• Jeremy Willets

How fast can you release?

This question comes up for me quite often; whether it’s when I’m working with people and teams in the world of tech, or thinking about how I make and release music.

The image that pops into my head when pondering this question is the image of a value stream, where the chevrons represent various value add steps and you can start to see the delays that occur in the quest to get something into the hands of your customers. (Remember, focus on the wait states in the value stream.)

When it comes to releasing music, I’ve definitely shifted my mindset to this same type of thinking. I try and put out a new song every month, typically on the final Friday (because Friday is the day the streaming gods declared that new music comes out). The different steps in the music composition and production process represent the different chevrons in the value stream. When I upload my latest song to my distributor and queue it up for release — which is nearly the final step in the value stream, I think about the following phrases — “If you love some[thing], set it free” and “great art is never finished, only abandoned.”

It occurs to me that both of these same sentiments are quickly becoming the default position in the world of software. Products are never really “done.” They get released into the world when they’re good enough — some combination of the words “minimum,” “viable,” and “valuable” — and then they get enhanced based on feedback.

I wonder about the risk involved in product development in these days of a rapidly changing world. If you build small, release something small that suits a customer need, and then proceed to release small incremental updates, you protect yourself from risk. You can remain responsive and flexible (read: Agile).

The antithesis of this approach is akin to the old way of releasing music — full length albums, every three or four years. These were the quintessential “big bang” release. A fairly standard template for releasing music used to be something like: release an album, tour for a year or more, take some time off, spend another year writing and recording the next record, and do it all again. Major acts often went 3-4 years between releasing new music. Nowadays, their fans would’ve moved on to something else after a year and never thought twice about coming back around. Think about your own record collection. How many artists did you truly love and then lost track of over the years? You play the “what ever happened to?” game only to realize they’ve been releasing music periodically while you weren’t paying attention. It’s a strange place to be for artists — go faster, and release more, or you run the risk of being an afterthought. Or even worse, forgotten.

In software, the same “what have you done for me lately” mindset seems to also apply. Vendors don’t have the ability to rest of their proverbial laurels and release major products every few years. They need to consistently deliver value to their customers or run the risk of those same customers finding a different vendor. But they can’t be releases just to check a box; they need to be all killer and no filler.

I think about the freedom that releasing singles allows me as a musician. I work for a few weeks, finding sounds and words that inspire me, put them together, polish them, and then send them out into the world. This approach allows me to experiment in ways that a full length album never would. Music fans have come to expect that albums have a flow, a feel, a vibe. Artists feel an obligation to weave songs together and tell a narrative across a full-length work. Extreme genre mixing tends to be frowned up. Whereas in the single-a-month paradigm, I feel an ability to treat each song as a separate entity; a proverbial update to my own oeuvre. If you listen to the entirety of the songs I’ve released, I think you’ll find some coherence, but I think you’ll find some experiments within a given set of guardrails.

In software, frequent releases mean more opportunities to try things out. To experiment. More opportunities to engage customers about their needs. More opportunities to be adventurous. We should want more of these opportunities; not less.

I’m very much a musical hobbyist — but even I have basically set up my own proverbial deployment pipeline. If I sit down and feel inspired, I can write a song and have it available on nearly every streaming service in the world within days of completion. Not quite continuous release, but certainly much faster than the days of pressing physical media and shipping it to stores.

That brings us back to the question I posed in the title of this post. I hope you’ve been thinking about what that value stream looks like in your own context. Know, however, that it’s not just about speed for the sake of going fast. I could release new music every day if I truly wanted to, but it definitely wouldn’t be high quality and it definitely wouldn’t have any sort of promotional collateral accompanying it. I must balance speed with quality and, frankly, the value add pieces around creative marketing that come with being a DIY artist.

In software, we can go fast, but the faster we go, the riskier things can get. We can miss steps in the value stream, cut corners on quality, or even identify the wrong customer needs and build the wrong thing. We must balance speed and risk. Working small gives us the ability to strike a balance between the two. That’s why I only make singles, after all. :)

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