Westworld Scoring Competition: Content, Process, and Relationship

 Jun 29, 2020 ·  6min read

Leadership

How a high-profile music competition by Spitfire Audio and HBO with 11'000 participants ends in a PR disaster—and how distinguishing content, process, and relationship levels could help to recover.


In May 2020, Spitfire Audio and HBO invited media composers all over the world to participate in a scoring competition: to compose and produce the music to a clip from the third season of the TV show Westworld. In the following weeks until the final submission date, ca. 11'000 professionals and hobbyists entered the competition, according to Spitfire Audio.

It sounds like a huge success, right?


Disclaimer

I just recently started as a hobby composer and didn’t enter the competition. This article reflects my opinion as an observer from the sidelines.


The runner-ups and the winner were announced on June 28, 2020, via YouTube.

That’s when things went sideways. As you can tell from the winners announcement on YouTube, the overwhelming amount of the currently 2,410 comments can be considered as disagreeing with the jury’s choice. At the time of writing, the like/dislike feature of the announcing video is disabled—a strong hint that users have been heavily disliking the competition’s conclusion so that Spitfire Audio felt forced to disable the rating function.

The day after the announcement, Spitfire Audio’s co-founder Christian Henson published a YouTube video defending why the winner won and complaining about the participants’ complaints, not differentiating in any way the distinct points of feedback his company received.

What looked like a huge success initially seems more like a PR disaster a day later. Remember: The participants and observers have to be considered Spitfire Audio’s current or future paying customers.

Let’s Separate Concerns: Content, Process, and Relationship 

It seems like part of the community and Spitfire Audio are debating on different levels without realizing it. The following is one way of structuring the debate:

Content 

The first level is the content of the winning entry: the music, its style, and its (mis-)fit to the story on-screen. I’ll let you be the judge yourself:

However you (dis-)like the composition, there are a million arguments to be made in favor and contra. And that’s OK. We’re talking about music here. There’s no right and no wrong. It’s subjective. This also means that it’s perfectly fine to give the award to this composition.

So let’s move on and take a look at something else, something more objective:

Process 

The second level is the process of the judgment. That’s where things get interesting…

Upfront, Spitfire Audio defined terms and conditions for participation. These stated:

You may not modify the Westworld Clip in any way.

spitfireaudio.com, via Internet Archive

The winning entry did exactly that by altering the original audio track. However minor you’d consider the modifications, the terms and conditions prohibit any modification. In essence, the jury set up rules that they then ignored. No room for debate here.

The confusion starts when Spitfire Audio celebrates that the winner broke the rules (i.e. expectations and conventions) regarding the content—and doesn’t understand why the community complains that the winner broke the rules regarding the process. “Breaking the rules” can carry two very different meanings here!

To make matters worse, Spitfire Audio in the person of Christian Henson claims that violating terms and conditions (i.e. process) is the norm in the industry:

Welcome to the world of media composition.

Let me translate how I’d interpret this statement as a customer of Spitfire Audio in the context of his entire video: “The market for media composers is unfair and this competition was no exception. Learn to deal with it. Welcome to the world of Spitfire Audio where we arbitrarily disregard our terms and conditions—and complain about our customers’ complaints after not listening carefully at all.”

Working in the media industry myself, I’m not surprised that composers have to deal with the arbitrariness of their clients.

But here’s another truth: Audio library vendors like Spitfire Audio also have to deal with the arbitrariness of their clients—who are… the composers. Oops.

Does it seem that Spitfire Audio forgot that for a moment?

Which brings me to the third level: relationship.

Relationship 

It’s complicated.

Relationship status between Spitfire Audio and their customers right now

It’s true that for the brief moment of the scoring competition, roles in this relationship were reversed: Spitfire Audio was the client, the 11'000 participating composers were the suppliers. Spitfire Audio forgot to switch back roles after the competition, reverting to one of x suppliers to these 11'000 customers and many more thousands of composers who observed from the sidelines.

So what happened was: A supplier tells his customers in a rude way that they should grow up and accept unfairness. Unfairness they’re used to receive from their clients. Unfairness they’ll have to expect from their supplier now, too.

Let that arrogant stance sink in for a moment.

It’s like treating your queen and king like you’d be their king and queen. Not sure if this will work out as intended by Spitfire Audio. My theory: It’ll substantially affect the trust, the relationship with their customer base they’ve built over the years. And this in turn will affect their financial bottom line.

Welcome to the world of audio library suppliers.

The media composer community in hyperbolic response to Christian Henson’s statement

Since it’s been Spitfire Audio who violated the process and hence the relationship, it’s up to them to fix it.

Some Ideas for the Way Forward 

Here are a few ideas on how to repair this. First, pinpoint who’s debating on what level at any given moment (content, process, or relationship). Second, see that both parties are right on the respective level:

  • Spitfire Audio is right (or at least not wrong) on the content level. Yes, the winning entry is a worthy winner in terms of music composition and production.
  • The community is right (or at least not wrong) on the process level. Yes, Spitfire Audio as the host of the competition didn’t adhere to their own rules and undermined the trust of the entrants in the process (which has an effect on the relationship level with their customers).

If I were leading Spitfire Audio, I’d do the following: I’d acknowledge that the process of the judgment was flawed and the community was right in pointing that out. I’d take this opportunity to learn from the mistakes (as there were made more than one). I’d try to restore the trust of my clients in my reliability as a business partner and my credibility as a brand that’s proud to pay attention to detail.

The main thing in my opinion would be to admit that the process was not up to the standards of Spitfire Audio and adopt a less arrogant stance towards their customers.

Let’s see how Spitfire Audio’s leadership will handle this going forward. If they stick with their current behavior, I’m afraid that their next competition will not earn 11'000 entries. It might even have been the last competition, period. And of course, it might impact their business. Spitfire Audio might make fewer sales in the future; composers might have less Spitfire Audio libraries in the future.

That’d be tragic.

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About the Author

Michael Schmidle

Digital Strategy and Innovation Manager at the Swiss Broadcast Corporation SRG SSR. Coach, start-up consultant, and blogger. Opinionated about technology, innovation, and leadership. In love with Mexico.

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