Thursday, 7 August 2008

Music Business 2012: An Alternative Market Forecast Courtesy of David Bowie

“It’s the beginning of nothing.
“And nothing has changed.
“Everything has changed”
So say a few profound lines of the lesser known, but excellent, Bowie song ‘Sunday’ (from the ‘Heathen’ album). Listening to this song recently got me thinking about the whole music space once again (note to self, I should really stop doing this). Just for the pure fun of it, let’s use Bowie’s lyrics to de-construct & re-build the entire music business in an alternative forecast.

First, “It’s the beginning of nothing”...

Majors are wrestling with the angels, technology upstarts with silver bullets (there aren’t any) proliferate, Live Nation is vexing everyone by signing big “360” deals (still, for now). Publicity stunts over how new albums are released just get more & more ridiculous with honesty box payment options, free songs and now whole albums down to 49p. Ultimately this is of course assisting music’s destiny towards being free (according to economists & futurologists on the web anyhow). Meanwhile industry bodies seemingly make late headway with solutions over file-sharing (though according to said economists and futurologists, none of it now matters that much, sadly). Hell in a handcart we go then, but hang on...

“And nothing has changed”...

Come again? We know that music consumption habits have transformed for good. Access to music is ubiquitous & largely free, when it used to be scarce and fiercely ‘gate-kept’ for sale only and even then at our risk since we couldn’t even listen first. No one’s bothered about keeping a music collection now, because a) music is too plentiful to make sense to own b) the music had DRM on it when we bought it and we’ve lost it since in a hard-drive crash or c) it didn’t have DRM on it, because we got it free from somewhere so who cares, or d) it’s still free on the web somewhere, so if we did want to get it back, we could, but probably won’t as a) universally applies.

But the majority of music consumers still hear about music first on the radio, still buy albums in HMV or on Amazon and very occasionally, actually take time to listen to recorded songs – usually while on the move or doing something else. Just like we always did.
So has anything really changed? Of course, but so-called radical shifts in music demand patterns have happened so gradually as to give the supply side plenty of time to regroup, assess, experiment, and transform. After nearly ten years of this, the industry that brings us all our music has changed beyond all recognition, right? Right?

We all know that the value chain which brings us music is totally broken and the only valid economic route is for artists to go ‘DIY’. Some people out there are positively praying that this is true because they hate the incumbent music industry institutions so much.

But hang on though. No major has gone under, yet. Some recently announced increased revenues, profits or both, and most have been making various strategic acquisitions. And most still sign new bands week in, week out. As for superstar artists, look at Coldplay – how huge are they? Digitally, physically, live, every which way, huge (and their album is actually quite good so people want to hear it, buy it, own it and even keep it). Meanwhile many indie labels are doing really quite nicely thanks very much, operating pretty much as they’ve always done.
So yep, nothing rally has changed, enough. Right?

Wrong - “Everything has changed”...
All the fundamental, tectonic plates have shifted – no doubt about it. We are now just waiting for a series of little shocks to happen that will really shake, rattle & roll (sorry) the foundations of the business of music. And we all know now how this happens now thanks to Malcolm Gladwell – tipping points.

If I was making forecasts, which I’m not, I would do so by applying tipping point theory. I’m no futurologist, mind. Then again, I’ll bet you some change that one or two or maybe even three of the following tipping points will happen over the next 3-4 years. And when they do, especially in combination, everything will change, and quickly.

Here are my five music business tipping points in chronological order (if indeed chronology applies to a forecast). You will probably have a few more of your own to add.

Tipping Point 1: A major global superstar artist goes entirely digital, no more CDs
Ø Mostly likely to: Radiohead
Ø Why: The band already got half way there with In Rainbows. They are free agents commercially and they are digital trailblazers. Eco concerns over CDs
Ø Pioneers: Lots of other bands who don’t matter enough to tip the scales
Ø Impact: A forced shift in consumption habits among those consumers who have yet to go digital for whatever reasons. The band builds a completely effective direct relationship with its massive global fan base. Many major acts will follow suit, even those on label contracts insisting this is the way they want to go
Ø When: 2008. The band will get on & start releasing digital only tracks, EPs & projects more or less straight away

Tipping Point 2: A record label realises that its global direct-to-consumer business is directly more profitable than with music retailers, and subsequently largely dispenses with low margin wholesaling
Ø Most likely to: Nonesuch
Ø Why: This label has cracked the code for a valid future model for selling recorded music – aim firmly at a high value music segment (in this case 35+ discerning music buyers with eclectic, sophisticated tastes) and offer them a simple, good value product conveniently and consistently (digital and physical albums for one price direct from the label site)
Ø Pioneers: Mute tried, Blue Note really should have made it work
Ø Impact: The model will catch on. Topic, ECM, Mute, Domino will all do the same thing with considerable success. It will be attractive to artists who want to join the stable of their respected peers. Majors will get a shift on to make each label in their portfolio take a similar approach, but do to organisational constraints this will take a long time to happen
Ø When: Nonesuch from 2009, other indies from 2010. Majors might get ‘round to it eventually

