We know that corporations can be evil. Witness the recent West Virginia chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.
But can corporations be brave?
Most of us work for one. Should we just be haters? Or can we celebrate when someone (a corporation-person, as defined by the First Amendment) steps up and does something original, compelling, and that goes against their short-term interests?
Being “good” is a state of existence. Bravery is a single act. Even bad people (in the DNA sense) can be brave sometimes.
Malden Mills, inventor of synthetic fleece, is the poster child for “good” companies. When their textile factory burned down in 1995 the CEO, Aaron Feuerstein, kept paying employee salaries, receiving wide recognition for doing the right thing. 3,000 employees received salaries and benefits for 6 months while the company rebuilt.
But Malden Mills went bankrupt in 2001 and again in 2007 and was finally sold off. At the time of the sale the 3,000 employee workforce had shrunk to 835. The company’s underfunded pension was abandoned due to sale of corporate assets.
Being “good,” then, requires a long window of evaluation. But bravery happens in an instant. Malden, and Aaron Feuerstein, were brave in 1995. The end-game for Malden Mills doesn’t make the company’s stand-up actions in 1995 any less brave.
I’ve been struck by Independence Blue Cross’ “Live Fearless” campaign. A health insurance company encouraging us to go faster, to skateboard, to rock climb? It’s
So what – it’s cool, and the message is a hugely positive one that hits on many levels. Independence Blue Cross has rejiggered their public image, and it must have taken an act of bravery.brilliant: if you have good health insurance you’ll feel confident being active and trying new things. And, from an actuarial perspective, obesity and poor diet probably costs health insurers more than broken collar bones and the rare fatality from active sports. But can you imagine the resistance from lawyers and the less imaginative in Blue Cross’ corporate office? “You’re telling people to be reckless and implying we’ll cover anything bad that happens,” the ankle-biters will have said.
Similarly the move by Pearson, the huge education publishing company, to get paid on educational outcomes, not just delivering textbook content to students’ bookshelves. It’s a huge bet, like IBM moving from hardware to services in the 90s (and equally as necessary). Michael Feldstein covers the story brilliantly in a recent post to e-Literate. The shift is deep: from seeing faculty and teachers as the customer to viewing students and institutions as the customer – a remarkable shift in focus for any company.
These are inspirational stories. But Spotify eclipses both.
For me, the 1998 CD Yield is Pearl Jam’s “latest” album. I work with millennials who think of Pearl Jam like I thought of The Supremes in the 90s – a great act from a previous era. Yield is one of the last CD’s I ever bought; for 16 years the music industry hasn’t enjoyed a penny from me.
I have a huge stack of CDs that I ripped long ago. I’ll admit to a bit of Napster around 2000, maybe some BitTorrent experiments five years ago when I was teaching a lot of Spinning™ classes and ‘needed’ new music. But basically I didn’t listen to much music beyond what I already owned.
Now I’m spending $120 a year on Spotify. $120 more than the music industry would have ever seen from me. In perpetuity, it would seem. And the experience is astounding: all the music I could want, available offline on my phone, and commercial-free.
It is obvious and completely mind-blowing all at the same time. I’m plugged into pop music, like Pompeii by Bastille, which is building my relationship with my daughters. I’ve found new music I’d never hear on the radio, like Darrell Scott’s You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive. My life would be diminished without that song, and the torrent that came with it (Helen of Troy Pennsylvania etc). Over Christmas I read Appointment in Samarra and made a Julian English playlist with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. I followed someone’s playlist of Steve Jobs’ favorite music (Dylan, Stones, Yo-Yo Ma). I saw Amos Lee play live over the holidays and now have a giant playlist of his music.
What series of battles, innovations, and bravery led to this moment? Or rather, how many years of cowardice before someone, somehow, wore down the music publishers? That Spotify’s founder was one of the largest BitTorrent host programmers (essentially powering music piracy) is ironic and perhaps unfair. But life is, obviously, dynamic and by definition unfair. The brave fight for fairness.
And more bravery is required. While Spotify might have things figured out for the consumer and publishers, artists are often screwed. Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke took all of his solo music off Spotify and tweeted, “Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will no get paid.” David Byrne, of the Talking Heads, hates Spotify too. Artists will just need to figure out how to leverage Spotify or to get better deals from publishers.
Bottom line for the artists I follow: if Spotify lets me know that Darrell Scott is coming within 50 miles of Philly I know I’ll be reaching into my rarely-opened wallet to buy tickets.