Markets of Meaning (Find Portishead a Biz Model)

Peter Jones Wu Wei

Thanks to Alex Osterman via Twitter for suggesting this link to their appeal on Creative Commons:

Portishead, an experimental-pop group and pioneers of the early 90s electronica movement, announced yesterday that they are now “free agents”, having completed their three record deal with Island Records. The band is looking at new ways to sell their music and are reaching out to their fans for advice.


Portishead is not Radiohead, and should probably not release their own “In Rainbows” (or in their case, “In Rain”). They should not just follow the strategies of Big Ticket arena rock heavyweights. They have a deeply loyal fan base that waited 10 long years for last year’s P3 release! I would personally pay more for their work (on auction) than I would Radiohead just because of all their suffering for their cause. And because they are not going to see the mass volume of Yorke-induced sales.

But they are a sufficient (and big enough) niche market example. Their business model should go beyond the “business.” They have a market of meaning to their loyal listeners (or customers). Portishead has a special place among listeners and could successfully create their own eerie cool and erotic multimedia universe. Last year a Nerve poll found them scoring #1 in scoring music. While their music has personal meaning for each listener, they have  also created a real mindshare of collective meaning that they own. They could produce Portishead on almost any collection of media and sell through to the large niche directly.

Consider the wonderful film of their PNYC concert. Now imagine they helped fans (crowd-source) video shorts of their songs, on YouTube and their site, with downloads. They could market samples of their brilliant tonalities for a small fee each, like ringtones, but for all  smartphone or computer functions with tones (Portishead packaging). I would buy a Beth Gibbons children’s book or graphic novel, or just a video of the band practicing, or even sitting around smoking and talking. I’m serious, they have a deeply cultish appeal that suggests they have a much deeper meaning to fans than other groups.

Their music has created around the band a worldview that people belong to, a kind of David Lynch of the musical world. They are not just the music, they have created a meaning unique to their presence – you see this in the way people cannot help but feel Portishead when listening. Their possibilities are aeons beyond branding, because Portishead already lives inside their listeners as a source of feeling, memory, and experiences. Not all artists (and fewer performers) can pull this off, and I’m struggling to define the difference. Like a few other groups that invoke mood, memory, and mystery with the music – such as Eno, Nick Cave, Bristol proximals Massive Attack, the Cure, Tosca, and others – they weave soundtracks that invoke and evoke multiple experiences beyond the audio.

An online, worldwide community of Portishead experience mediated by the band itself, a la Lynch, would create the platform for their music and artwork products. A high design platform of aftermarket style services would work in their case. Consider how the brilliant typeface shop House Industries created their own aftermarket of high-cool designed artifacts as an offshoot of style-making. They make their revenues from great type, (like Neutraface), but I have bought their books and even shoes. House makes meaning for me. Portishead owns their own meaning, and can lease some of that back to us for a good revenue stream.

How good? Let’s see what shows up on Creative Commons. I’m still shy of making them a living on meaning, but I believe there is a good future for their creative production as a World of Portishead.