Virgin Group founder and chairman Richard Branson is known as much for his success across a wide variety of businesses as he is for his eccentric personality.
As he writes in his new book “The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership,” he realised early on that a ridiculous prank or silly photo opp could serve as a fun way to bring attention to Virgin. In retrospect, he thinks that one of his biggest pranks may actually have inspired iTunes and the iPod — or, at the very least, predicted the basic premise of them 15 years before they launched.
In 1986, he arranged an exclusive interview on March 31 with Music Week, which was then the United Kingdom’s biggest trade paper for music industry insiders, knowing that the story would be published on April Fool’s Day.
“I told them that for years Virgin had been secretly developing a giant computer, on which we had stored every music track we could lay our hands on. This revolutionary device would be called Music Box, and music lovers would be able to use it as a source from which, for a small fee, they could download any individual song or album they wanted,” he writes. Customers would access these songs through their cable boxes.
Branson’s plan went perfectly, and the next day Music Week’s lead story read “Branson’s Bombshell: The End of the Industry.”
He says that he spent the morning fielding phone calls from music industry executives either begging him or threatening him to abandon an idea that could destroy their livelihoods. At noon, he made a public statement saying that the then-absurd idea was just an elaborate joke — one that music execs or Music Week’s editors didn’t find very funny.
According to Branson, there was someone who not only appreciated the joke but saw something more in it.
“It was many years later when I ran into Steve Jobs at some event or another that he told me that he too had read the bogus Music Box story and had been utterly taken in by it,” he writes. “At the time he had just been edged out of Apple and founded NeXT, but he said he’d never forgotten my spoof and at the time thought that, joke or no joke, there was definitely something to be said for our Music Box idea.”
Apple unveiled iTunes and the iPod in 2001, which disrupted the music industry and gave consumers an alternative to buying physical CDs. The launch of Virgin’s own digital music store in 2005, Virgin Digital, wasn’t enough to keep the once mighty Virgin Megastore chain from dying in 2009.
Of course, even Branson admits that it’s impossible to say just how much his prank inspired Jobs (who he has said is his favourite entrepreneur), but he says he’s always been haunted by the idea that he laid the seed for his own business’ death.
Since seeing how an idea that he dismissed as silly ultimately predicted the future, he’s realised that it’s a mistake to write off an idea that some may find absurd. It’s why, in 2004, he was able to launch Virgin Galactic, his commercial space travel company still in development.
“Clearly the moral behind this story is that if you’re going to let others know — even as an April Fool’s joke — how you think your industry might look in the future then you had better make sure that your company has a plan already in place to get you there first,” Branson writes. “If you don’t, then the joke could very easily be on you!”
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