The Internet age is about freedom of information, and anyone who’d try to stop an information leak about a new synth must be an evil corporate censor, right? Wrong. I recently had to play the "evil corporate censor" to contain a leak about Roland's new Jupiter-80 synthesizer. The rub here was that the leak was a page from the digital edition of our May issue, which was on a server for proofing and was never supposed to be accessible to the Internet. We've taken steps to see this can never happen again, but in the short time that a few crafty but probably well-meaning individuals got hold of it, it went viral on several blogs and websites. To perform my due diligence in respecting the non-disclosure agreement I'd signed with Roland, I had the oh-so-pleasant task of ringing up the moderators of these sites and asking them to remove Keyboard's intellectual property. I'm no fan of trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, and I didn't ask anyone to pull any threads. But not to have acted at all would have been indifferent to, or even condoning of, the fact that I was technically in violation of an agreement I'd made with people at Roland whom I really respect.
I got no pleasure out of playing the heavy, but I learned a few things. I’m the first to assert that viral buzz about a new instrument is generally good, but there’s a downside to premature product info hitting blogs and forums, and contrary to one misconception, it’s largely not worries about one-upmanship from competitors. Roland, for example, isn't all that worried that Korg or Yamaha is going to get wind of a new keyboard and rush to market with something to compete with it. First of all, leaks usually happen because information is already in some type of pipeline related to the release of that product. Ads could be on an image server shared by a magazine, its printer, and the vendor that creates its digital version, for example. Or, digital product brochures could have been sent to high-level managers at a retailer in anticipation of the product launch, under non-disclosure agreement. Point being, leaks happen close enough to release that it's not like a competitor would have time to reboot their entire R&D cycle around making some obvious leapfrog product.
Not only that, but it's not like most competitors would even want to. The keyboard industry is small, and populated by people who pretty much all know each other. If they're not close friends when off duty (and many are), then they know they have to face each other at the next NAMM show. Some of them know that they may be applying for a job at a competitor someday. No professional in this industry is dumb enough to sacrifice their long-term reputation for a one-time "neener neener" of scooping a competitor's product.
So if not industrial espionage, then what's the big deal? It’s more that launching a major instrument is like putting on a Broadway show. A lot of people are onstage and behind the scenes, awaiting their cues, and timing is crucial. Given the nature of the Internet, a leak is far worse than a critic sneaking into a rehearsal before opening night—it’s more like several dozen of them running around onstage, backstage, and on the catwalks, yelling through megaphones at every cast and crew member. While the poor bastards are trying to remember their lines and hoist lights into position. (Here's a tip: If doing your job under this type of constant assault sounds like your idea of fun, come work at a magazine.)
“Leaks have serious consequences at dealers,” explains Roland’s Vince LaDuca. “There’s typically a timetable set up in advance for how a store will move from widget 1 to widget 2. Premature disclosure derails this. It halts any buying of widget 1 because of what people think widget 2 will be. We’ve had widget 2s that never saw the light of day because of a leak. This hurts the manufacturer, the dealer, and the customers.”
Not only is what Vince says true, but part of the schedule he's talking about involves training all the salespeople and support staff who work at retailers. When premature product info hits the internet, everyone naturally gets excited. Everyone calls Guitar Center, Sweetwater, their local music store, and countless other retailers, asking about widget 2. The thing is, the person on the other end of the phone might not be scheduled for their widget 2 training until after the big product launch at the trade show next week, so they end up looking dumb. "Don't you mean widget 1? Uh, lemme get my supervisor..." Supervisor gets general manager. General manager, who knows what's up, calls manufacturer rep and goes, "WTF? You're making my people look bad." Manufacturer says, "Huh? We didn't do anything." He or she gets called on carpet by his or her manager. Big s***storm in which a lot of good people trying to do their jobs get yet more stress heaped on their plate. I've seen it happen more than once.
If you're not buying what Vince said about leaks hurting customers, how about causing them to buy something that's not right for them? “In one case, leaks with erroneous information generated a lot of Internet threads,” recalls Yamaha marketing director Athan Billias. “For about a year after that, we dealt with customers who bought a product that didn’t fit their needs, which isn’t good for them or us. We spent a good deal of time and money helping these customers get the right product for them, because it wasn’t their fault that this inaccurate info was online—even though it wasn’t our fault either.” Believe it or not, most manufacturers don't want you to buy something that doesn't fit your needs exactly. You're just going to return it, after which it has to be sold as B-stock--after someone who's on the clock spends time to process it back into inventory.
After the official launch and marketing pitch, all the opinions will be out there anyway, and based on better data at that.The philosopher Immanuel Kant admonished us to "act only on that maxim we could at the same time will to be a universal law." That's a fancy way of saying something your mom used to tell you when you were caught doing something naughty: "What if everybody did that?" Apply the idea to posting or seeking out leaks to get an early scoop, and you'll see that it's like standing on your seat for a better view of a concert. If everyone does it, there is no better view, just the same sea of backs of heads a couple of feet higher, dirty seat cushions, and a higher chance of spilling your beer. So chill out, good people. This isn't Wikileaks and you're not telling the world about something our government tried to sweep under the rug. It's just musical instruments. There'll be plenty of opportunity to opine on forums about why a product is the best thing ever, or why it sucks and its maker is oh-so out of touch with what musicians really want, after the official announcement. If it's really, really important to you to begin doing this a few days before the rest of the world chimes in, you have far more time on your hands than anyone who makes any portion of their paycheck in the music industry--and I sincerely envy you.
Oakland, CA, June 2011