The Kernel: The day the music died

Do you believe in rock and roll? Can music save your mortal soul?

When asked what American Pie actually referenced, Don McClean was reputed to say: “It means I never have to work again.” While he may have been among the handful of lucky ones to have achieved hit record nirvana, many pundits still hanker for the days when all hopeful musicians had to do was send a thousand demo tapes, tour their backside off and wait for glory.

Those days are gone, of course. The music industry is dead, gone, shuffled off this mortal coil; mere carrion to be picked apart by maudlin journalists. Behind the pronouncements about the current state of the biz from commentators, analysts and industry bodies lies a conundrum, however. Namely that people insist on continuing to listen to the damned stuff.

Today’s youth appear to be the worst culprits – not content with simply graffito-ing bus shelters or terrorising grannies on park benches, they are doing so against a back-beat of new (and un-danceable) tunes. And their generation-punk parents are no better, fathers and sons glued to YouTube and Spotify.

So, what’s really going on? Have the harbingers of industry doom got it nailed? Are we heading towards a world where creative acts return to busker status, mere sideshows in a Simon Cowell theme park or earnestly grateful participants in some free music utopia?

As with all such questions, the answer lies somewhere in between. For sure, there’s real pain being felt by many participants in the current music business, and potentially real gains to be had. If only the participants could work out where, and how.

Make the bad noises stop

Take a certain perspective on music’s recent fortunes and it is easy to get morose, particularly if your annual bonus, or indeed your mortgage depends on them. Total album sales plummeted steadily from 1999’s figure of 940 million to only 360 million in 2010, with only a minor blip in 2004. Not a great story to tell the bank manager.

The industry has put the blame firmly at the door of torrent sites and other music piracy tools, claiming up to 95 per cent of all music is illegally distributed and therefore unmonetised. While “protectionist” music publishers have been painted as the bad guys in the affair (they can, at least, be censured for their outrageously wishful thinking that every single illegal download corresponds to a lost sale), it’s difficult to imagine anyone in the same position taking a more positive stance.

Indeed, many artists have expressed similar anxiety at this erosion of revenues. Not just Metallica; many smaller, independent bands have suffered all the pain without having a major label’s lawyers to defend them. The comfort blanket of a record deal has proved scant comfort for many a good act, as cash-strapped majors have made efficiency savings by removing all but their fattest cash cows (such as Pure Reason Revolution, culled by Sony/BMG in 2006) from their rosters. To no avail. Of the big six, once-proud behemoths of music, two have already been assimilated and a third (EMI) is in the process of being, pending antitrust checks.

Digital music business models continue to baffle, meanwhile. Spotify is repeatedly being put under the spotlight about whether it pays decent royalty rates to artists, a topic on which it prefers to keep stumm (the answer: probably not, but have you any idea how much those negotiations cost?). Meanwhile, Apple’s iTunes has gone from industry darling to monopolist by taking a 30 per cent cut of every song sold though its store, even as it “owns” 70 per cent of the legal digital download pipe.

And still, hopelessly hopeful young bands hold on to the dream of getting signed by a record company, even as they upload their crown jewels to the free-for-all that, YouTube and SoundCloud and their ilk. What hope does anyone stand?

It’s not all awful

Of course if you are Coldplay, Cliff Richard or Kasabian, life remains a peach. You can record an album, head out on tour or release a DVD in the knowledge that each will more than cover its costs. “The people making it tend to be those who have already made it,” says Ed Averdieck, formerly of Nokia Music and OD2. Frustrations about artistic freedom and unfair contracts aside, today’s Don McLean types remain in a strong position.

As for the biz, recorded music sales are actually up, for the first time in seven years. Finger’s crossed that it isn’t another seven-year blip, like the one seen in 2004. Other segments of the market are also doing well, including live music revenues which increased year on year until a fall in 2010 (which could be put down to stadium-filling bands simultaneously not touring).

Move outside of the traditional music business, and a wealth of new possibilities abound. Radiohead has shown all and sundry how it is possible to be a commercial success while still cocking a snoop at the establishment; many bands have proven beyond doubt the pre-sale model to fan-fund albums or tours; the market for premium versions of albums such as Pink Floyd’s Immersion editions confirm a continued appetite for both physical music and associated flammery.

