The Curve: From Freeloaders into Superfans: The Future of Business, by Nicholas Lovell

Finola Kerrigan is not convinced by a proposed new way of doing business

January 2, 2014

The latest in a series of practitioner books to propose a theory of business for today and the near future, The Curve is built around examples of new ways of doing things in the digital age that Nicholas Lovell sees as indicative of a business revolution. It is essentially a theory of business focused on reconsidering price and value in an era in which consumers are ever more reluctant to pay for things – music, books, games and more.

Although most of his examples are drawn from the creative industries, the author argues throughout for the widespread applicability of the logic of “the curve” and, in the book’s conclusion, offers short accounts of its applicability to a number of different areas. The curve, he explains, is all about figuring out who values what you are selling and to what degree, and then offering customised products or services at a range of price points based on this knowledge. Lovell develops his argument by invoking classical economics, evolutionary biology and aspects of marketing theory. Creative producers are experimenting with new ways of doing things, he explains, exploring how the idea of value is personal and personalised. This is an interesting argument in terms of thinking about how the consumer landscape is shifting and the types of business model innovation that are taking place in an era of change.

Much of what The Curve tells us we already know: there are innovators who buck the system and make money, value is personal, and people are willing to pay different prices for the same things

While The Curve’s basic premise has some relevance in the current economy, in which consumers are unwilling to pay for anything they can get for free even as some “superfans” are willing to pay more, there are some flaws in Lovell’s argument.

The first lies in the opening example, a nicely written passage about musician Trent Reznor, an example of a successful musician stepping outside the usual economics of the music industry. By going it alone in releasing his recording Ghosts I-IV, and offering different packages at prices ranging from free to many hundreds of dollars, Reznor illustrates the philosophy of the curve perfectly. However, by digging a little deeper, we can see some of the cracks in the argument. First of all, the superfans Reznor relied on to pay a premium for his work were created with the help of the music industry: the record labels, radio stations, music journalists and so on who collectively promoted his music. This exposure pushed Reznor and his band, Nine Inch Nails, to public prominence and his subsequent undertakings have benefited from this. Second, following this “experiment”, Reznor returned to working with a traditional major label for the most recent NiN album, Hesitation Marks, much to the disgruntlement of some of those superfans.

Much of what The Curve tells us is what we already know: there are innovators who buck the system and make money, value is personal, people are willing to pay different prices for the same or similar things, and failure is an essential part of innovation.

Others have discussed these issues in relation to the need for new, adaptive business models, so it is not clear what this book offers that is really new. Throughout this anecdotally driven account, we jump from place to place; scant attention is paid to building up an argument or developing a coherent outline of “the curve” itself. We return many times to somewhat similar examples, and the scattering of economic and psychological theory does not offer great depth to the discussions. And as soon as we start getting into some interesting details, we are whisked off elsewhere.

Lovell’s mantra is that contemporary consumption is all about “how it makes you feel”; this is a compelling argument and is true in many areas of consumption. But we kind of know this, too, and numerous scholarly studies and popular texts have looked at the nature of experience in consumption and how this experience can be enhanced to add value. What is arguably most interesting here is the chapter on 3D printing, which offers tantalising glimpses of the possibilities of this technology; this section could profitably have been extended to offer insight into a brave new world. As a series of examples of innovation in the digital age, The Curve may be of interest; as a comprehensive account of a revolution in business, maybe not.

The Curve: From Freeloaders into Superfans: The Future of Business

By Nicholas Lovell
Penguin, 256pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780670923830
Published 3 October 2013

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