Platform Jumping

I give change to pretty much everyone that asks for it on the street. This includes street performers.

It’s a habit I’ve developed since briefly working for Homeless Nation, an organization that has gotten a lot of accolades over the years for its work in Canadian cities on behalf of their homeless population.

Today though, I want to talk about one particular incident– at Plaza l’Enfant Station in 2007, one cold January morning in Washington, a young violinist is playing. He’s wearing a Nationals baseball cap. In one hour, 1,097 people pass him by. He makes $32.

What makes this one different?

“No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin valued at $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theatre in Boston where the price of seats averaged $100.”

Marko sent me the video today. Watch it.

Context Is King

You’ve heard this before, it isn’t news. People rehash “Content is King” into all sorts of phrases to prove whatever point they please, again and again (it’s the mashing-up of culture). But I’d like to take this one a bit further.

The content you’re producing is the same whether it’s on a blog, in a book, on a stage, or being broadcast from space. There are millions of brilliant ideas being uttered right now in the privacy of people’s homes that won’t be written down, and won’t ever be heard again.

You may not think this, but you are in media. Whether you have a blog, use Twitter, or even have a Facebook account, you are part of a media revolution. And as a media personality, your reach depends on one thing only: Sneaking your way onto the largest, most prestigious platform you can find.

If we had written Trust Agents entirely on the web (in the way of the Cluetrain Manifesto, say), would it have reached as many people? Sure, it may even have reached more. But as a book it reaches a different audience and, more importantly, it stands on a different stage.

Either way, the content is exactly the same.

I just finished reading Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety. It was a great read, but was it made greater by the fact that I first heard of its premise on the TED website? Unquestionably.

Would it have had the same impact if it were a blog? What about if he were heard yelling in the street? Think about it.

Last story. I was at the Contemporary Museum yesterday and saw the Francine Savard exhibit. Some (ok, many) people might dismiss her work as ridiculous and useless– after all, in one series, she literally “paints” the visualization of a hard drive being defragmented. In blue.

But it’s in a huge metropolitan city’s museum.

I’m not here trying to discuss the value of her work– only that all of these are credentials. Because we consider people in power to be largely like us, we assume there must be some value in the decisions they’ve made– whether that’s putting someone’s paintings in a gallery, their words in a book, or giving them time on a stage.

In every case, context imprints either a high or low status on each project.

Your work may be good or bad– that’s your business, not mine. But if you value it, you’re going to have to borrow the status of someone else– get their testimonials, borrow their platform, whatever it takes, until you develop your own. Otherwise you’re just another person with another blog, or trying to make a buck on the street.

Doesn’t matter how good you are. Obviously.





9 responses to “Platform Jumping”

  1. Charlie Quirk Avatar

    Julien, that is a crackerjack post.

    I first read about Joshua Bell’s performance in the book Sway by Ori and Rom Brafman. It made me realize how hard true objectivity is to practice. All of us, no matter what our backgrounds are the products of life’s circumstances. In order to be able to cope with the sprawling mass of information out there, we take mental shortcuts to keep ourselves sane. An example of this is sub-conscious racial profiling by people who would otherwise claim to not have a racist bone in their body. In the case of Bell, people have preconceived notions as to how good a street performer can really be, as such Bell received only passing interest despite being world-class.

    The way you have framed it as borrowing credibility from anothers’ platform is spot on. It’s become a cliche, but the only thing scarce on the web is attention. Therefore, in order to capture others attention, one must make it easy for their readers to make the necessary shortcuts (recommendations, testimonials) in proving that their content is of real use. Expecting others to do so on their own is too much to ask when there are a million and one other blogs to read.

    Keep up the great work – I’m 50 pages into Trust Agents – it’s a gem!


  2. Jon Avatar

    Thanks for the words. I found this page from a Google Alert on Street Performing. I’m so happy. Great story, thanks for the information.

