Using the Early History of Jazz as a Case Study for Innovation, Marketing and More

July 16, 2014

Damon Phillips remembers finding the "Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz" in his parents’ record collection with its 46-page booklet of liner notes about the music when he was about 10 years old. “I just sat there on the floor with those albums,” he recalls. “It was the first time I had read something trying to explain jazz. It planted a seed.”

As a teenager he learned to play the saxophone and later, as a business professor, spent a decade studying the influence of record companies and their executives on the development and marketing of early jazz. Its emergence coincided with the birth of the recording business, providing an opportunity to study how a new industry takes shape.

His book "Shaping Jazz," published late last year, describes how the racial dynamics of the early 20th century and record company executives’ aspirations to join the cultural elite shaped what we now know as jazz. While the music was popular and provided an opportunity for new companies to make money, it was mostly associated with African Americans as well as immigrants considered low class—Italians, Irish and Jews.

To appeal to the cultural elite, some of the music that companies recorded was a hybrid of jazz and other popular music at the time. Sometimes the musical groups were listed in music catalogs under pseudonyms, called orchestras instead of jazz bands. New record labels emerged to give musicians more freedom to improvise and innovate. And as jazz evolved, the companies also learned about the link between record sales and what is played on the radio.

“Understanding this kind of world is important given the direction our economy is going,” says Phillips, now the James Gorman Professor of Business Strategy at Columbia. “How companies position themselves is really important. What does innovation mean, what does novelty mean, what are the boundaries of a particular market?”

Phillips, who came to Columbia in 2011 after a dozen years at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, took an unusual route to business school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Morehouse College, a master’s in aeronautics and astronautics from M.I.T., and worked for a family-owned electronics company before getting a master’s in sociology and a Ph.D. in business from Stanford.

He is slightly dyslexic and as a high school student was more comfortable with science and math than the humanities. But later he realized he could handle subjects that involved intensive reading and writing, and saw the opportunity to do something he was passionate about— solving problems in a different way. His research and teaching interests include organizational change, innovation and professional services. “I love puzzles,” he says, “and puzzles around human behavior are much more complicated, much more humbling and more intriguing.”

Colleagues in Columbia’s Music Department have embraced his work, and he is a faculty affiliate at the Center for Jazz Studies. In February, he helped organize a conference about the creative process that brought together musicians, jazz scholars, psychologists and neuroscientists from Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and Kavli Institute for Brain Science.

To prepare the book, Phillips listened to vintage recordings and oral histories, read newspaper and magazine articles from the early 20th century, reviewed advertising and marketing data, and interviewed musicians and consumers who were teenagers at the time.

Phillips incorporates his research into his teaching at the Business School, where his wife Katherine Phillips is the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics and on July 1 becomes senior vice dean. “I talk about how difficult it is to strategize when you don’t know where the market is going, or even how to characterize the market,” he says.

He is now studying rap music. Like early jazz, he says, it is improvisational and controversial— not everyone agrees about what is good. Young people see it as a way to express their identity while the older generation voices moral concerns. He is particularly interested in how artists position themselves in the market, he says, and whether the use of luxury goods and profanity helps or hurts them. “It’s early in the industry and a chance to see how it develops,” he says. “It’s sociology meets economics.”

— by Georgette Jasen