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28 April 2009

Artisanal vs. Industrial in Artistic Industries


Last week I jested a bit about my new life as a businessperson. It’s healthy, occasionally, to poke fun at a mode of thinking that too often focuses on big wins & lowest common-denominator strategies. (i.e. People love them some big f**king flashy business cards.)

However, business can also be a powerful way of understanding the world in a cross-disciplinary way. An artistic mindset demands extreme focus; a business consciousness demands constant appraisal of conditions in the wider sphere. Last night, for example, I was struck by this passage from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s excellent book about the realities of food production in the modern societies:

    Drawing on the theories of Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, [Allan] Nation had distinguished between industrial and artisanal enterprises to demonstrate why attempts to blend the two modes seldom succeed. Industrial farmers are in the business of selling commodities, he explained, a business where the only viable competitive strategy is to be the least-cost producer… In a commodity business a producer must sell every more cheaply and grow ever bigger or be crushed by a competitor who does.

    Nation contrasted the industrial model with its polar opposite, what he calls “artisanal production,” where the competitive strategy is based on selling something special rather than being the least-cost producer of a commodity. Stressing that “productivity and profits are two entirely different concepts,” Nation suggests that even a small producer can be profitable so long as he’s selling an exceptional product and keeping his expenses down. Yet this artisanal model works only so long as it doesn’t attempt to imitate the industrial model in any respect. It must not try to replace skilled labor with capital; it must not grow for the sake of growth; it should not strive for uniformity in its products but rather make a virtue of variation and seasonality; it shouldn’t invest capital to reach national markets but rather should focus on local markets, relying on reputation and word of mouth rather than on advertising; and lastly, it should rely as much as possible on free solar energy rather than costly fuels.

What stuck out for me was how the agricultural model Pollan is so obviously biased toward (grass-based, small scale, local) reminds me of the business(es) I’m engaged in. The quote isn’t entirely relevant. The businesses I’m in don’t use much in the way of free solar energy and, frankly, music’s carbon footprint sucks, but beyond that most of the above applies. Yes, the record labels and music festival I work with are trying to spread their brand’s globally; but the theory behind all these enterprises is that they’re outgrowths of naturally occurring communities of skilled musicians, designers and other creative people; that it’s quality not mass appeal which drives growth; and that the audience and employees are drawn by a specific interest in what we’re doing.

I often think about what I do not in terms of money-earned but in terms of what I’ve begun to think of as The Community Function. To be defined in future posts…

PS – I also did a bit of Googling about the author cited in that Pollan quote. And, lo and behold, here’s the blog of Allan Nation, editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer since 1977. It is formatted a bit like a circa-1986 newsletter created with Print Shop on an Apple II, and the freshest posts are headlined “Methane Debate Is Not About Methane” and “World Faces Water Crisis.” I can’t say they’re relevant to running a creative business but I find it rad nonetheless.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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  1. On 2009-4-28 Chris Moran said:

    Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

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