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The Black Keys Play Portland and the Art of the Minimum Viable Product

the balck keys, portland civic center, portland, maine

The Black Keys played the Portland Civic Center Tuesday night and it's fair to say that Maine was rocked. Beyond being another inspiring duo that shows how much you can do with so little, the band is a great example of a "minimum viable product" gone viral.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP for short) is a tech term usually associated with apps that, in the words of Seth Godin, is "The thought is that you should spec and build the smallest kernel of your core idea, put it in the world and see how people react to it, then improve from there." There are many good things about this approach. You don't sit around thinking and perfecting in isolation. You try to distill your idea to its essence, build the best version of it you can quickly and put it out there. The downside, as Godin points out, is that, "With enough patience and push and consistent enthusiasm, these products have a shot at crossing the threshold [into viability]. But if the mindset is 'see what works and do it more,' you'll often discover yourself giving up long before that happens."

The Black Keys didn't give up. Childhood friends from Akron, Ohio, Dan Auerbach plays guitar and vocals and Patrick Carney play drums. Up until this tour, that was it, just the two of them on stage. They formed the group in 2001, and recorded their first album in Carney's basement the following year. They toured frequently, playing small venues and building a fan base. They also started to make some real money licensing their rough, riff-heavy tunes for advertising. In 2006 they signed with Nonesuch (either a minor major label or a major minor label depending on how you look at it), but it was not until 2010 with their album Brothers that they really sold a lot of records.

Assuming you do stick with it, the minimum viable product model has many benefits. The immediacy of The Black Keys' music comes from them having identified the irreducible components of rock and roll (the beat, the guitar, the rough vocals) and pushed them hard. There's something refreshing and direct about their approach. There are no blind alleys or self indulgent solos—everything is in service of the song. Along the way they've updated blues vocals and redeemed heavy metal guitar tone for a new generation of alternative rock fans. The music before their set was Otis Redding and after Led Zeppelin. This says a lot about the intergenerational nature of their appeal, but the crowd on Tuesday night was heavy on twenty-somethings.

And although Auerbach is singing all the songs, it is Carney that is responsible for their propulsion. A tall man behind a standard rock drum kit, the effect is of an oversized child at play. It's like on the web, all the great content in the world won't get you anywhere without traffic, and in rock and roll, the drummer is the traffic.

At the end of their set, Auerbach (not long on patter, but verbose compared to Carney who wasn't even miked) said, "We're definitely coming back. You guys are great. This has been our best show in a long time." We're sure they say that to all their "minimum viable cities," but Portland will hold them to it.

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