What have disk drives and classical music in common?

One might be tempted to say: a lot, since they are both rapidly rotating, most of the time random-accessed(1) and indeed, a certain magnetism is also intrinsic to them both.

But all kidding aside, if one looks closely, one can find patterns in the history of the disk drive industry that can be very helpful to understand the cogs and wheels of the music business.

In any business, this what is crucial is your value network. A value network consists of businesses and people that you need to make your product or service. They include customers, intermediaries, stakeholders, suppliers, processes and relationships.

In the disk drive example:

Disk drive makers, computer makers, mobile phone makers, customers, distributors, manufacturers, etc…

In the music business these would be:

Artist, promoters, agents, audiences, record labels, concert hall, instrument makers, teachers, etc…

A well-functioning company or entity in any business usually does what is profitable for them and what allows them to grow. In the music business that would be the “career”. They work on their product and make it better in small steps to satisfy the customers they worked so hard to get.

To use a term by Clayton Christensen, the author the “Innovator’s dilemma”(2), that would be the so-called “sustaining innovation”.

On the other hand, we have “disruptive innovation”. It offers either something radically new or something, that doesn’t have the market around it yet but has the potential to eventually overtake the sustaining innovation. Established companies are most of the time reluctant to take disruptive innovation on, simply because at that point they don’t need it to keep their sustaining growth or to satisfy their customers.

Big and successful companies over time learn what their customers need/want and choose the products accordingly. They know that the customers are willing to buy them.

In the example of the disk drive business, it meant that the big successful disk drive companies delivered big hard drives (14 inch) for their mainframe clients, who were obviously interested in having the product (big hard drives) made better and better (“sustaining innovation”; improving storage space for example). On the other hand, smaller sized disks (8 inch) were not suitable for the mainframes. It took the emerging mini computer(3) value network to enable new “small hard drive” companies to enter that market. That happened at the expense of the established “big hard drive” companies of course, who were later forced to switch to smaller disks for mainframes as well. But the “big hard drive” companies missed the point where the demand of the market switched to the smaller disk sizes and they were beaten by the new entrants.


First, let’s assume the disk drive is an interpretational style.

Interpretational styles changed over the last 300 years over and over again.

We have over 100 years of recordings that prove it and spark our imagination of how many changes there must have been in the 18th and 19th century.

Despite the fact that we had immensely talented musicians in the last 150 years that played and interpreted the same pieces of music, only in very few occasions we encounter a situation that a particular piece should be played this and no other way. The rest can be forgotten because they don’t make a strong impact.

Why is interpreting music so difficult? And why making a timeless impact is so rare?

There are at least 5 reasons for music being so difficult to interpret:

  • Firstly, we don’t know how the composers of the past (before the recording age) really wanted their music to be played. The written material shows only a fraction of what the music should sound like in reality.
  • Even if we knew what they wanted exactly, the greatest composers were often open to be inspired by other great musicians that felt and saw the music a bit differently: An example – Rachmaninov (an excellent pianist and genius composer) said after hearing Horowitz’s interpretation of his Rahmaninov’s 3rd Concerto: “This was the way I have always dreamed my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on Earth”
  • Instruments change and technologies improved (piano example: inventions like the “English action” replaced the “Viennese action”, soundboards improved and gave the possibility of creating more details in sound: Steinway patent)
  • Concert halls and settings change = acoustics change. Those are crucial as to how we perceive the music.
  • The world changes, our feeling of tempo and timing of life changes. Often due to new inventions and technology. Therefore, also the understanding and how we receive the music is different than it was.

But to go back to our analogy: If, let’s say, there is an interpretational style that is nowadays accepted by the value network of the music business: Agents like it, promoters like it, teachers like it. Everything seems to be cool at least on the surface:

The main players/artists will keep delivering the product that the value network needs and wants, and if those artists were fortunate enough to have hit with their style the general taste and need of the market, they don’t have to change anything, because it works for them. They only improve it incrementally in small portions and according to the needs of the value network. That is one example of “sustaining innovation” in music.

And here we come back to the second question asked above: So, what is “disruptive innovation” then?

Disruptive innovation starts where the sustaining innovation fails to vitalize the market. Following the analogy, we are talking about a repeating cycle to explain that: The main sustaining players deliver an incrementally improved product that the value network wants UNTIL the audience and market shifts to something new, better, more interesting. The newcomers offering this breath of fresh air (called “disruptors”) overtake the main players and create their own value network around. Later, most of the time they become the new main players and the cycle repeats.


In musical interpretation this can only be achieved with new ideas and fresh approach.

Looking at the past: the greatest artists were and always will be disruptors. Horowitz, Carlos Kleiber were disruptors and Callas was a disruptress ?.

Disruptors’ lives are usually more difficult. They are often rejected or sometimes even hated, because they dare to be different: they dare to have new ideas. But their art, in the end, makes it worthwhile for themselves and most importantly for us, who still enjoy their legacy today.


In business a “disruptive innovation” becomes a “sustaining innovation” when it becomes mainstream.  When a smaller hard drive was disrupting the bigger hard drive, it started as a niche market until it became a huge market. Then suddenly many players wanted to sell their small hard drives to get their piece of the cake as well and the competition on the same product began. First companies win battles due to functionality and quality. When the competition is too big and many companies offer the same quality and functionality, the price drops and usually another new technology is disrupting. That’s the cycle in technology.

In the music business that cycle is similar. However, it’s more harmful, because here the sustaining innovation is almost always connected to the act of copying interpretations and styles of those who were disruptors, but the quality and functionality is not exactly the same. Since great art can never be produced by a photocopier, this is already a wrong turn for the quality of art.

But let’s continue that thought:

Disruptive innovation becomes sustaining innovation until it is disrupted again.

This would mean that Callas’ new interpretational style and unique ideas that have been more or less successfully copied, constitute in a way a “sustaining innovation” until the next Callas would come along (I’m still eagerly waiting for that).


“[…] When would-be disruptors enter into existing value networks, they must adapt their business models to conform to the value network and therefore fail at disruption because they become co-opted.”(4)

Translating it to the music business reality means the following:

If a musician with new ideas that might or might not be the next Callas of any instrument would enter the existing value network of the business today and not persevere until a new value network is simply building up round him or her, he or she would fail in that existing networkWhy? Because he/she has to either adapt to it and loose its unique quality or the existing value network would simply reject it or make it very hard for his/her “novelty”. It works like that: if something doesn’t fit to the established opinion of the mass, they rather take something that does.

But the “problem” with the great art is that it doesn’t adapt. It just is. There are no shortcuts and no copy/paste buttons. There is individualism and no compromise. And that gives us art lovers such immense pleasure.


As the disrupting smaller hard drives in the disk drive business, new ideas in composing or confident and fresh ideas in interpreting old music may not be accepted or suitable for the value network of the known ideas, but if done right, with honesty and passion, with conviction and persistence, new markets will be built around it over time and in the end the sustaining innovations will be replaced by the disruptors.

Art can never successfully be sustaining innovation. As soon as it is, it stops being great.

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Random_access
(2) If you are interested in a detailed, fascinating analysis of that phenomenon in business, please read Mr. Christensen’s book (link: http://www.claytonchristensen.com/books/the-innovators-dilemma/).
(3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minicomputer
* a term coined by Clayton M. Christensen and coworkers
(4) Clayton M. Christensen


  • Brilliant insights into how music is a business. At Smart Blonde Experiential, we hope to be a disruptor in music too.
    • Ingolf Wunder
      Thanks :) Best of luck with all your projects!!

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