Smells Like Team Spirit

It isn’t often that you actually get a look at corporate life as it’s actually lived from the inside. That’s part of what makes The Target Shoots First, a new video documentary by filmmaker Chris Wilcha, so memorable (click here to buy a copy of the video). In 1993, upon graduating college with an ever-marketable degree in philosophy, Wilcha took a job at the Columbia House record club (which was co-owned by Sony and Time Warner) as a marketing assistant, mostly so he could buy time until he figured out what he was really going to do with his life. He brought with him a devotion to punk and indie rock and a video camera that, somewhat improbably, he used to tape marketing meetings, design discussions, conversations with his fellow employees, and a visit to the plant where Columbia House actually manufactures and distributes its product.

The result is a movie that’s a remarkable document of the time when it was made. Wilcha arrived at Columbia House in the middle of the alternative-rock explosion, which at the time looked like it was going to reshape the music industry but would instead quickly fade away. In the wake of the huge success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, which was released in September of 1991 and stayed on the charts for more than a year, major record labels went on a band-signing spree, adding to their rosters any act that seemed to offer even the faintest possibility of being the next Nirvana. Of course, since this was a lot like signing a host of bands hoping to find the next Beatles, the strategy didn’t work.

Still, in 1993 no one knew this. All the people at Columbia House knew was that something important was happening and that they had no clue either what it really was or, more important, how to make money off it. In some sense, alternative rock really did shake the industry, because it came, if not from nowhere, then nowhere that the major labels had previously cared about. The magnitude of Nirvana’s success–and the success of its lesser Seattle brethren, like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden–was such that it couldn’t be ignored. (Parallels could be drawn between the record industry’s reaction to Nevermind and the film industry’s reaction to sex, lies, and videotape.)

What all this meant was that people like Wilcha, which is to say people who had been listening to Nirvana and the Replacements and Minor Threat and Hüsker Dü long before Nevermind broke, suddenly seemed incredibly valuable. On a smaller scale, what happened to them was like what happened to people with Internet experience in 1996. Doors that would normally have been sealed tightly shut were opened, and they were given far more freedom in the workplace than 25-year-olds typically enjoy. The Target Shoots First begins with Wilcha’s adjusting to the vaguely Dilbertesque world of Columbia House and delineates the sharp division between the suits on the 19th floor (home of marketing) and the creative people on the 17th floor, and then shows what happened when Wilcha and a colleague were given a mandate to create a separate alternative-rock catalog that Columbia House could send its subscribers.

They essentially turned the catalog into the kind of self-aware, inside-reference-laced music magazine that they would want to read themselves. And it was a huge hit. Except, of course, that no matter how clever it was, it was in the end still a catalog. And its success mostly meant that Sony and Time Warner would get to sell more CDs.

In his voice-over narration, Wilcha is open about his dismay at this fact, and the movie as a whole is embedded in a critique of consumerism that seems ultimately naive. But naive or not, that dismay certainly feels true to its time, as does Wilcha’s decision to stop filming after the suicide of Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana. It may seem odd to think of five or six years ago as a “different time,” but in so many ways (pre-Internet, pre-Gingrich, pre-boom, still expecting the recession of 1990-1991 to come back) it was. And one of the things that was most different was the feeling that music really mattered, that Nirvana’s having a No. 1 record would make a real difference in the culture as a whole. The Target Shoots First is amazingly moving, at least for me, precisely because it reminds me of what it was like to feel that way, and so of what it is like not to feel that way now.

Having said all that, the most interesting thing about the film is the way it shows how changing the way people work actually makes a material difference to the kind of work they do. When Wilcha and his colleague were given the job of starting the alt-rock catalog, they explicitly adopted a team structure, breaking down the traditional hierarchical division between the 19th and 17th floors and integrating the marketing, creative, and design functions in a way that had never been done before at Columbia House. The result, perhaps predictably, was a working environment that was both more enjoyable and, by all accounts, more productive. It was, in other words, exactly the kind of experience that Fast Company loves to write about.

This matters because the critique of consumerism that animates The Target Shoots First is often accompanied by a critique of Fast Company-, Tom Peters-style ideas about work that dismisses these ideas as covers for corporate power. But Wilcha’s movie ends up showing that, at least at Columbia House, people really can be happier and more engaged if they’re allowed to work differently. This doesn’t mean, of course, that team structures are the route to paradise, especially if you think making profits for Sony is immoral. But it does serve as a nice reminder that not all fads are frauds.