, September 27, 2021

Bryan Ferry's Polydor rejection letter shows how disruptive technology confounds cynics


  •   3 min reads
Bryan Ferry's Polydor rejection letter shows how disruptive technology confounds cynics

In the pantheon of great forecasting c**k-ups, we have a new addition — or sort of new, anyway. The letter was sent in 1971 but is only just getting the whole fanfare of publicity. So, it's a new addition to the list, but an old example. And we can all look back with the smugness that hindsight gives us, yet we do it, over and over again.

The chair of IBM, Thomas Watson, said in 1943 that the world market for computers was  "maybe five" and 5,000 copiers. Or there is the Popular Mechanics prediction from 1949 wistfully speculating that one day computers may only weigh one and a half tons.

And, of course, the list goes on and on. But then we have probably all done it, in some form or another. The future is uncertain; Gary Lineker famously said he would present the TV programme Match of the Day if Leicester City won the Premiership. And so he did;

The failures are common in music. Decca Records is famous for saying: "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out," after receiving a demo tape from an obscure band that would never amount to anything, called the Beatles.

But Polydor described Bryan Ferry's voice as like "Frankie Vaughan in a haunted house", now that takes things to extremes. Roxy Music may not be the greatest band ever, but they were more than decent; Bryan Ferry was once known as the coolest man on the planet, and his voice was — well, I guess you could say it was hauntingly good.

And there is nothing wrong with James Last and his orchestra, but even so, the offer to include a free tape in the Bryan Ferry rejection was a tad condescending.

But what the Beatles and Roxy Music, along with several dozen other bands and artists most of us have heard of, did do, was disrupt. Their unique sounds and presentation of their sounds, turned the music establishment upside down, making critics look like fools.

Technology is similar. Isn't the story of Tesla analogous to the early story of the Beatles or Roxy Music?

There is one difference, however?

One assumes that the Decca Records executives who rejected the Beatles eventually felt embarrassed and a tad stupid. Or Mr Hugh Smith, who rejected Roxy Music no doubt cursed every time he looked at his bank statements, thereafter. But with technology, it is not like that. When technology cynics or critics are apparently proven wrong, they merely tweak their criticism.

Firstly, it was 'electric vehicles are toys'; ‘old technology given a gimmick, sure to fail’. And now we can say, without any doubt whatsoever, that electric vehicles are replacing internal combustion engine cars. We read that Tesla is still sure to fail because the big boys are moving in on its turf. These critics fail to grasp the importance of Tesla technology in software, AI and batteries.

The list is long: from the internet to online shopping; from wind and solar energy to battery technology; autonomous cars, AI, augmented reality, graphene, the list goes on. They are toys, say critics. Innovation is not what it used to be.

Take Penicillin. Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the antibiotic in 1928. And not much happened for the best part of two decades.  A cynic in 1935 or 1940 might have described penicillin as over-hyped technology that would never account to much. It was first introduced on a large scale in 1945 and has since saved, or so it has been estimated, 80 million to 200 million lives!

Decca and Polydor paid a commercial price for failing to spot the importance of the Beatles and Roxy Music.

New technologies will change the world, for better or worse, in the most profound way imaginable. The dangers and opportunities are immense. But technology cynicism is dangerous; it distracts attention from the issues that matter. Climate change denial potentially poses an existential threat to humanity; this is well understood, but so too does technology denial.

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