Music Biz: Some Real Information

https://soundcloud.com/ableton/smw_music_in_the_age_of_democratization

Good stuff. I don’t track the mainstream music business–such as it lumbers along these days–but the edge of technology and DIY aspiration remains where the action is centered. Andrea Leonelli’s DMT podcasts are essential for tracking that nexus.

Independent Music and Its Humanity

This is a terrific episode (#194) of DigiMusicTrends from Andrea Leonelli. It highlights the great liberating tool, Bandcamp, and also makes a smart account of the current environment for making a livelihood from music. Nowadays that environment is full of disruptive modalities, but the will and integrity of the artist is the main defense against the chaotic entanglement of de-evolution and evolution that has been in force in the biz for almost twenty years.

h/t Ashley at Palm Sounds

DigiMusicTrends web site

Linda Perry, Savioress?



Linda Perry

Can Linda Perry Save Music (Daily Beast)

This article about Linda Perry’s sense of the voice in the music business is equal parts stuck in a Hollywood bubble and rebellious maven. The rubble of the old star making music business remains warm, but Ms. Perry seems buffered away from literally hundreds of singers, tens of terrific ones, and, maybe more than a few who are already trying to figure out how to obtain a livelihood under the difficult circumstances the post-music business has in instantiated.

The lightning-in-a-bottle appeal of the televised artists and repertoire contests casts a large, albeit absurd, shadow. The reality is that the music business is completely fragmented and the result is you have to be an explorer and willing to venture beyond the silly music centers of the moment.

It’s Mostly All About Documentation

roadcases
Two thirds of the live recordings of Wilco, available at their online store.

When the three volumes of Russell Sanjek’s American Popular Music and Its Business appeared in 1988, I waited for the interlibrary loan came through–I was in Vermont at the time–and then I was set for the task. I skimmed huge chunks of it and bore down on the last two volume, covering the modern music business.

When done, a single reflection dominated by sense of their history: it was almost a complete history but, strangely, their account so underplayed the development of the modern distribution system that it fell down just because of that single deficit. The major label distribution system allowed the labels to sell hundreds of thousands of units on Tuesday release days. It allowed for a deep integration with the ordering systems of large retailers. That system had its heyday from around 1970-2005, and it paralleled the rise of the chain record store. (My last stint in the music business was spent as a manager for a chain between 1995-2000.) By the end of the 2011, with the implosion of Borders Books and Music, the multi-outlet music specialist had instantly become a memory.

Because the giant pipelines and the attending policies of the major label system so favored chain outlets, also by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, most of the independent record stores in the U.S. had gone out of business.

The age of distribution lasted thirty-five years. In 1988, when Sanjek’s epic three volume history was published, the biggest issue in the music business was consolidation, retail price wars, MTV, and, the extraordinary costs involved in rolling the dice in hopes of positioning an artist to sell big numbers and make a profit. The business at the time was also a plantation and anybody who paid close attention to the predicament of music artists understood that the rise of the modern distribution system went hand in hand with all the dishonorable tactics record labels used to manage risk by hiding sales, cooking books, and shifting revenues from the artist’s side of the ledge to their own.

Here in Cleveland, the music departments at Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, are laughable ghosts of the old chain departments with their 15,000-50,000+ titles. Incidentally, Cleveland is home to roughly a dozen independent record stores, and two very small chains. The latter specialize in used entertainment media. 

I buy my music as digital downloads from iTunes, Amazon and eMusic. Every now and then, less than ten times a year, I buy a compact disc. And, I’m resourceful about checking out streams and downloads for the purpose of auditioning music. The internet cleary constitutes the biggest free record store ever, and this was not a revolution Russell Sanjek could have anticipated.

What accounts for the volume of new music that grows every year? Think about this awesome and awesomely weird fact.

Wilco
Wilco recording music in the comfort of their living room.

The Age of Documentation 2005 – ongoing

Because of the internet, distribution has been democratized. The incentive to primarily invest in pushing a single release every year has collapsed outside what’s left of the major label record business. The situation of independent labels (I would assume) is mostly precarious; stuck as they are between the challenging business and risk models of the big labels and the minimalist experiments of the do-it-yourself market space.

