By Jason Miller published May 8, 2016

The Miles Davis Approach to Content Marketing Strategy

miles-davis-approach-content-marketing

If you’ve ever met me or seen any of my photography then you know I have a passion for rock ‘n’ roll. But as every good marketer knows, it’s important to continually expand your horizons. Lately, I’ve been doing that by diving into the genre of classic jazz.

The more I listen to and study jazz, the more parallels I see between sophisticated jazz and great content. Maybe you can compare great jazz with pretty much great anything – but the other day, I was listening to this excellent NPR profile of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album, and I kept having aha moments in relation to my own work. See if you can relate.

There are good reasons that Kind of Blue is one of the most influential albums ever recorded, and they don’t all have to do with pure musical talent. The story behind this landmark record and its universal appeal can be broken down into several critical lessons for content marketers.

The following are key lessons for keeping your content marketing strategy more hotsy-totsy than wet blanket.

1. Leadership = Team + Vision

Miles Davis was an international star by age 32, the highest-paid musician of his generation. He arrived at that place for two reasons other than his ability to play a sweet trumpet solo: 1) his ability to spot great talent, and 2) his understanding of where the music industry was and where it could go.

For Kind of Blue, Davis gathered six little-known musicians who would become legends in their own right. Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s name today is nearly synonymous with jazz itself. But back in 1959, Coltrane was a virtual unknown. Pianist Bill Evans said in a 1979 interview that no one really understood what Davis saw in Coltrane. “That’s the genius of (Davis’) leadership,” Evans said.

In 1959, Davis was looking for a follow-up to the bebop style of jazz, which had pretty much run its course. He took a cue from his friend George Russell who had been developing a new, simpler form of jazz improvisation. Instead of packing multiple chords into a single measure, “modal” jazz challenged musicians to explore a single chord for 16 measures or more. Davis introduced the cool new sound on Kind of Blue. People lined up to hear it.

Lessons for content marketers:

2. Challenge your players

Davis was known for his love of a good musical puzzle. According to the NPR profile, in 1958, he gave Evans a paper with the symbols for “G minor” and “A augmented.” Using that suggestion, Evans built “a cycle of chords as a meditative framework for Blue in Green,” the central track on Kind of Blue. The Blue in Green track became one of Coltrane’s great modal solos.

“If you put a musician in a place where he has to do something different from what he does all the time,” Davis wrote in his autobiography, “that’s where great art and music happens.” You hear that theory play out in the Kind of Blue album’s initial So What track, where the bass starts with the melody: “dum-de-dum-de-dum-dum.” You’ve heard it a million times, but if you play bass, you’re acutely aware of the implications. An album that starts off with a bass-line melody? That never happens.

Lessons for content marketers:

  • Let your team members take simple directions and run with them.
  • Introduce surprises and deviations from the routine every chance you get.
  • Let your supporting players take the lead sometimes.
  • Don’t let your team (or your customers) get too comfortable.

3. Freedom is the best master

The musicians on Kind of Blue had little idea of what to expect when they walked into the recording studio because Davis called for almost no rehearsal. As Evans noted in the original liner notes, Davis just gave the band sketches of scales and melody lines on which to improvise. The rest was up to them.

The modal structure also allowed for greater freedom in the melody line, so that the artists could express themselves more spontaneously in their solos. As the album proceeds, the players invent novel responses to each other. They take calculated risks without a score to fall back on. You hear them negotiating with each other rather than stifling unexpected ideas.

You are free to do anything, as long as you know where home is. —George Russell

Davis clearly went into the creation of Kind of Blue with the idea that he wanted to capture an element of surprise and spontaneity that he found missing in other recordings. One of the most incredible things about this album is that all the tracks are first takes. They had no practice sessions, and they had no takes. Crazy.

Lessons for content marketers:

  • Put together your dream team, make sure they know where you want them to end up, and then trust them to create great content.
  • Not all content can be improvised, but no idea should be nixed just because it sounds “off” at the time.
  • Spontaneity can be a value in and of itself, offering a freshness and authenticity that is nearly impossible to create with a carefully crafted script.

