11 January 02004

Robert Fripp on ethical and creative businesses

In his diary entry for New Year's Eve, Robert Fripp muses on ethical business practice. In this case he goes on to reflect on what he sees as the unethical behaviour of his previous record company (EG).

I'm sure RF has a rationale for not making the full archive of his diaries available (the above link will no doubt rot in a few weeks' time, I'm afraid), for I think that his diary reflections, in April 2002, about the ethics and performance of the company he formed in response to his dispute with EG — Discipline Global Mobile (DGM) — contain many lessons relevant to running an artist-focused business.

Happily I saved that entry; though, respecting RF's copyright, I should not reproduce lengthy portions. So the rest of this posting is based on my reading of the important bits.

DGM was established in 1992, and "made records available that might not otherwise have entered the world." In other words their roster of artists was not taken from the commercial mainstream — although RF's main band, King Crimson, provided a perhaps lopsided balance to less well known acts.

By 2002 RF was saying that DGM "mysteriously became a not-for-profit corporation," and close to what his enigmatic sidekick The Vicar dismissively referred to as a charity. "The distance between those that pay the bills [RF and DGM owners], and those that expect them to be paid [the artists on the label], is considerable." As with the Factory record label, DGM left all copyright ownership with the originating artists. The company thus had very little in the way of collateral assets. Every time there was extra work to be done and bills to be paid, the company had to draw on its own resources: RF and colleagues. And in 2002 they recognised that this couldn't go on indefinitely, leading to an internal crisis of some kind, and DGM re-introduced its mobility and moved on to a slightly different incarnation.

Robert Fripp lists the attributes of an ethical company as:

  • transparency,
  • straightforwardness,
  • accountability,
  • owning up,
  • honesty,
  • fairness,
  • common decency,
  • distributive justice.

Much of his 8 April 2002 entry is an exercise in his particular brand of owning up and transparency. He goes through each of the strands of DGM's business — the "conventional record company" element, the production mastering, King Crimson Fan Club and Collectors' Club, King Crimson quasi-management, web site (including e-commerce), catalogue, and US Office — and provides an assessment of which was a success and which a failure, based on his own balance sheet of pros and cons.

What I find innovative and inspiring is that the kind of entries that appear on Fripp's ledger include a wide range of factors rooted in cultural and community well-being, as well as personal and collective artistic vision. Thus the King Crimson Fan Club is deemed a failure because its success led to DGM becoming itself a de facto KC Fan Club, and consequently interrupted and delayed the rest of the business. The Collectors' Club meanwhile is held up as a "Wonderfully Mixed Blessing," and here I hope I can be indulged in quoting all the factors:

  • "A stunning model of how to provide archive material & snapshots of process to those most interested: success.
  • As a business model, only 3,000 members make this nearly uneconomical: close call.
  • Discovery of rare items, including materials not yet available: success +.
  • As a way of focusing on the past, and holding back the future: close call.
  • As a way of identifying DGM with the KC Fan Club: total success."

Money enters into this accounting only indirectly. DGM was never bankrupt: it was not even, according to RF, in financial trouble. Fripp uses the term "conviction company" to denote enterprises that people work on because they have a conviction in doing something because it should be done rather than as a means to other ends. The crisis in DGM was apparently one of conviction, not of finance (though the two are not entirely independent: I guess there wasn't enough conviction in the 'bank' to continue making financial or other subsidies).

Other organisations like the New Economics Foundation have a long history of developing non-financial metrics for accounting, but I can't think of any practising artists and owners of creative/cultural business who have given account of their own work in quite this way.

Having said that, I spent this afternoon at Tom Robinson's annual Castaway Party, a wonderfully generous act of creative largesse by an artist not short on conviction. The balance between this kind of "audience development" (in traditional arts business terms), Tom's 6 Music radio show and his coaching workshops is a subtle career mix, which I hope continues to work for him, just because he seems like such an open, up-front bloke! I am also in his debt for introducing me today to the wonderful Philip Jeays.

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Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Music and Multimedia, Reviews on 11 January 02004 | TrackBack
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