But, I’m guessing, really. The one feature of the 21st century music business I’m sure about is that the age of distribution has morphed into the Age of Documentation. Because the costs involved in being prolific have shrunk so rapidly and the barriers to meeting low demand are so low at the low end (!) it makes sense that, for example, Wilco would release thirty live records over the several years.

Last year, among the musical artists I am committed to, and trying to track, and acquire,
saxophonist Ken Vandermaark released at least five records, jazz icon Anthony Braxton released over the last two years six records, punk popsters The Flaming Lips released at least six records, ambient soundscaper Steve Roach released at least nine records, experimental guitarist and dronemeister Aidan Baker released at least six records.

What could be the business model underlying artists just pushing, usually on their own, all this music into the market space? I have no idea. Except, I can do the kind of math that suggest that ten records selling 500 units is equal to one record selling 5,000 units. 

Over the next month or so I will be reviewing my own favorite recordings of 2013. Wilco is a great American band. What I’ve heard of their Roadcase Series of concert recordings is stellar. There are 29 Roadcases to date! Hurray for documentation. 

Wilco – Roadcase #23 (Austin, TX) – 2013-10-11  is super fine. [Get it: Here] Wilco’s web site implements most of the modern “post-bricks-and-mortar” merchandising angles. This observer is reminded of the important and groundbreaking part The Grateful Dead played in all this. Defunct for over twenty years, The Grateful Dead released something like half a dozen archival records last year!

Record Store Day and the Random Route

Full Movie

LAST SHOP STANDING – RICHARD HAWLEY from Record Store Day on Vimeo.

Record Store Day

Week before last I was browsing through the collection of compact discs at Lakewood Public Library and a patron is doing the same a few rows over. She was probably forty-something, and she turns to me and tells me, “I remember vinyl and how good it sounds.”

Not being sentimental–anymore–about vinyl, I responded, “Yeah, but then it gets played a lot and worn down and scratchy.”

She had the last word, “Even then it sounds better.”

I thought to myself, ‘No, worn out records don’t sound better.’

I think I know, I possess many thousands of worn records filling half of a large basement room.

Last year, vinyl albums sales grew 39 percent, with about 3.9 million albums being sold, and sales are up about 10 percent so far this year, according to Nielsen Soundscan. HP

I presume Soundscan doesn’t capture the magnitude of the vinyl market. If it were closer to 40 million albums, this would represent a moment’s worth of worldwide unit sales from, say, 1990. 3.9 million. on the other hand, is not much; who knows how many million downloads of any type happen every hour?

Yet, I get the romance and appeal and the gist of the inspiring fundamentals of the rubber record revival. My own mild bragging rights accrue from spending seventeen years on the front lines, although I was thankful to walk away in 2000.

A nice video from the first Record Store Day year.

Senzari’s Formulaic Fail

 

Comparisons with Pandora quickly come to mind when describing Senzari. Both services let you search for your favorite artist to create your own radio station which will mix that artist’s tracks and similar ones by other bands. Since algorithms aren’t perfect, you can still skip a few songs if you don’t like them.

However, Senzari’s CEO is quick in pointing out the differences between his service and Pandora’s. One of them is the depth of its catalogue: with 10 million songs, Senzari boasts “10 times more tracks than Pandora”. This is clearly a huge asset for Senzari – we all know how frustrating it is to fail to find an artist on these services. This is also an important element for a platform that hopes to please listeners all over the world, with different music tastes, including Brazilian and Hispanic music. (How Senzari Plans to Take On Pandora and Traditional Radio)

Sometime in my second hour of auditioning Senzari last week I realized its algorithm for choosing music sucked. I suppose I should qualify this impressions by adding ‘for my purposes.’ After all, my purpose, as long as I’m going to be subjected to some kind of algorithm, is to enlist it to aid a serendipitous journey of discovery.

Pandora leverages the Musical Genome Project to great effect. The Pandora user loads in multiple “seed” choices when initializing and developing a custom radio station. This really revs up the subsequent unwinding of the algorithm’s musical choice-making. It is easy to develop custom stations that step off trail.

