As a 90s teen, I grew up on the joke “Alternative ___ is so everywhere now. Alternative to what? Sure seems like mainstream to me.”
Alternative Data has been having one of those moments in the 2020s and music’s a good reminder of the way mainstream evolves is by alternating what’s hot and what’s not.
And – the truly alternative things rarely become mainstream. A more polished version does. It’s why we got famous Nirvana but not famous Pixies.
It’s also how we get to Nickelback, but this isn’t that post.
Alternative Data is having its moment (in case your industry hasn’t been bombarded with this). The recent AI developments in “Big Compute” are turbocharging it, but it’s been happening for a while.
Alt bands playing alt clubs for alt fans. Cool. And suddenly in ‘90s land, it’s on MTV. The popular kid in the hallway has the band’s shirt on one Friday, and for the first time ever comes up to you and says, “Oh don’t you like these guys too?!”
But this is data at your job. So you can’t really tell them to f*** off. Under your breath or out loud. You’re a professional, not a teenager.
You also can’t/shouldn’t throw a previously favorite t-shirt in the trash. So you hide it in a drawer maybe. It’s still a sad day. The emotions are mixed. You’ll find a new favorite, but for today, you feel somehow betrayed.
In markets where private information gives one side an advantage over the other, non-mainstream – aka alternative data – can be very valuable.
The problem is sifting through it. That’s what makes it alternative. It might be useful, it might not be, so there is a cottage industry of data peddlers that are basically the left of the dial operators of the era.*
Just like not every band can be alternative, definitionally, not every data source or provider can be alternative.
Beware companies trotting labels like cool band t-shirts. Once everybody can score a Joshua Tree tee at Old navy, there’s no real edge (pun intended).
If you are a company who offers data, and that data is built to give someone an advantage in a competitive market, it might be time to pick a new term or expression.
If you’re a consumer or user of data for competitive advantages, stay selective and don’t believe the hype-terms.
Shoutout to Matt Ober and Jason DeRise who have been making me think about this a lot lately. Extra bonus points to DeRise who invoked Butch Vig references in “What Alt Data Should Learn From Alt Rock.” Don’t overlook Ober either. Read his CV, he’s got datahead-cred, and he moshed out an excellent note recently titled, “It’s just data.”
Last but not least – never forget Matt Diehl in Rolling Stone with one of the most inspired Nickelback takes from just after they broke in 2001. Diehl describes the band as, “the sonic equivalent of too many unfortunate goatees.” Poetry.
Counterculture lives on. Never forget it’s always hiding somewhere. The Replacements still hold the spot for my favorite music video ever: