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The Miles Davis Approach to Content Marketing Strategy


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