In rock & roll, and in commerce in general, we love to argue about who’s innovating and who’s imitating.
The Beatles vs. The Monkees (if you’re old enough to remember). The Grateful Dead vs. Phish. Apple vs. Samsung. Starbucks vs. Caribou (or Dunkin’ Donuts).
But what IS innovation?
The usual definition of innovate is “to introduce something new.” But a second definition is “to make changes in something established.” In that sense innovation includes some imitating—i.e., working on something that others have originated. So being an innovator does NOT mean you have to be the first to market. Your idea, product, service, or business model can be an improvement on something that already exists.
Professor Oded Shenkar, in his book Copycats, argues that we overlook the strategic value of imitation and that our innovations usually include a “strong dose of imitation.” He cites Apple as an expert at “assembly imitation” that uses creativity in its “novel recombination of existing technologies.” (Apple, as all techies know, has always copied features from other products, beginning with their first Macintosh computer that used the graphical visual interface of Xerox’s PARC computers.)
This sheds light on a famous quote of Steve Jobs:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.
In the music world, no band invented rock & roll. The Beatles, for instance, developed their sound by borrowing copiously from others, especially in the beginning: the harmonies of the Everly Brothers; the electric guitar chops of Chuck Berry; the lead vocal styling of Little Richard (a Paul McCartney favorite) or Smoky Robinson (a John Lennon favorite). A whole lot of imitating going on. They also copied a hairstyle that was emerging in Europe at the time: the now-famous mop-top hairdo.
But through their “novel recombination” of elements (connecting and synthesizing), The Beatles produced a gestalt that was truly innovative—and in the process changed rock & roll (and pop culture) forever.
There were many other innovative recombinators: Sly & the Family Stone cooked up a stew of rock, funk, and soul and performed it with the first integrated, mixed-gender band. The Grateful Dead combined improvisational live shows (common to jazz but not to rock at the time) with a give-it-away-free customer service model (free concerts + free taping) to launch a new rock & roll business model—and lay the foundation for the internet business model years later. KISS added makeup, costumes, and pyrotechnics to basic party rock to produce rock & roll theater.
Of course there are other examples of rock & roll innovation, of which I’m sure you’ll remind me.