What product management taught me about releasing an album

Last Tuesday, I released an album of music. It’s something I’ve worked on part-time for almost a year. Each track is inspired by a natural phenomenon.

I initially thought of this as a creative venture fairly different from my day job. Surely nothing from my day job would carry over, right?

Wrong.

While the end product is music someone listens to and not software someone uses, it turns out product management skills and techniques were very much in play as I went from early idea to published work. Here are a few that I used along the way:

Working backward

Product visions illustrate what changes in the world when the product exists, and what success looks like when the product is released and adopted. Some, like Amazon, write this vision down in the form of a future press release.

While I didn’t write a press release for my album, I did think ahead to what a release it would look like, and anticipated the things I would need to figure out:

  1. I knew I wanted an album that combined electronic with acoustic and electric instruments, so I had to research the best ways to get the sounds that I wanted.
  2. I knew I had a fair bit to compose, so I knew I had to research MIDI controllers and other input mechanisms for my setup.
  3. I wanted it to be released on streaming services, which meant I had to figure out what my options were for self-publishing through a distributor.
  4. I knew I wanted it to be listened to, so I had to come up with a plan for how to get the word out.

Defining a schedule

Work often fills available time, and for my album I had no hard deadline. To avoid working on it indefinitely, I set a personal goal of releasing it before end of 2020. This artificial deadline helped motivate me to spend time working on my music. It also ensured I wasn’t spending too much time tinkering, rethinking, or dwelling on parts of the work that were effectively done.

Making hard cuts

Early on, I had desires to have fifteen or even more tracks to my album. I had dreams of doing field recordings, and maybe even collaborating with other musicians. All of this takes time. That, combined with the reality that the last 10% of a project often takes the most time, made me cut back to something that was more reasonable: a 10-track solo album created in my home studio.

Beta testing

Often customers are asked to use a product in advance of it being released, to help the development team find and fix issues. As I was nearing completion of my album and doing final mixing and mastering, I listened to the music on various speakers including earbuds, car stereos, smartphones, and cheap monophonic Bluetooth speakers. I also shared the music with a few people to listen in advance. This all helped me uncover and fix small issues that I otherwise wouldn’t have uncovered.

– – – – –

While there are many differences between shipping software and making music, my day job doing the former certainly helped me figure out the latter.

I welcome your thoughts on how your day job may have helped you with a creative side venture. And, if you’re interested, take a listen to my work.

Don’t piss off your power users

I’m one of those weirdos that listens to podcasts at twice the normal speed. I do this because I listen to hours of podcasts a week, and I consume them more quickly this way.

I use Apple’s Podcasts app to listen on my iPhone. When I recently upgraded my iPhone to the beta of iOS 14.3, I was surprised to find this 2x playback feature broken. No matter what setting I chose, podcasts would play at regular speed.


Needless to say, I was quite disappointed. This bug effectively cut my listening efficiency in half. Plus, suddenly everyone seemed to speak s-o s-l-o-w-l-y.

While this was a bug, and Apple did fix it a few days ago, let’s imagine it wasn’t. What if Apple decided to remove this feature intentionally? After all, most people listen to podcasts at normal speed. Those weirdos like me are just the small minority of outlier users. Apple needs to focus on the mainstream, right?

Not quite.

Power users are free advertising. They laud your product to others. They email you feedback at 3AM. They buy a lot of your products. They’re a small minority of your user base but wield an outsized level of influence over the success of your product.

The 2x playback feature is an example of a power user feature. It’s something most people don’t use. But of those that do, chances are they’re fairly serious about podcast consumption. Take a feature like this away intentionally, and those users will, at minimum, likely complain loudly and switch quickly to another podcast app.

The moral of this anecdote: when looking at features to add, extend, or remove from your product, don’t just look at how frequently the feature is used. Also look at the broader behaviors of the users using that feature, including level of engagement. If you have a small group of users enthusiastically using a feature, don’t take it away. You’ll just piss them off.