Whereas Senzari’s current algorithm fails. To set-up a station you select a single artist. There’s no way, yet, to refine this initial choice. The ensuing broadcast set reflects this ‘monological’ approach.

Presumably, refinement of this “single factor” comes with plugging in social factors gleaned automatically from Facebook friends on Senzari. Whatever…

I started with rock choices, and started stations with the seed of The Byrds, then of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Initially The Byrds station reflected the folk rock core of the early Byrds, ignored the group’s country-rock breakthrough, and, then morphed into a mostly non-stop 1965-1967 pop hit machine, interspersed with minor tracks from Roger McGuinn and Stephen Stills. My first thought? Way too much of the machine part involved in executing the algorithm was showing through.

My Jellyfish station cycled through Jellyfish and XTC. Inexplicable. Likewise, the Ry Cooder stations cycled through about ten artists. Senzari didn’t get the AFrican core of Abdullah Ibrahim or Randy Weston. The most successful station I created was the one with experimental guitarist Aidan Baker, but only Baker’s context and musical relations are not very familiar to me.

Nor could Senzari make a station from Amos Garrett or The Quarter After. I stopped trying to stump it when it went 0-2.

Next I decided to challenge the obviously thin formula by introducing two left field seeds, Pauline Oliveros, and, Bill Laswell. In both cases, the test I posed to the darn algorithm. was to travel down the various branches implicit in the substantial diversity on offer by Oliveros and, then, Laswell.

Here’s what the formula spun on the Pauline Oliveros station:

Gordon Mumma
Deep Listening Band
Gordon Mumma
Henry Cowell
Pauline Oliveros
Charlemagne Palestine
Henry Cowell
Terry Riley
Pauline Oliveros
repeat: Gordon Mumma
Charlemagne Palestine
Deep Listening Band
Lou Harrison
Harry Partch
Pauline Oliveros
Oliver Messiaen
Gordon Mumma

On one hand this provided an intriguing aural trip. On the other hand, the formula revisited the same records by Mumma and The Deep Listening Band and Henry Cowell, and so shouted out to me how stupid it is, as a musical set-inducing piece of programming.

The Laswell set was even more narrow, and, as a ‘machine take’ purportedly able to access hundreds of recordings related to the various genre preoccupations of Bill Laswell, laying into Jah Wobble and Burnt Friedman for seven of the first twelve tracks was ludicrous and revealing.

Burnt Friedman
Jah Wobble
Praxis
Bill Laswell
Burnt Friedman
Bill Laswell
Muslimgauze
Jah Wobble
Burnt Friedman
Jah Wobble
Material
Burnt Friedman

Senzari won’t be damaging Pandora based in their having a superior music-choosing technology. For me, if there are sensitive muso types laboring for Senzari, their day hasn’t arrived. The musical results sound random, and in comparison to Pandora, Senzari’s hype is cynical.

Equal Treatment

The nogutsnoglory studios is otherwise known as the ‘command center.’ During the winter, it can get very cold in the uninsulated command center. My creative world’s infrastructure is in the command center! Creativity is not befriended by the chill. Darnit. Guitars don’t stay in tune; the laptop demands a restart; the visions slow down to a crawl. Luckily, I’m able to slice off enough of a chunk into a moveable feast and park-and-play this stuff in Matt’s room. Then the Commander comes home on leave! Darnit. So, off to the living room and into the territory of the, now, six month-old kitty cats.

(Recall Céleste Boursier-Mougenot and Bird Maniax.) No, cats aren’t birds. Glori jumped up on the Fender, traversed it like a bridge, stopped for a photo, and, jumped down. Luckily it wasn’t plugged in because much of time it’s configured to sound frightening.

Speaking of frightening sounds, I’ve plugged Kamelmauz into Bandcamp. Compared to Myspace:music, all I can utter is: how cool is bandcamp? Way cool. Think about the DIY channels on the web in relationship to the revolution that has thrashed both the old hard goods model of the music business, and, the various corporate attempts to cage the freeforme monster and build a highway. Major FAIL on both counts. Meanwhile, Myspace:music and Last.fm, and numerous others, made their own weird roadways. I guess by weird I mean idiosyncratic, and so, weird in the sense of awful, one size for everybody, interfaces.

