why do I bring him up here—and now? Because I think it’s time for us to apply Walt’s singular focus to the way that we present the music-making experience.
We’ve spent the last two or three decades focused on technology applied to products and distribution at both the retail and the manufacturing level. From synthesizers to digital recording, from chain stores to Web stores, tech has driven the effort. But that technology was (for the most part) inbred:  made by musicians for existing musicians to use, or used by businesses to increase the profit and efficiency of their business.

Too often, the focus has been on moving product rather than on making music. Many have lamented that we do so little to keep people playing once they start.  Walt Disney’s approach, to me, is a template for reversing this.

What would walt do?

What would walt do?

I think the best example of enhanced attention to the user experience right now comes from the publishing portion of our industry. There, you find great products truly focused on the user experience, applying the Disney-esque standards of a more thorough, enjoyable and authentic connection. Here, too, publishers have to be respectful of the past, look toward the future and continually tap into mainstream culture. I think all our manufacturers are at least attempting the task…with mixed results.

The hardest part for our industry
will be unhooking from our
preconceptions and prejudices.
Disney did that

But, at the retail level, the magic isn’t happening except in isolated cases. The face-to-face experience is lacking, in part because so many stores are set up for musicians, not for the general public. Disneyland is not Legoland, aimed at the fanboy end user. Walt designed for the world. And the world “got it.”

I’m asking myself every day: How can I make my customer’s experience more thorough, enjoyable and authentic? It’s not just about bigger piles of merchandise, comfy chairs or hipster cred. Those are just ingredients in the recipe, and even the worst cooks know that there’s a specific balance and process, even when they don’t have the skills to produce the desired result. What is gearlust for one person is sensory overload for another. Figuring out the right balance point will be the key.

I think we have to revamp our stores the way Walt developed Disneyland. We constantly need to walk around our stores with an eye focused on the guest experience. We need to tweak things regularly, and be ready to re-tweak or revert depending upon the results. Like Disney, we need to apply those principles not just to merchandising but also to every aspect of our business, including our Web sites and outreach. Just as important, we need to train or recruit our own “Imagineers” to bring their ideas on board, as long as they hew to the goal of an enhanced consumer experience.

But the hardest part for our industry will be unhooking from our preconceptions and prejudices. Disney did that continually. He was ridiculed for producing a full-length animated movie (“Snow White”) and presenting classical music to the masses (“Fantasia”). He put a theme park in an orange grove in sleepy Anaheim CA. He experimented with robotics, started marketing directly to kids as early as the 1930s and generally ignored “popular wisdom” in his quest for the best possible product.

Can we unhook—and here I don’t mean abandon but, rather, expand beyond the traditional boundaries—from our sacred cows of rock ‘n’ roll and school music? We all know that our old-school models are, if not outmoded, at least constricting, and I see us trying to hold onto the existing formats, giving them a metaphorical coat of paint, rather than truly re-inventing them. In the 1920s as talking pictures came in, we had to “invent” school music programs. Look at the disruptive technologies today. We need to be as inventive as Disney was to move forward. So, now, my mantra is, “What Would Walt Do?”

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