How do you serve your audience and how do they repay you?

I was thinking about this yesterday while watching a mariachi band move between subway cars. As a musician myself I’ve always thought that musicians who play in subway cars should play more than one local stop before moving on, for style if nothing else. Otherwise, people treat them like the 30-second online music teasers and avoid paying royalties to the artists. Is there an economic reason to move on so quickly? Do you actually lose money if you play longer in the same car? Is it mostly a numbers game, with giving more correlated to the number people who hear you than it is to the quality of the music? Or do they only know one song?

But no matter how it works best, I figure that maybe the guy with the hat always wants to be moving. He sees each new car as a new group of people to sell to. If he only collects a few coins, he can always look to the next car and no one can blame him for lack of effort.

Most startups have to experiment for a while with business models and even the design behind their payment scenarios. That’s what the musicians remind me.
As an example, here are four types of subway musicians and their approaches to earning money in the subway. The first two examples are real and the last two are opportunities. These could just as easily be applied to startups.

- Saxophonist comes into a subway car and intentionally plays badly, saying he will stop when people pay him (this happened in the late 80s). He both solves and creates the audience’s pain point (great startup phrase). I think he does ok.
- Mariachi trios that change cars at every stop and play for about 30 seconds before moving to the next car. The only pain point they solve is helping people get rid of spare change in their pockets. Then they have to divide their earnings by three.
- An Opportunity: Performances that last for several subway stops and engage the riders. They don’t solve pain points, but they could gain more revenue by simply appealing to the riders’ value received. And it will at least be more fun for everyone involved.
- Another Opportunity: Musician plays on the subway for a year or so, makes some cash, but then sells the stories…

As always, there’s an exception to this and time and place comes into it. The most I ever saw a subway musician make in 1 stop was in 2004 right before the election. A guy came on, played some guitar and ended up doing a spoken rant against President Bush. It looked like he collected around $20 in dollar bills that were thrust at him like he was a political stripper.

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