Video Killed the Radio Star

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By the time we consumers get a finished product, it’s likely been through numerous rounds of iteration and versioning. The song Video Killed the Radio Star is a defining song for it’s time as the first video played on MTV in August 1981, but the story of how it became the one-hit-wonder it is today is a story that any entrepreneur or creative type will resonate with. It’s a tale of timing, connections, luck, and market fit. But for a guy like Bruce Wooley, who was a prominent writer on the song, it’s also a story that most of us know too well. The right thing at the wrong time.

Chances are you know the version by the Buggles but have never heard the version by The Camera Club.

So how is it that a group of guys all had an idea together and one scenario turned out to be a commercial hit while the other is a music geek trivia question answer? It might be as simple as the Design Thinking Venn Diagram.

  • Can we do it? √
    They were perfectly capable of making this song and of course, did.
  • Does anyone want it? √
    The success of the Buggles version is clear proof that people wanted a song like this.
  • Is it a viable money maker?
    This is subjective but the fact that the Buggles version was a hit where The Camera Club version was not is likely a result of a few things. Namely, the market was hungry for new wave pop music and The Camera Club took a more punk-rock approach to the song. They were a few years ahead of their time in the musical taste of the Z Cavarici-clad early 80s market desires.
Traditional Design Thinking Venn Diagram

There’s never one solo reason for anything and in addition to the market fit, you have to consider the connections at play and the wildcard of luck.

Connections: Tina Charles and established signer with connections to a record company

The Buggles, which formed in 1977, first consisted of Trevor HornGeoff Downes and Bruce Woolley.[2] They all wrote “Video Killed the Radio Star” in an hour of one afternoon in 1978, six months before it was recorded, together in Downes’ apartment located above a monumental stonemason’s in Wimbledon ParkLondon.[3][4][5] The piece was built up from a chorus riff developed by Woolley.[4] It is one of the three Buggles songs that Woolley assisted in writing, the two others being “Clean, Clean” and “On TV.”[2] An early demo of the song, featuring Horn’s then-girlfriend Tina Charles on vocals, helped the group get signed to Island Records to record and release their debut album The Age of Plastic, as well as producing and writing for the label, after Downes’ girlfriend, who worked for Island, managed to get it played to executives there.[2][6][7] Woolley left during recording to form his own band, The Camera Club, which did their own version of “Video”, as well as “Clean, Clean” for their album English Garden.[2]

Luck: The cultural revolution that was MTV. The song is clearly a commentary on the movement to music videos and the song itself ushered in the vehicle that would change the way kids consumed music altogether. A song, written by a rag-tag group of musicians in an hour, with a connection to a major record company.

The Portfolio: So reframe this into a venture capital portfolio concept. The Buggles had two studio albums that largely failed. But one song did well enough to compensate all of the time and effort put into the twenty or so songs that made up the two full albums over a 5 year period.

Take-aways:

  • Think like a VC and make a bunch of small educated bets. A one-hit-wonder more than compensates for 19 failures. Also, there will be failures. Embrace it and move on.
  • The best idea, executed perfectly at the wrong time is no better than a failed idea. Timing is crucial
  • Sometimes you have all the pieces right, and it still doesn’t hit.

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