4. Never stop experimenting

Jazz at its core is about taking chances, risking failure, and, in the process, creating something beautiful that will last for generations. Kind of Blue was an experiment in modal jazz that succeeded beyond all expectations, but that wasn’t the only aspect of experimentation on this album.

Davis was constantly learning from different styles of music, and Kind of Blue demonstrates that proclivity with its range of classical, African rhythms, flamenco, and American gospel. He was a master at making the familiar unique by adding an unexpected twist.

In the track All Blues, Davis plays a standard 4/4 blues in 6/8 time, so the music feels like a waltz. As NPR explained in its feature, “Evans said that was part of Davis’ genius – creating a simple figure that becomes much more. The setting allowed alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to return to his big-band roots.”

He combined Cannonball and Bill Evans. That’s far out! —soprano saxophonist Steve Lacey

Lessons for content marketers:

  • Indulge your appetite for learning new things.
  • Know your team members and play to their strengths, but also help them expand their repertoire.
  • Just because an idea is familiar and comforting doesn’t mean you can’t make it better by adding your own special something.

5. Stay cool

Kind of Blue is the epitome of sophisticated jazz, blending “uptown” and “back alley” in a delicate, perfectly balanced sound. But when it was released, the musicians themselves were surprised by the instant recognition it received. To them, it was the result of a couple of great sessions with Davis, and that was plenty.

The secret to the success of this album lies in its simplicity. Music historian Dan Morgenstern remarks on the fact that it contains not a single unnecessary note, “You can keep coming back to it – it doesn’t wear out its welcome.”

The album entered the musical consciousness with the delicacy of a feather, and the power of genius. Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacey remarks, “It was so subtle, it just sorta slipped in. It didn’t’ startle us.” And yet, the whole jazz scene changed overnight.

This music never flaunts its genius. —Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Lessons for content marketers:

  • The simple almost always outperforms the complex.
  • Promotion is important, but success is really about doing your best work.
  • Strive for new and remarkable content, rather than promoting a particular agenda, and people will listen and share it.
#Content promotion is important, but success is about doing your best work says @JasonMillerCA Click To Tweet

As one of the greatest musical statements of the 20th century, Kind of Blue is the very definition of creativity, spontaneity, improvisation, and experimentation – all the elements of a successful content marketing strategy. Whether or not you’re a jazz enthusiast, it’s worth a listen, just for the content marketing lessons.

With inspiration from Miles Davis, you can create your own content marketing album. Get CMI’s 2016 Content Marketing Playbook to help.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski

Author: Jason Miller

Jason Miller is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at LinkedIn, leading the content marketing and social media strategy for LinkedIn Marketing Solutions. Before LinkedIn, he was the Senior Manager, Social Media Strategy, at Marketo and spent more than 10 years at Sony Music Entertainment, developing and executing marketing campaigns around the biggest names in music. When he is not building campaigns, creating remarkable content, and tracking the ROI of social, he is winning awards as a concert photographer, singing 80's metal Karaoke, and winning at Seinfeld trivia. You can also read his #1 best-selling Amazon book Welcome to the Funnel. Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonMillerCA.

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  • Gary Johnson

    One of the finest pieces on content marketing I’ve ever read. Bravo.

    • http://www.blog.marketo.com/ Jason Miller

      Thanks Gary! Much appreciated!

  • rogercparker

    Very well done, Jason. Relevant, but from a great perspective. A great story.

    By the way, as you may know, Amazon lists 2 books about the background of the recording, “Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece” by Ashley Kahn and “The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece” by Eric Nisenson.

    Question, Jason: Could you expand this into a series of CMI stories, I.e. Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, or the Duke Ellington’s This One’s for Blanton recording?

    Anyway, great job, Jason.
    Roger

    • http://www.blog.marketo.com/ Jason Miller

      Thanks Roger! I read the one by Ashley Kahn front to back, it’s brilliant. The other had some bad reviews so I skipped it.