Bandcamp comes along in September, 2008, with a brilliant concept: keep it simple.
Bandcamp announces itself, September 18, 2008:

Earlier this year, one of my favorite bands left their label, recorded a new album, and released it as a digital download from their own website. The hour it was due out, I headed to their site, and after several minutes of watching the page struggle to load, concluded that they were just slammed and made a note to check back the next day. But when I did, the site was, once again, excruciatingly slow. This time I was a bit more patient, made it to the checkout page, entered my billing info, and…the download didn’t start. I checked my credit card statement, saw that I’d indeed been charged, and emailed the band. A few days later, the lead singer sent me an apology, along with a direct link to the album’s zip file. I did not then forward that link on to my 200 closest friends, but I wondered how many did, and couldn’t decide whether it was a good or bad thing that most fans had probably given up before getting this far.

Well the new record turned out to be even better than I’d hoped, but now, months later, I’m still running into other fans who don’t have it. This just kills me, because here’s a relatively unknown band that deserves all the success in the world, made the admirable decision to do an entirely independent release, yet was tripped up by the sorts of aggravating technical issues familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to build out their own website. What choice did they have though? They could have put their music up on MySpace or any of its dozens of imitators, but all of those services offer bands what is essentially a sharecropping arrangement. They host your tunes, and in exchange it’s their logo, their ads, their URL, their traffic, their identity. What if you want to build out a site that’s very clearly yours? The only choice seems to be to do what the band did: hire a designer and engineer, buy or rent some servers, spend a lot of time and money, and risk ending up with something that either works poorly or not at all. Does it not seem crazy that if you’re a blogger, you can create a rock-solid site that’s your own in a matter of minutes (and for free), but if you happen to create music instead of text, your options just suck?

Seemed nuts to us, so we created Bandcamp, the best home on the web for your music. We’re not yet another site wanting to host your tracks alongside the trailer for High School Musical 4: I’m Pregnant. Instead, we power a site that’s truly yours, and hang out in the background handling all the technical issues you dread (and several you’ve probably never even considered). We keep your music streaming and downloading quickly and reliably, whether it’s 3am on a Sunday, or the hour your new record drops and Pitchfork gives it a scathingly positive review. We make your tracks available in every format under the sun, so the audiophilic nerderati can have their FLAC and eat mp3 v2. We adorn your songs with all the right metadata, so they sail into iTunes with artwork, album, band and track names intact. We mutter the various incantations necessary to keep your site top-ranked in Google, so when your fans search for your hits, they find your music long before they find bonkersforlyrics.com or iMyFace. We give your fans easy ways to share your music with their friends, and we give you gorgeous tools that reveal exactly how your music is spreading, so you can fan the fire.

So what’s Bandcamp then? We’re a publishing platform for bands, or, anthropomorphically/arthropodically-speaking, your fifth, fully geeked-out Beatle — the one who keeps your very own website humming and lets you get back to making great music and building your fan base.

One size fits all, yet with the virtue of being really straightforward, shorn of bells and whistles, and, centered on commerce. There’s no easier way to make a storefront for music. The commerce model is really simple: sell ten of a title, and Bandcamp pockets the entire tenth sale’s proceeds. Their factor is Paypal. One prospect that this approach brings forward is a deep A&R resource. When I think of how this could have been the major’s approach, I sit back and chuckle. Bandcamp converts straight digital (i.e. lossless,) files into a number of formats, provides 128kbs streams for every single track in their entirety, and, allows one to give away freebees. Every track is treated equally too. Any track can be embedded in 128 off the site. That feature speaks volumes about Bandcamp’s visionary assumptions.

For example:

There are only three shortcomings, the streams should be at least 224 kbs, and, the artist’s site would benefit from enhanced options for hooking into various social channels. I suppose over time Bandcamp will accrue a lot of dead sites, so it will be increasingly of value to create a genre index using the extant tags and then indicate which artists remain active, and have provided new content in the past six months. The directory of artists (and growing) doesn’t provide any help, however it is great for deploying the random click.

