Thinking About Systems

“A system* is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.”

Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Systems in Music and Marketing

Running a marketing campaign is a performance. In both music and marketing, the aim is to deliver messages to an audience. How or if a message is received is dependent on the components of the delivery system.

Music Performance Components

Playing a set of drums is a system. The drummer’s limbs appear to be working independently, each executing a different rhythm or sound on the drum set. In reality, the hands and feet are working with each other. First, they agree on a common pulse and then work in and around the notes and the spaces in between to create a unified drum part.

I enjoy autonomy running my system of drums, deciding which instruments to set up — big bass drum or little bass drum (two bass drums?), how many toms, cymbals, sounds and effects — what sticks, mallets and brushes to use, and how and when to strike. However, autonomy stops when I perform with others. The drums become a component of a different system, one that is reliant on multiple pieces working together in order to be successful.

A simple system, where I’m playing brushes on a pizza box to accompany a vocalist, who would otherwise be singing a capella, is easy to assess. You can tell whether or not the duo sounds good because there are so few pieces to analyze: 1) brush percussion, 2) voice and 3) the song. The more complex a system is, the more it’s reliant on all of the other components working fitting properly. Components for live performance can include other musicians, song selection, stage layout, sound mix, lighting and costumes, as well as amenities for the audience, such as seating and concessions.

live performance feedback look graphic

An email marketing message has many components that need to work. Technical components need to ensure delivery and provide a good experience on all devices. The creative needs to be optimized so that the subject line and preheader compel the open, copy persuades and the call to action (CTA) prompts action.

The email message may be a single component of an email campaign, which could be a component of a larger integrated marketing campaign involving search marketing, social media and display advertising, radio, streaming services, print, television and more. All of these components might be executed perfectly, but they may also need a good website landing page, call center agent or other response.

How Well Is the System Working?

Is the system broken or are there parts of the system that are broken? Growth, whether in art or craft, requires continuous analysis of both what’s working and what isn’t.

Analyze Individual Components

Isolating components from the system, giving focus on the individual components that make up the sum, is key when troubleshooting problems or simply learning why something works.

When we’re listening to a playback of a take in the recording studio, we’re making sure all of the message delivery components are working. If we feel the song is missing its pocket, we may isolate elements to see if we can learn what’s getting in the way, whether it’s a musical part, the timing of a piece, a dynamic or some other issue. Another reason to isolate tracks is to learn what makes a recording so great. Search “isolated track” in YouTube to hear famous recordings in a different way. For me, it’s the shaker track that makes my head bob to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”

The same critical analysis is done in digital marketing. We constantly review our analytics dashboards to see what’s working and what isn’t.

Maintain Perspective: Visualize Large, Analyze Deep

Mistakes can lead to interesting results, especially in art. Keep the big picture in mind and don’t lose the visualization. But honing a craft requires deep analysis. I’m comfortable riding with the devil because she’s always in the details.

This video was filmed from within the hi-hat cymbals during a Jonathan Burks band rehearsal. I wanted to see and hear what it feels like to sit between two cymbals getting struck and crashing into one another while the band is playing the song. This is an extreme perspective, where one percussive instrument is the center of the universe and the rest of the drum kit and all of the other musicians orbit around.


The content behind these links provide good introductions to systems thinking.