  3. tonybordonaro Avatar

    I so agree …I was in a band for many years and we had modest success…a Capitol record contract and some good gigs …and that got us far for many years …the fact that they said we were good enough to sign …it gave us the right to charge more and people happily did…I know there are many great talents out there today that get overlooked just because they dont have the platform that tells the rest of us “give them a listen”…. thanks for your story …great

  4. Debra Feldman, JobWhiz Executive Talent Agent Avatar

    At about 7PM eastern tonight Oct 17th CNN live was interviewing at BlogWorld09. Someone commented that the schism between traditional and new media is starting to blur. CNN’s reporter said, “It’s all media” and it doesn’t matter anymore which type of media. Is the medium still the message? Would love to know what others think about this.

  5. steve cunningham Avatar

    Julien – what a great post. Context is HUGE. Example – I’ve been listening to you, Mitch, Chris, Chris, Hugh and CC on Media Hacks for a while now. I love the content, and it’s obvious that you guys know your “stuff”. And yesterday I saw Mitch share the stage with Tom Peters and Marcus Buckingham in front of 2,000 people. Big leap. Ditto for you and Chris’ book getting on the NY Times list. Big leap.

    We have, and always will, rely on other people’s judgments to validate our own. That’s why I don’t think these stories, especially the one about Joshua Bell, should be surprising. I love classical music, and I would have walked right by him too.

  6. Ryan McCormack Avatar

    Razor-sharp insights and a perfect analogy. I had not heard of the Joshua Bell “experiment” in DC, but now that I have, I’ll never forget it.

    Reading your post makes me think of the endless stream of “magic formulas” to get Twitter followers (supposedly to increase one’s influence). Without exception, every one of these simplistic formulas or top 10 lists fails to mention context, even if they do have some useful ideas.

    Even if you have the most insightful, funny, life-altering tweets that follow every “rule,” it probably won’t matter unless your messages are delivered in a meaningful context. This may mean having a nucleus of influential followers, or it may mean using keywords or hashtags intelligently to get your ideas seen. Until you have the right context, though, no one is seeing that great content, and you might as well be playing your violin in the subway station.

    Thanks for starting my Sunday right and providing some tasty food for thought.

  7. Greg Satell Avatar


    It’s a very good point, but raises another question. Why do Digital Media People fail to grasp that context is important for advertising too?

    Instead of whining about low ad rates I wish more people in the Digital sphere thought about why marketers are willing to pay more for an association with branded content, even for the same audience.

    There is a reason that you are more likely to see drug dealers at a rock concert than at a university library.

    – Greg

  8. Lance Ness Avatar

    Context is everything. It is disappointing when people value crap because of the name attached to it and dismiss good or interesting for the same reason. But it happens.

    Not to discredit the point, but there is another dynamic going on with the violinist. What percent of the people walking past would have paid $100 to see him play on stage? It is likely that very few of the people passing by had the experience to judge what they were listening to nor would they have paid money for it had they been told who he was. There is also the issue of attentiveness, but that can wait.

    Having one billion friends on Facebook may make you feel popular, but if it doesn’t help accomplish an objective, it has no practical value. When it comes to credibility, the quality of the audience usually trumps the size of the stage.

    Thanks for letting me borrow on your credibility.


  9. Matt Sawh Avatar
    Matt Sawh

    You’re wrong when you say context imprints either a high or low status on each project. The most successful projects combine elements of both. I’m doubtful culture is so easily separated nowadays. And that’s a good thing!

    FWIW, one mag offers highbrow/lowbrow on one axis and despicable/brilliant on the other.

    Take swanky restaurant menus, you’ll see words like: planko, encrusted, jasmine, saffron. They’re priming you to pay top-dollar by convincing that it’s an exotic, unique experience.

    Still, a Zagat rating in a city like Montreal is a distinguishing feature in a v. competitive field.

    If you hear folks like me from the middle-class talk about their dishes at restaurants, often it’s about their taste. The well-off chat about the presentation.

    Yet, the best and most successful chefs have developed concepts which blend the high-brow and middle-brow. Take Chiptole’s focus on sustainable food or Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack in NYC: top quality ingredients + comfort food. BTW, both rank well in Zagat.

    This is oversimplified but, hope you see where I’m going.

    The power of the specialists to build transparent hierarchies for the public is where the opportunity often lies. Just ask Tim and Nina Zagat.

    Would like to see a post on creative destruction and confidence as a follow-up.

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