Sufjan Stevens offered a pre-release of his All Delighted People ep and sold 10,000+ copies over a weekend, and prior to the formal release on iTunes. The stir this caused continues to ripple. (See also: Sufjan Stevens and Asthmatic Kitty Take on Amazon, Bootleggers, And You, Maybe _ Village Voice)

It’s open to all, and since this includes me, quality obviously will vary a lot. Still, as an experimental music maker with zero commercial ambitions, I’m not going to think twice about throwing up the latest noise popping out of the command center’s maw.

Here’s In Khorasan–the full thing embedded via Bandcamp. Elegant, if you ask me; even if the stream here is higher quality.

May not show up in Chrome, so a bad bug.

Saving and Tossing

Interesting article from way back on 2/27 over at the music issue blog. It has a very dry title, Archive of Macedonian Music. What drew my attention was the brief discussion of music archiving. The internet has called forth a mind-boggling informal effort to serve up personal archives. Where this is really earth-shaking is when recordings that have been hidden away in darkness, again see the light of day. At the same time, dedicated specialists finally have a forum where their efforts might earn some recognition.

This presents a fascinating paradox: this cornucopia has helped lower archival standards, and, at the same time, the wasteful attitudes of the past have been mitigated to some extent. To say the internet and its free-wheeling and free-archiving constitutes the world’s biggest record store, (or, for that matter, library,) doesn’t describe the actual status of the various collections come to be based on the net. Many of which are labors of love, even if these various outlets for what used to be, for example, the impossibly rare, reside in the wild west.

This, overall, has grievously harmed the old record business. Yet, at the same time, all the archiving and sharing has built resources the old vertical record business never had any interest in constructing. Obviously, the argument based in one-to-one lost sales is bogus, but the declining sales numbers speak for themselves. At the same time the actual reach promoted by networked interest and archival fanaticism obtains a different order of magnitude. This is a scale of enthusiasm the old record business never could even dream about. In fact, it was unthinkable a record could sell 1,000 copies and yet be heard by 10,000 (or 100,000) people.

Look Beyond Appearances – 2009 Music Gems


Staff Benda Bilili from Congo. ‘Staff Benda Bilili’ means look beyond appearances–an apt title for my brief listing of some of my favorite new music from last year.

Every new year between 1974 and 1986 I prepared a listing of the previous year’s best jazz records. I used my evaluation to merchandise records at the store and support broadcast on the radio. At the time, it seemed my sense of the previous year had to be credible for the simple reason that I was in a good position to mightily sample the year’s jazz releases. The record companies were generous in recognizing my dual role. My base sample was large, usually numbering several hundred records.

This comes to mind because this year I have for the first time since then gone to the considerable trouble to assess listening highlights for the past year. The biggest challenge was going back to figure out what actually came out last year. Then, armed with a raw list, in January I mined for recordings I had missed and was interested in.

Between the fan blogs and forums, and, the old line critics, I apprised myself of other critical views. Just a few steps in this direction had me reflecting on how much the critical culture around music has come to–paradoxically–accept and deny the ramification of the internet in its year-end recaps. In a follow-up post, or two, I’ll delve into this. It’s suffices to suggest that the old style critical culture has not grasped how prolix the wider musical culture has become. On the other side, the smart musical mobs do not grasp, and likely have no good reason to grasp, what were the precedents to today’s iTunes and share-ism.

One way the old and new school may be bridged is to consider the consequence of share-ism: as music sales have imploded, exposure has increased. This means that the critic is no longer positioned as a gatekeeper by their main advantage, that the critic can sample more music than the dedicated fan. Where this really is evident is in the new school muso’s ability to deeply ‘sample’ on the margins. This comes about because the unit cost of exposure has plummeted. This is in contrast to the old line critic who seems to still be wed to taking stock of what gets pushed their way. Whereas the informal and amateur culture is advantaged more by pulling music into their orbits. Think about it!

Meanwhile, my own list simply reflects what I really enjoyed. I make no other claim. Some of the music below represent long standing guilty pleasures. *marks one recording in each broad genre that I’d tell you to leap into first. I’ll be highlighting individual recordings in the future.