That’s before we even get to the rosy-cheeked optimism of music-related start-up businesses. It’s hard to believe that Spotify only opened for registration three years ago; even more astonishingly, YouTube (30 per cent of downloads are music videos) has been around for a mere seven.

It all adds up to evidence, surely, that the industry is alive and well? Perhaps. The trouble is that nobody seems to know what’s going on, nor have any real control over the direction things are going. “Music is messy, organic and human,” says Dan Crowe, CTO at live music site Songkick. “You can’t force it to happen.” But with business being all about a guaranteed return on investment, where exactly can more certainty be found?

Speculate, accumulate?

We can all speculate and philosophise of course, throwing out concepts and theories like long-tail or crowdsourcing, drawing Dilbert-esque bar charts and pie charts, linking boxes and arrows. We can represent or publicise the interests of one group or another, be they rights holders, publishers, retailers or industry players, individually or in combination. And we can all hope, in the process, that simply saying these things makes them so.

Or, indeed, we can just give it a go. Many start-ups and large company initiatives appear to be games of “what if”; a random progression of combinatorial experiments, each testing out new selections of features and services on an unsuspecting public, to see what sticks. And when we find, in hindsight, that only one out of a hundred ideas had any legs, we claim the experiment to be a huge success.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Individual success stories shine out as clearly as the problems they are trying to solve, such as Songkick, an online service that helps people log their musical interests and sends an alert when a particular band is playing in the local area. “Our mission is to get more people going to see live music,” says the company’s CTO, Dan Crowe.

A straightforward ambition; and when faced with the number of half-empty venues at so many live events, one that clearly needs tackling. The ticketing industry itself is in turmoil, as agents, sponsors and venues test out the business models (including the nauseatingly oxymoronic “convenience fee”), balancing their own interests with the need to get punters through the door. “There’s up to six layers of intermediary between the artists wanting to perform live, and the fans wanting to see them,” says Crowe.

For every Songkick, however, there exists a field of wannabes and also-rans, as well as the Cinderellas that are yet to find their golden slippers. In the live events space alone, for example, there’s LiveMusicStage which claims to be focusing more on the social side (like Songkick isn’t… well, yes it is), Clubbillboard which is more about clubbing, the recently deceased Plancast… the list goes on.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but praise for anyone who chooses to try to build something new and fresh, and there’s more than enough cynicism (particularly in the UK) to go round. Pretty clearly however, not all such ventures stand a chance of succeeding. It is also difficult to shake the feeling that many such setups are features, not companies. “We’ve created a mechanism for jazz listeners to share their favourite moments on Facebook,” for example.

Okay, I made that one up. But given the cauldron of opportunity, the danger of looking too closely is that all you will see is diced carrots. To understand the future, it is important to go back to the source.

Going back to basics

At the heart of all music-related sales lie six fundamentals. First, that people will continue to make, and subsequently listen to music. A raft of speculation exists on this topic, which all seems to reach the same conclusion: we do it because because it satisfies some basic, Mazlo-esque urge. So, one way or another, we’ll carry on doing so.

Second, despite common sense suggesting the contrary (“The natural inclination is to sell direct,” says Averdieck), intermediaries provide vital links between supply and demand. Managers, labels, distributors, retailers, broadcasters and agents all play their part in helping music reach its hungry audience.

The idea of disintermediation may offer a debating point but in reality each role serves its purpose. Some have discovered that they can perform certain functions themselves – self-managing bands, for example – but the management role doesn’t go away, it simply moves in-house.

Trying to remove a link in the chain can have disastrous consequences. “The music labels tried to cut out retailers, but that failed spectacularly, as retailers listen to their customers,” recalls Averdieck, which illustrates a third point, that vested interests will continue to skew the model.

Forget romantic notions of altruism: all parties are human, and therefore subject to the deadly sin of greed. Equally, grey areas of favour exchange, horse trading, back scratching and transactions that don’t make it onto the books will always exist, particularly where both money and creative types are involved. Indeed, in its worst excesses, the music biz is almost as bad as politics.

Despite this the fourth truism is that, contrary to the popular myth, people are genuinely prepared to pay for music. Sure, we are lazy and opportunistic, taking the lower road where it exists, looking for a bargain and casting a blind eye on our own hypocrisies. But as shown by Spotify’s impact on BitTorrent, we’re perfectly willing to take the legal route if it presents itself.

