Compete Like Artists, Not Like Businesses

These guys. How I love them.

One of my favorite stories about the Beatles is about how John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It was right before the band recorded the monument to the mundane and sublime that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Having established themselves as the world’s greatest pop song writing duo, Lennon and McCartney kept pushing each other to go further. Paul delivered “Penny Lane,” which vividly imagines a neighborhood from his childhood, teeming with absurd characters and inside jokes. The song is both epic and buoyant, grand in scope and quotidian in detail, a  masterpiece. John must have felt both impressed and challenged, as he turned around and delivered “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a song equally rooted in the past, but committed to the interior landscapes of childhood, shot through with quantum states of self-doubt and moments of salubrious transcendence. The music itself is the result of much studio wizardry, including backwards tracks and the distinctive sounds of a new instrument called the Mellotron, whose cooing, tape-loop notes open the track.

In a Beatles biography I read a long time ago and whose title escapes me (sorry), it was observed that Lennon and McCartney competed with each other like someone climbing the rungs of a ladder. First one would advance, then the other. They spent their career being inspired by each other and then besting each other. This, to me, seems like a good metaphor for what’s happening in Seattle’s virtual and augmented reality industry.

The most competitive place I’ve ever worked, by far, was Amazon. I attended many a meeting in windowless conference rooms where we pored over spreadsheets and bar graphs illustrating market penetration. I remember looking at a graph that broke down how much of the domestic DVD market belonged to Best Buy, Walmart, and Circuit City. Or how much of the book market belonged to Barnes and Noble and Borders. And I remember the take-no-prisoners, burn-the-village-to-the-ground rhetoric that tended to accompany the presentation of such metrics.

Sometimes I wonder if capitalism functions the way it does because most of the people in charge are white men raised on team sports and fraternities. I was raised on neither, choosing a life of art and expression. While many of my peers spent high school playing sports, I was practicing with my band and figuring out how to get booked at parties and the rare club. There was definitely a competitive aspect to playing in a band, with all sorts of shade thrown at bands whose popularity surpassed ours. But in general, I was inspired by local bands that kicked ass. Tacoma’s Seaweed once made the trip to Skagit Valley to play a show at the Hillcrest Park Lodge and blew my mind. More experienced and artistically sophisticated bands like Nation of Ulysses and Scream, both from Washington, D.C.,  played shows in the valley and exposed my friends and me to what was possible. When we saw someone rock harder than us, we returned to our practice space and re-committed ourselves to playing faster, tighter, and with more artistic daring.

One of the themes of this year in VR has been how the big players are making their moves. Facebook, having gobbled up Oculus for a billion bucks, spent 2016 solidifying its reputation for maintaining a walled-garden approach to development, advocating for exclusive content deals, rolling out its social platform in splashy dev conference presentations, and pouring vast quantities of money into making sure it was prepared to squash HTC, Samsung, and Google in the market-share spreadsheets and bar graphs that are pored over in the company’s perk-filled offices.

One imagines the “Crimson Permanent Assurance” bit that opens Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, in which executives in a modern office tower are attacked by a building that sidles up to their own like a pirate ship.

I had forgotten how funny that skit was.

My point being, that the world is full of people who perceive the economy this way. As a relentless scramble for market dominance and endless conflict.

But here’s the rub. When an industry is in its early stages, individual competitors will actually work against their own self interest if they take no prisoners and crush all the competition. When you’re growing a whole new sector of the economy, it’s more important to grow a customer base as a whole than to carve whatever base there is into portions. One of the reasons Amazon has succeeded beyond even Jeff Bezos’s wildest dreams is that it managed to operate in a way that encouraged the growth of e-commerce as a whole, while simultaneously dominating various individual markets like books, electronics, and DVDs. When I worked there in the late nineties, the company launched its third-party seller platform, creating the opportunity for many, many people to make money selling things on the site. In other words, they tended to the ecosystem of customers who were buying things online in increasing numbers, while running traditional retailers out of business.

The overarching theme of this blog is Seattle’s virtual and augmented reality creative economy. I spent a good part of this year reading the faces of Seattle’s VR pioneers as they expressed both optimism and doubt, exhilaration and panic. We all know this is going to be huge, we can feel it in our bones. If the various startups and individuals that comprise this community are in competition with each other, it is in the spirit of a bunch of bands that share the same handful of venues and record labels, not corporations ramming their office towers into each other. We understand that no single company or idea will succeed unless success is broadly distributed. And so we’re all looking to each other for inspiration, and for the motivation to bring new masterpieces to fruition.