*Asleep At the wheel – Asleep & Willie country-folk
Levon Helm – Electric Dirt country-folk
Michael Hurley – Ida Con Snock country-folk
Buddy & Julie Miller – Love Snuck Up country-folk
Lhasa De Sela – Lhasa country-folk
*Celer – Breeze of Roses electronic
Sunn O))) – Monoliths & Dimensions electronic
Burkhard Beins – Structural Drift electronic
Stephen R. Smith – Cities In Decline electronic
Monolake – Silence electronic
*Abdullah Ibrahim – Bombella improv
Sun Ra – In Detroit improv
Pierre Dørge & New Jungle Orchestra – Whispering Elephants improv
Keith Jarrett – Testament improv
Louis Moholo-Moholo – Sibanye: Duets with Marilyn Crispell improv
Martial Solal – Live at the Village Vanguard: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love improv
Cyro Baptista & Banquet of the Senses – Infinito improv
Wadada Leo Smith & Jack DeJohnette – America improv
Bill Dixon – Tapestries for Small Orchestra improv
Kenny Barron – Minor Blues improv
David S. Ware – Shakti improv
Gretchen Parlatro – in a Dream improv
*Or the Whale – s/t pop
Neil Young – Live Archive v.1 pop
J.D. Souther – If the World Is You pop
Ry Cooder – I, Flathead pop
The Band of Heathens – One Foot in the Ether pop
*Allen Toussaint – Bright Mississippi R&b
Los Cenzontles – American Horizon r&b
Buckwheat Zydeco – Lay Your Burden Down r&b
*Staff Benda Bilili- Tres Fort , Tres Fort world
Lucas Santanna – Sem Nostalgia world
Orchestre National de Barbès – Alik world
va – Brazilika world
Tinariwen – Imidiwan:Companions world
Oumou Sangare – Seya world
Amadou & Mariam – Welcome to Mali world
Culture Music Club – Shime world

(139 recordings I enjoyed from last year – below the fold)

Continue reading “Look Beyond Appearances – 2009 Music Gems”

Son of Blubber

On the end of an era,

“I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history’s moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.”

Brian Eno excerpt from interview with Paul Morley, On Gospel, Abba, and the Death of the Record (Guardian, OK Jan. 17-2009)

Stick a Fork In It, Already

“Kyle Bylin is Associate Editor of the highly influential music industry blog Hypebot, which is read daily by more than 10,000 music industry professionals.”

Kyle writes, in his article, What Will It Take To Unite Artist, Industry and Fan?

Nowadays, Digital Natives discard and consume popular music repetitively through file-sharing not only for reasons of fashion but because as fans they take it for granted that the Major Labels and a growing underbelly of independent musicians together will produce a continuous flow of new music. But, as we learn to appreciate the idea that the values of the world they inh[a]bit and the technologies they surround themselves with have had a profound effect on who they are, we can begin to understand that the social ecology of music culture that took decades or more to develop offline, isn’t just going to reappear online.

If you read the rest of the article, you’ll learn it’s implication is that the audience and music indutsry might come to realize what are their future mutual interests and then forge something massively neat under the ‘altered’ conditions.

Poppycock. Kyle is crying in his beer, I’m afraid. Whether music fans take anything for granted, or not, is besides the point. The music culture is whatever it is in the current moment. In actuality, today it’s a panoply of sub-cultures that self organize around whatever are the fragmentary interests of groups.

Salvation for the Recording Industry lies in their ability to offer services that are more in step with the emerging social norms of Digital Natives.

The ‘Recording Industry’ will always be around, but it’s going to keep shrinking and shrinking. It’s not worth saving, and forward-looking artists eventually will pay it little attention.

Thems the beans. If you want to evaluate musical culture, you leave the territory of the shriveled-up pipe dream of massive success and depart also from the shattered territory of the once monolithic recording industry.

“It’s a long shot, sure,” Eric Harvey of Pitchfork writes, “but at a time when so much of the structure that holds together music culture has disappeared, fans could take the initiative to create a new one.”

They’re already doing this. The various micro-cultures being created are neither industry or artist friendly. They’re not lucrative for either industry or artist. There’s an economic paradigm implicit in this development, but its much more aligned with behavioral operations than exchange value.

Free won. Under that single condition, any time trying to revive the music industry is time completely wasted.

