Some lessons from Bruce Steinberg

by Doc Searls

Bruce Steinberg was the best Linux Journal reader I ever had, qualifying on the grounds of correspondence volume alone. His letters to this one editor were always long, and always thick with good humor, good advice, and rich history. Bruce was a Unix/Linux geek of the first water, and worked for many years at SCO, long before that "brand" was shamed at the end of its life. He was also a veteran of the rock & roll world, and knew more about the band Tower of Power than most people know about life. (It mattered to us both that the band, at the time traveling under another name but using the same horn section and singer Hubert Tubbs, played at our wedding.)

Bruce died in 2007, the day before I posted this. While he wrote a great deal, mostly to friends, he didn't post much, and most of that is now gone because — so it appears — his domains were not renewed. (This is a risk I also visited here.)

But a few minutes ago, while searching for something else, I ran across an email Bruce sent in February 2007. Since it's a great sampling of his work, and he's not here to object (and I doubt he would), I'll run it in full — including the now-bad links at the end. He wrote it in response to one of my SuitWatch newsletters, Building a Relationship Economy. More about that below.

Hi Doc--

I read your SuitWatch today with particular interest since the notion and role of "relationship" has been particularly conspicuous in a number of my recent and currently prospective transactions. Moreover, in keeping with your musical examples, they all involve profoundly personal musical memorabilia that have equally deep (sometimes I think maybe even deeper) roots in the global collective memory and consciousness.

Music, lyrics and songs resonate for their creators (and, again, perhaps even more so for many listeners) on a level that's arguably unmatched by any other medium of expression. I can relate to your sense of surprise at Sayo's notion of "relationship" being a separate -- and higher -- level of connection than mere "conversation," but on the other hand, that may just be a sad commentary on how devoid of any real "relationship" most of what we let pass for "conversation" really is.

I think that any of us who have ever been professionally successful as "creatives" -- whether free-form DJs, art directors, copywriters, or musicians -- realized somewhere early on (and I mean early in life, not just early in career) that "conversation" without "relationship" is empty bullshit, and succeeded in synthesizing and creating working niches and personal sandboxes in which we could meld the two domains together to not only be linked, or even interdependent, but all-the-way ~identical~ if a connection was going to be worth a fuck at all.

When I was at SCO, people who were familiar with my music-business background used to regularly comment to me how strange it must be coming out of the music business to wind up working in the computer business since the former is so "crazy" while the latter is so "straight."

Au contraire, I would routinely reply: the computer business (and corporate culture in general) is actually far crazier than the music business. Sure, in the music business, everyone is crazy, but they ~celebrate~ their insanity by sublimating it into writing, recording and promoting million-selling heartbreaking tunes anyone can relate to about being crazy (in love, life, or a bottle of Jim Beam), whereas in the computer business, everyone is ~just as crazy~, but they're in ~stone fucking denial~ about it -- and what's crazier than being in denial about one's own essential craziness?

At that point I would generally stop short of suggesting that they go catch a 12-step meeting lest they think I was both preachy and crazy, but the fact is that a good grasp of recovery issues often helped me navigate through the maze of duplicity (and as Big Daddy said to Brick in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," ~the strong smell of mendacity in the air~) on a daily basis, and keep me grounded in what indeed was real when people all around me were pissing on my shoes and telling me it's raining.

Actually, I think Sayo was telling you something you already well knew, but that we're all constantly encouraged to ignore: just as "faith without works is dead," so is "conversation" without real "relationship."

In fact, even in traditional, old-school, pre-Cluetrain marketing communications, direct-mail gurus would counsel that DM isn't just a display ad with a stamp on it; if the goals of display advertising and direct-mail had to be summarized in one word apiece, those words would respectively be "awareness" and "relationship."

The GEICO caveman may create amusing presence and name-recognition from coast to coast, but the DM letter with the P.S. call-to-action, the 800 number, and the BRC inviting you to compare your insurance rates at least offers a rudimentary stab at "relationship" in trying to find out what interests you and GEICO have in common, insurance-wise.

(Of course, the ultimate corporate conceit regarding the concept of "relationship" is its co-option into the notion of so-called "CRM," a term that always make me cringe if I even catch it peripherally from three columns over. But I won't elaborate on that semantic corruption with you here since I already suspect I'd be preaching to the choir. :)

The first major ad I ever did for SCO back in 1984 ("XENIX NOW!" -- see attached) was an exercise in subtle, understated "relationship." It was actually inspired by a straightforward tactical press release I'd written about a month earlier, coining the term "XENIX NOW!" as the catchy name of a made-up channel program to address and exploit the sudden notoriety that IBM had brought to Microsoft's Xenix by announcing "IBM Xenix" for the 286-based PC AT. SCO had helped MS port Xenix to the Intel PC, and in fact had secured from MS the exclusive rights to Xenix for the 8088/86).