      Take Five would be an interesting one to pull lessons from, maybe even a classic Coltrane record or two ; )

      • rogercparker

        Although I am hesitant to use the word “inspired,” I thought you’d like to see a post that your post was partly responsible for, from a painter’s perspective. shar.es/1eUbqs

        I hope others content marketers will share there favorite stories from adjacent fields.

  • Eva Yan

    Insightful article comparing Jazz improvisation with content marketing and revealing the key leadership skills required to create a great “album”. As an avid jazz fan myself, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you.

    • http://www.blog.marketo.com/ Jason Miller

      Thanks Eva! The parallels sort of fell into place as I was researching this one, not to mention the inspiration from such an amazing piece of work.

  • http://theiuvo.com/ Dan TheIuvo

    This is a new approach and finally an interesting one. As a jazz lover, a marketer and a social media consultant, I just became your big fan. Looking forward to read more from you Jason!

    • http://www.blog.marketo.com/ Jason Miller

      Thanks Dan! Much appreciated.

      • http://theiuvo.com/ Dan TheIuvo

        You’re welcome. While listening to Gregory Porter, sending thumbs up.

  • https://twitter.com/_motherslug motherslug

    You didn’t even read the Wikipedia page for Kind of Blue. If you had, you would know that the entire album was NOT recorded in one take. While it’s true that there wasn’t much preparation, it’s simply not true that the album was recorded in just one pass. This is backed up by Ashley Kahn in Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. Also, using Miles Davis in the call to action for your playbook is just shameful, but I suppose that’s more of a personal/ethical preference.

    • http://www.blog.marketo.com/ Jason Miller

      Thanks for the comment, I think. If that’s the only dig you have then I’m cool with that since this was a beast of a post to put together. For the record, Wikipedia was not there and neither was Ashley (even though I love her book). This is from the original liner notes written by Bill Evans who of course was there:

      “Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a “take.”

      Questioning my ethics with a comment about a blog post regarding a musician I love and respect is a bit of a stretch. God forbid someone gets inspired from these words and wants to learn more.

      Rock on,

      Jason

      • https://twitter.com/_motherslug motherslug

        Hee hee, Ashley Kahn is a dude!

        • http://www.blog.marketo.com/ Jason Miller

          Grow up.

  • Phil Turner

    A really interesting article Jason: Having studied the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation (George Russell’s theory of Jazz harmony) many years ago as a music student, the idea of breaking from tradition became very evident – no going Bach from then on – a terrible pun I know!

    Miles Davis was indeed an innovator and frequently used space within his music to let each part ‘breathe’, so to speak. Unlike bebop, less was definitely more and it was arguably more engaging, memorable and impactful too. For the musicians, it encouraged more need to listen and respond appropriately. It fostered creative freedom of expression, establishing a ‘conversation’ and heightening the experience for the audience. Sounds like a plan!

    In today’s world of digital engagement, there is an inordinate amount of noise and clutter. We all suffer from banner blindness, overly frequent email, and the plethora of tweets and other social posts churned out to gain our attention, to a point where much of what is being said gets lost; simply because there’s way too much of it.

    Yes, it’s difficult to strike a chord with our target audiences (forgive the secondary terrible pun!), but more interesting, understated and well timed content is definitely a better approach in my view. Add in a little creativity and improvisation (such as Oreo’s brilliantly delivered ‘You can still dunk in the dark’ Super Bowl tweet) and people will remember for a long time to come.

  • Karina Tarin

    Love this! Thanks Jason – both for the entertainment and for the tips 🙂

  • David Jewell

    Jason, great article and it is amazing how music can help us create and think more openly. As a former full time player that has played in hundreds of bands and improvised with some of the best musicians, that experience let’s you take risk within a framework that says it’s OK to not sound perfect. However, we all learn from these experiments or improvisation. When all of these parts of working together take place like they did with Miles, magic happens. It’s the same way when your playing in a large band like Tower of Power and the groove is so deep that there is no other feeling like that in the world. This can relate to anyone’s Content team in that taking risks are OK and when those risks come back with rewards is when magic happens.