Biz – The Access Model

As in: access over acquisition.

Charles M. Blow, on one hand, could be viewed as late to the record industry implosion party, (or RIIP,) in gaining some exposure on the NYT’s editorial page. Swan Songs? July 31.2009 On the other hand, he makes some killing points.

I.

The problem is that if people can get the music they want for free, why would they ever buy it, or even steal it? They won’t. According to a March study by the NPD Group, a market research group for the entertainment industry, 13- to 17-year-olds “acquired 19 percent less music in 2008 than they did in 2007.” CD sales among these teenagers were down 26 percent and digital purchases were down 13 percent.

II.

This is part of a much broader shift in media consumption by young people. They’re moving from an acquisition model to an access model.

III.

A study last year conducted by members of PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, found that of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That’s less than one percent of the songs.

(My comments) Behavioral economics would suggest that the high time/effort investment in downloading, whether as a paying customer or freeloader, favors only those downloaders who appraise that the investment has a positive payoff. Freeloading is not very efficient, but, it does have the upside of quantit. In fact this would figure into a positive behavioral model—even if the end result is acquiring more music than one could ever hope to listen to. (Ha! Visit my basement.) This also favors fanatical listeners, always a tiny slice of for-a-price music consumption.

The move to access rather than acquisition constitutes a different behavioral model altogether because, obviously, access-on-demand means the consumer is matching their listening time precisely to, as it were, turning the web radio on. There really is no business model for this from the record industry’s point of view.
But, it’s easier to shut down for the time being. The record industry could vanquish iMeem and Pandora and Grooveshark and all the others open access DIY podcasting services. Except then crowd sourced casting would really erupt, especially if people served tunes back ‘up’ into the network. Instead of menus of streams, you’d literally have crowd sourced clouds. This will eventually happen anyway. My guess is we will go through some heavy handed industry quashing of the DIY services, so it will swing back to acquisition for a while before the transition to crowd and cloud.

None of this matters much in the broad sweep of things. The record business, both tangible and digital, is just about finished.

80% from less than 1% of all available songs? Sounds familiar. But, the actual consumption when you include freeloading, is probably many times the size of the paying market. I don’t know the metrics, but it is safe to say the amount of music being listened to has never been greater than in today’s environment.


Side note: I’m still a customer of eMusic. This is after they jacked up (for me – 150%) the per track cost at the level of the monthly subscription, and, also let the other shoe drop by ending the ability to count your monthly downloads as single tracks against your monthly quota irrespective of how many tracks were on an album. (So, a six track album can count 12 credits.) Does that sound complicated? It is. eMusic’s principle innovation was to make the downloading model really complicated.

This is stupid on their part, but it’s understandable as a short term money-making bridge to eMusic’s going belly up. An objective eMusic seems hellbent on realizing. But, eMusic is almost completely in their own universe of stupid in an industry that has redefined the term stupid.

Still, I am a happy customer. eMusic remains a tertiary source of interesting music.

War of the Worlds

Ahhh, eMusic, what have you gone and done now?

A little background: I joined eMusic in 2000 at the tail end of their unlimited mp3 tracks for $14.99 orgy. I knew that was too good to last. Heck it was insane. But, over 9 years, they’ve grandfathered my monthly package at every price increase bump in the road. The end result is I’ve paid $1,400 for 6000 or so tracks, the equivalent of 700+ albums, and paid about $2 per album. How good is that? It’s great and almost insane.

Over that time, eMusic has been a trendsetter on the low-margin mp3 boulevard, you know the street that runs smack dab through the middle of the town called, Absolutely Free Music. As a user you made your deal: cheap music and lousy bit rates but with no DRM, and, eMusic’s inventory of small indy labels was heaven sent. If you the user was a muso and fan of the margins of various genres. Count me in.

A few years ago eMusic was sold to an investment firm. A price hike followed. But, eMusic kept doing their thing, offering non-major label tracks (and full albums,) at a great price. On June 1st they changed their own landscape. Taking my own customer commitment as an example, my monthly package will remain $11.99, but my download will decrease to 30 from 50. This works out to a 16 penny per track increase, to a 40% increase. Bummer. Read about it. Fury.