When the phones cooled off and the press figured out who we were for the first time, I had a moment to muse that "XENIX NOW!" sounded like a title for some kind of action-adventure film, and the idea of a movie-poster ad was born.

Despite its ostensibly whimsical movie-poster motif for a systems-software ad, I consciously intended it to say to a purely techie audience, "we know who you really are, we know why you write C++ code at 2:00am, we know that in your nerdy hearts you're an undiscovered freakin' movie star without a movie -- well here's your movie, motherfucker, and you're already a star as far as SCO is concerned." And it worked big-time, bringing SCO and a lot of VARs and OEMs into a conversation about their virtual show-biz relationship and the virtual Oscars we were all going to share for Best Supporting OS.

So anyway, what does "relationship" have to do with the recent and prospective personal transactions I mentioned earlier?

In one case, I got a call from my old pal in Japan, bassist (and Headhunter) Paul Jackson, who among other things, wrote the funk classic "Cameleon" with Herbie Hancock for Herbie's first proto-funk album, "Head Hunters," in 1973. Paul is thinking of selling his cherished old bass, Geraldine (named after Flip Wilson's cross-dressing alter ego, in a wry homage to B.B. King's Lucille :) that he used on "Cameleon" and many other funk standards. (See attached PDF of a quickie CD cover I did for Paul a couple of years ago that features both him and Geraldine.)

Electronically, it was way ahead of its time (and is still pretty state-of-the-art, thanks to numerous upgrades through the years), but it's also got one of the most notorious and legendary backstories in all of electric-bass history. Accordingly, Paul wants a lot for it -- probably more than he'll ever see in the usual legendary-instrument market channels.

I've been looking to sell a few of my own better-known rock 'n' roll memorabilia, such as the original jukebox I still have from the cover of the 10x-platinum "Best of the Doobies" (…), or some old personal correspondence with Pete Townshend and the original Fleetwood Mac, along with limited-edition archival digital prints of my vintage music photos and artwork (some selected samples of which are linked below and attached herewith) and have been in recent discussions with the collectibles appraisers at major global auction houses such as Bonhams, Christie's and Sotheby's.

Just last night, in fact, I caught the head music-collectibles valuator and curator for Bonhams in London on his mobile while he was driving to an off-site location. With all due respect to the Doobies (especially from the UK), he reiterated what his US counterpart in LA had already told me a while ago -- that the pantheon of the gods to the music-collectibles auction crowd is a short list of mostly dead, mythic performers such as Lennon, Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, especially shots that have never been published before.

When I told him that I had some excellent shots of Janis and Morrison that have not only never been published before, but that I've never even printed myself and have only ever viewed through a loupe on a proof sheet of a 35 mm chrome, he almost drove off the road. In 40 years, one figures that one has seen everything that's ever going to surface on Janis and Jim, so images like I'm talking about are like the black monolith in "2001" dropping in from Jupiter. The relationship that some folks feel with those two is huge to this day, and surpatheth all understanding and reason (and, hopefully, reasonable personal budgets).

At any rate, I told Paul I thought his expectations were high even for auction houses such as Christie's, which had recently gotten close to a million dollars for Eric Clapton's famed Stratocaster, "Blackie," but on the other hand had failed more recently to hit a far lower reserve of about $160,000 for one of Hendrix's Strats. (Auctions -- go figure.)

Paul's reaction was that if the mainstream rock-collectibles auction arena doesn't produce prospects who might have both the requisite appreciation and discretionary funds to meet his expectations, he'd be okay with going underground in the even more rarefied and exotic private markets of Japan, China, and elsewhere in Asia where there are networks of high-rollers and whales who love American jazz and funk and feel they have such a special "relationship" with it that money is even less of an object than it might be at a Christie's auction in London (or even Paul Allen's EMP museum in Seattle).

Maybe he'll get what he wants, and maybe he won't, but in any case, I'm just reminded that collectible memorabilia auctions are classic examples of transactional arenas in which the sense of "relationship" to the item, its seller, and its history and provenance can transcend and even supplant the basic "conversation."

Meanwhile, let me know if you (or any affluent, music-loving acquaintances of yours) may be interested in Geraldine, the Doobies' jukebox, or any of these archival, fine-art photographs. :)

In any case, when are you going to be up this way so we can hook up at Peet's? ')

All the best, B*


Bruce Steinberg

The work I wrote about in that Suitwatch has been proceeding. has become an international effort by many developers, including substantial open source work. We're having a workshop this Thursday and Friday called VRM+CRM 2010, at Harvard Law School. It's pretty much filled, but if you're interested follow it anyway. The hashtag is #vrmcrm2010.

The image at the top of this post, by the way, is an "r-button". These things are at the center of my own development work. You can read more about them at the wikis and code sites here:

Load Disqus comments