Turning to the artists, the fifth principle is that having a big break was never easy, and never will be. All the technology in the world will not make every hopeful ensemble successful overnight, however talented. Apart from the lucky few (and we can all win the lottery as well), most fledgling artists will still have to do their time playing basement bars, handing out flyers and taking down their own kit and if they want to make it big.

Finally, the notion of celebrity, or brand association, or whatever you want to call it, will continue to colour the musical business model. People pay a premium for Nike, Hollister and SuperDry because they want to wear the badge, and it’s the same for artists. Fans do like music, for sure, but they also like to be associated with their heroes, and are frequently willing to bang the proverbial drum in support of their favourite acts.

Musical information age

While all the technology in the world can’t change these fundamentals, it certainly offers an opportunity to do clever things. Whatever you want to call it, the interactive web, social networking or music 2.0 all try to capture the “new” ability we have to inform, share and comment on each other’s musical preferences. So many start-ups are based on the simple premise that people like talking to each other about music.

Tools from Soundcloud to Bandcamp facilitate and simplify the online experience for bands that don’t have major label marketing muscle behind them. What they don’t do is replace the need for direct interaction on the one hand, and a concrete rationale behind it on the other – as illustrated, for example, by the patronage model employed by artists such as My Life Story’s Jake Shillingford.

The two-edged sword of technology also serves in music’s publishing, delivery and monetisation. While it could be argued that YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, Pandora et al have already cornered the market, there appears to be plenty of room for others to try their luck at “reinventing music delivery”, such as the now-defunct mFlow and its successor,

The opportunity for bands to promote themselves today appears greater than ever, which raises an interesting spectre. Traditionally, artists could get on with being creative, leaving all that grubby marketing stuff to the labels. Not only might a virtuoso guitarist believe that self-promotion was for others to do, he or she might also be rubbish at doing so. In this brave new world, is there actually room for softly spoken musical genius, or will only the loud survive?

Even once an act has seen success, it will still be faced with the familiar challenge of keeping the back catalogue monetised. Familiar because, in the old days, records (like books) were subject to a certain production run. Today’s digital models enable a production run of “one”, but only (and this is the weakness at the heart of the Long Tail model) if people know where to look.

This issue is tackled by recently launched CueSongs, a rights buying portal started up by the aforementioned Ed Averdieck and musical pioneer Peter Gabriel. The platform makes it easier for corporate music buyers (think films and advertising) to access content which, when faced with the idea of having yet another Moby track on an advert or, please God no, not *that* Elbow riff as used by the Royal Wedding, is welcome news indeed.

“We’re looking to move artists higher up the value chain, connecting the growing market for licensed music tracks with commercially released repertoire,” says Averdieck. “Licensing a track for commercial use was entirely manual. Our aim is to streamline and simplify the process.” And, as a result, to also help rights owners get back catalogues into the sunlight once again. “All these rights are sitting in the basement in contractual straightjackets. We thought, if we could only give them a canvas…”

Technology has a role to play when it comes to enabling traditional music models to happen, according to understood principles and business models. The bar isn’t so much raised as moved to a different, online playing field. While the internet isn’t paved with gold for musicians and their representatives, the opportunity is at least to go where the action is.

But surely technology can be doing so much more for music? Well, yes, maybe it can.

The new frontiers

The sheer volume of information being generated around music is as staggering as it is unquantifiable – or at least, nobody has yet done so. By way of illustration, however, four billion videos are watched on YouTube every day, and we know that roughly a third of these are music related. Meanwhile about five million viewers a day are commenting on other social sites, comments that beget other comments.

Add to this the tracks played on Spotify or via Soundcloud; add all other related social networking activity, on other sites; add data around actual plays via connected devices; add commentary about who’s been to see whom and where; add metadata, advertising click-throughs and historical sales information; and you would start to build a very interesting picture indeed, if only you could make sense of it.

The self-effacing term is “big data”, which gives quiet mention to both the staggeringly vast pool of information, and the enormity of the challenge of making sense of it. Record labels are already throwing global sales information into the number cruncher, using the results to forecast demand and organise distribution.

And meanwhile, some start-ups are tackling the challenge of mining online sentiment from accessible social sites and generating useful results. For example, We Are Hunted and The Sound Index, both of which generate “charts” based on what people say they are actually listening to.