However, unlike the many hundreds of suddenly disgruntled customers, I’m not sent into apoplexy. I get their pain, yet, I never thought eMusic was going to forever hold itself to the match with the projection thrust on their brand. This projection was that eMusic was akin to the ol’ hippie indy or specialist record shop. When the investment company bought eMusic, I figured the bloom scattered from my own more modest illusion.

I don’t envy any business and business model which seeks to peddle at a profit tracks from recordings amidst the scourge or paradise of the world’s biggest ever free record store. Interestingly, the Guardian’s report on eMusic’s new pricing asserts that eMusic has something like 400,000 customers. Alright: basic plan is $11.99, call it $12 x 12 months, equals $144 per customer, times 400,000 = $57,000,000 per year.

Is that a lot of sales? In the scheme of the current record business, it’s at the upper end of the middle of the drastically consolidated music industry. After all, Apple’s iTunes is selling around 60,000,000 tracks per month, and doing $3+ billion worth of annual business. $57 million is equivalent to having a chain of 30 bricks-and-mortar stores doing $2 million each on a yearly basis. But, perhaps eMusic’s sales are half that. *

eMusic gets a tiny slice of the pie. Just as it is, was, for the Rounders and Telarcs, etceteras of the old hard goods music biz world, living on a business model focused on the thin slice of (no-doubt,) fanatic customers for indy produced music, consigns one’s business concern to a thin slice. And, there isn’t any way around this brute fact.

eMusic was driven to revamp their business model because new partner Sony is going to add 2 year old catalogue to their offerings. Not to eMusic’s credit, they showcased to their loyal customers news of the gigantic price increase in the clothing of benefit presumed to derive from adding the pathetic Sony legacy catalogue. This was equally disingenuous, and, patronizing. Uproarious.

By all accounts, eMusic CEO Danny Stein is one of the most arrogant people in the music biz, this in an industry where little napoleans have always been a dime-a-dozen. So, he didn’t help his brand here, with ludicrous rhetoric found in his slapping announcement:

The addition of these bold-face names [Sony] doesn’t change our mission. eMusic will always be an alternative to mass market digital music stores — a deeper, richer music shopping experience. more of the good stuff 17dots blog

It won’t be the last time the hard core fan gets crapped on. (Twas ever thus.) Nevertheless, it seems fairly, if not bluntly, obvious, that eMusic is heading in a necessary direction, given that they cannot grow their pie much, maybe can’t grow at all, if they remain a hip outlet casting a net to the margins, and doing this for even 40 cents per indy track.

Whereas, by undercutting their immensely larger competition, especially doing so overseas, in peddling Sony catalogue, it might be possible to double their user base in due course. If this is close to the mark, then the price increase locks in new customers at a more profitable price point, does the same for older customers, and, probably insulates eMusic from too much attrition in the short term.

But all eMusic can really do is pump up their tiny market slice of digital downloads from, say 3% to 6%. This is not an enviable market position.

Actually, eMusic, iTunes, all the others are–over the mid-term–trying to establish some traction against a truly for-free market space. I have no real idea, but my guess is that for every track somebody pays for, 10 more free ones find a home. Also, I’ll bet that most music fans who have sustained their enthusiasm for collecting music for more than ten years, are likely very resourceful at driving their own marginal acquisition costs down, down, down.

Still, I understand how pissed off the world of the music fanatic is at the world of bean-counting investors. This is true whether it’s eMusic or iTunes. What isn’t true of eMusic is that it ever was really like some hipster’s hole-in-the-wall room of vinyl bins. There used to be, and, to an almost laughably inconsequential sense, still are attempts to make a love-the-music-first business model actually work. But, after 30+ years of observing such things, love-the-music-first is always the canary in the coal mine.


Apple iTunes rival eMusic to unveil overhauled website
“The US company generates 80% of its revenues from the domestic American market, but said its UK business was growing more quickly.

Pakman said the site sells between 7m and 8m songs globally each month, adding that global revenues and subscriptions would rise by 40-50% this year.”

8,000,000 x $0.30 = $30,000,000. (For every mp3 eMusic sells, iTunes sells 8. Sobering.)