Professor Jobs Is In The House

I’ve often wondered how so many smart record label execs and radio managers could wind up looking so stupid. They’re not. In fact, they are very bright and intuitive.

Then I think of how this quirky man from Cupertino, CA -- Steve Jobs -- succeeds even when he fails and most of us never fully understand why.

All those Newsweek cover stories later and we don’t seem to get it.

In about four weeks I am going to return for another semester at USC and the first thing I will tell my new students in “Music, Broadcasting and the Mobile Future” is -- study Steve Jobs.

Cut class but study Jobs. (Okay, I’m lying about the first part).

Apple's CEO Steve Jobs has done it all and he just put his legacy, reputation – whatever you want to call it – on the line unnecessarily with the iPhone to do it all over again.

Let us pray.

After starting Apple, creating Pixar, returning to Apple to save it and creating the iPod/iTunes duo, Jobs’ legacy was safe and secure. He didn't need to take another risk.

He was unceremoniously dumped from Apple by the board of directors in favor of John Scully who almost took the company down. Jobs never failed. Apple’s board did.

This is not simply an appreciation – although it is that. It is recognition of some of the ways Jobs’ skills and insights have made him an ideal man for this changing of the guard in music media.

He’s a baby boomer. No kid. No Gen Y’er. Yet he knows his fickle, young market better than they know their own wants and needs.

Meanwhile even the previously mighty Sony misread the marketplace.

Sony was more concerned with its corporate needs after the Walkman success yet it couldn’t sort out the needs of its record label vis-à-vis digital devices. Sony also didn’t understand cool.

Jobs is cool.

Everything he touches is cool. He operates off gut feeling. He is not an engineer – not even a true geek. He is said to be unreasonable. He knows what won’t work and pushes his people to deliver what he thinks the Apple market wants.

Radio groups, by contrast, suck up to Wall Street and get whipped into budget cuts and unfortunate decisions while Jobs defies them. Have you seen the Apple share price lately?

Jobs is strange but so are record and radio people. Yet Jobs seems proud of it. He flaunts it. He’s as human and fallible as we all are and yet somehow he made it a management trait.

Imagine the Mays’ running Apple. Go there – just for a paragraph or two.

They might have missed the iPod because it’s not their core business. They might have blown the chance to sell music to the public. A radio group alone or with a record label could have started iTunes but it took a computer company to do it. That’s just not right.

The Mays’ might have fired their best designers and engineers to please Wall Street for a few quarters. Jobs hired the best and spit in the face of Wall Street “wisdom”. The Mays' might have pissed off their best talent, but so does Jobs. Why do they stay? Because Jobs sees the future and knows what he is doing.

No record label could have made iTunes work. They would argue it is because they weren’t in the music device business. I would argue that they could have gone into the iTunes business. Apple went into the record business.

Earlier I said Jobs didn’t have to take any risks after the iPod. He would have been the icon all universities studied until the end of time. Instead he put it all on the line for the risky business of developing an iPod phone that he couldn’t have really been sure people wanted or guaranteed that it would work (say AT&T’s slow EDGE system).

And that’s no small thing because the number one trait of this new age music media leader is that he is drawn to winning like the San Antonio Spurs are drawn to being NBA champs.

That other San Antonio sports franchise – Clear Channel – is not (in my opinion).

The four major record labels resigned to getting by on ring tone sales and music rights revenues are not.

The burning desire to win – and willingness to take the risks associated with winning – is a lesson worth an entire semester (or career).

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