The opportunities are legion, not least in the live arena, thinks Songkick’s Dan Crow. “There’s a huge opportunity for a much more holistic, data-driven approach based on real evidence,” he says. Not only could this benefit performers and fans, but also owners of clubs and concert halls. With the right data at their fingertips, they would be better able to pitch to performers to come and play at their venues.

Thinking about the experience, plenty more can be done with all that data. Time for another buzz phrase, this time “augmented reality”, or the ability to add information to a current situation (as viewed, say, through a video camera on a mobile phone). Google Goggles is one indicator of the shape of things to come. Meanwhile, applications such as Soundhound and Shazam (which, in the simplest terms, can “listen” to music and tell you what the title is) are also examples of apps that combine captured information with that available from an online database.

Clever as they are, capabilities from We Are Hunted to Soundhound are only starting to scratch the surface, providing a rear-view mirror onto what has already happened. Things start to get exciting when they are seen as the basis of new decisions, or indeed experiences.

A purely speculative example involves putting together a touring plan. Yes, information about where the fan base was stronger would help the band make better decisions about where to play. But equally, if venues knew of the tour plans, they might also want to propose the band stop to play in their own town, en route? And, potentially, stream it live, if the facility to do so was available to them?

And new experiences? We’re already seeing bands experimenting with audience involvement in the creative act, for example, simply letting fans get on and record shows. “We’re seeing bands experimenting with more open policies around the recording of gigs,” says Songkick’s Dan Crow. “The line between recording and live is blurring, we’re going to see far more of it.” Bands like Marillion have taken this one stage further by recording a gig through the camera phones of attendees, then editing the footage together, into a music video.

Enough speculation, but for a final acknowledgement: that creativity doesn’t have to stop with guitars and keyboards. The DJ/producer phenomenon started in the era of Frankie Goes to Hollywood has evolved to such an extent that today’s chart-toppers are just as likely to be DJs (think David Guetta and Skrillex),something which the industry as a whole is struggling to et its head around. “DJs and producers were never really invited to the rock and roll party,” says Karl Nielson of Dubstep/D&B media company AEI Media. “The industry was built for white guys with guitars.”

Similarly, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the boundaries between music and other spheres of creativity, entertainment and engagement. Examples from The Great Global Treasure Hunt to the multimedia stage adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle by Davy and Kristin McGuire are indicative of both the shape of things to come and the kinds of revenue models that become possible, if only the industry itself chooses to pick them up and run with them.

There’s all to play for

Despite all the possibilities that technology now affords, we are perhaps not all that far from the fundamental principle of lobbing a shilling in a bucket in gratitude for being entertained. “If you can please the artists and the fans, the rest will follow,” remarks Songkick’s Crow. And all that “the rest” implies – managers, labels, broadcasters, marketers and everyone else involved in the production, delivery and performance process.

Perhaps the trick is to recognise that the traditional music industry was ever only a chain of intermediaries that became too powerful in one ecosystem, itself currently being dismantled to make way for another. Nobody has a monopoly on the future, but rest assured that major players will emerge, and in twenty years’ time will be the established music business.

While on the surface it may appear that incumbents are being hoofed out of the nest by a new generation of cuckoos, in truth, the last labels standing have as much chance as Songkick and the rest, if they choose to seize the nettle. “Music should be challenging, it should be entrepreneurial, it should be pioneering,” says Karl Nielson. “Record companies should be the most exciting places to work ever! Musicians are already going out on a limb, we should be as brave as the artists we are representing.”

Technology offers a wealth of possibilities, but more important is how it feeds the human desire to make creative use of such tools and perform the results to the largest possible audience. Nor will it change the business imperative to “become number one in the space”, or to overcome the nature of a few bad apples to upset the whole barrel. These are the ingredients we are given.

The winners in the music space will be those who crack the code, either through careful assessment or by stumbling upon the magic key, and then (did anyone mention MySpace?) not killing the golden goose.

In the meantime, just because a certain business model has existed for a few decades, that doesn’t make it the best way of doing things and should rightly be dispensed with if it gets in the way. Music might not be able to save any mortal souls but right now, it certainly offers a host of opportunities to any party with the gumption to get in the driving seat. In the words of Ed Averdieck: “Someone else was going to crack it – why not us?” Why not, indeed.


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