Tipping Point 3: A new-entrant retailer really shakes up the consumer offer by aggregating the widest possible group of music assets for sale in one place, at amazing prices
Ø Mostly likely to: Amazon
Ø Why: The retailer already sells everything (at amazing prices) and has at least got started with its music offering. This has to be digital to be a profitable model
Ø Pioneers: ShockHound
Ø Impact: Will radically increase the average revenue per music fan of an artist (ARPU), since they can pre-order, pre-pay or subscribe to music, merchandise, tickets and a whole menagerie of exclusives
Ø When: from 2010, unless Amazon gets fed up with the complexities and bails on music

Tipping Point 4: A major label gets multi-right portfolios (previously known as 360 degree deals) working effectively as a standard model
Ø Most likely to: Universal
Ø Why: Combination of savvy, market power and momentum. Universal is busily acquiring the capabilities to both create and (critically) service multi-right contracts, with recent forays into management and merchandising through acquisitions of Sanctuary and others. If not through ownership, Universal’s market power will achieve this through partnerships with service companies in other industry sectors
Ø Pioneers: EMI, Live Nation, Nettwork
Ø Impact: The major label/‘music company’/’Dream Factory’ finds a way to survive, effectively sweeping aside all notions of disintermediation. Sony Music Entertainment could follow, Warner & EMI less certain
Ø When: From 2010

Tipping Point 5: ‘Total Music’ takes hold
Ø Most likely to: iTunes
Ø Why: Consistently innovative around consumer convenience, ease of use, style
Ø Pioneers: Nokia Comes With Music, SkyTunes
Ø Impact: Not as great as current thinking would suggest. Even though a large swathe of consumers will subscribe, there will be plenty of other consumptions models. Debates about music through ISP’s at last swept aside by those services with strong brand equity and service provision experience in music
Ø When: From 2011

Overall forecast by 2012 – generally positive but with plenty of casualties along the way.

All derived from one of Bowie’s bleakest, most depressing songs.

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Concept Album is back - not before time

Here’s my favourite music industry stat – the number of albums released in the UK (2007): 32,459. Unbelievable. What other consumer business puts over 30,000 separate branded products on the shelves in a single year in the hope of making a return on each one? As industry sales decline, the number of commercial release has actually increased over the past five years by 30%.

This is commercially released albums only. If we add the one zillion unsigned bands on MySpace who also have song collections on CD-R & websites, it’s easy to conclude that there is currently far too much music for us listeners to get our ears around. And so all labels and artists face the same conundrum with each release – how to get ‘cut through’.

Many releases these days strive for cut through with increasingly elaborate publicity stunts around distribution – honesty box payments, 49 pence albums, cut & paste your own album from these 30+ average songs, free songs or albums and most boring of all ‘mix your own songs from ‘stems’’ (god help us all). Here’s my advice – get cut through with the music itself. Make music about your obsessions, passions or interests (a Robbie remake of War of the Worlds perhaps? – i’d be interested). Here are a few excellent examples of the genre...

I never thought i would ever bother with a Mick Hucknall record, but having heard about it (and seeing a show-stealing performance by Hucknall on Later With Jools Holland) i was intrigued to hear his latest – ‘Tribute to Bobby’. It’s what it says on the cover – a tribute album, to Bobby Bland. I’d never heard of BB and don’t particularly like American Blues, but the story behind the project, along with Mick’s performance of ‘Farther Up The Road’ had me intrigued. It’s really not bad at all. It’s introduced me to a new genre for which i’m always grateful. And its touching that on the sleevenotes (wonderful these records lend themselves to this old fashioned but great concept), Hucknall himself concludes “I’m taking a big step and going to disband Simply Red...after recording these songs, I don’t see going back to that style...This is the beginning for me”. Side benefits to society have come from this project as well.

Other recent music projects of note include the Mercury Nominated “Stainless Style” by Neon Neon. It’s a concept album about John DeLorean - the man and the car. It’s a cracker 80s retro pop album that has everything except decent sleevenotes explaining the concept.

But the master of the genre has to be Ry Cooder. He has recently released the third album in his trilogy of lost American folklore (how’s that for a theme). This began six years back with Chavez Ravine (my favourite album of 2005), which focused on the demise of a Mexican suburb of LA in the 50s. It continued with 2007’s “My Name Is Buddy” about a travelling cat (the pet kind)called Buddy in the heavily political backdrop of 30s Depression Era mid-west America. Both excellent, fascinating records.

The third final instalment is I, Flathead, subtitled ‘The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns’, a fictional (only it’s so authentic it seems real) blues band with a penchant for salt flats speed racing. The album special edition comes with a 100 page Novella telling the story of same (£13, absolute bargain). It’s wonderful stuff. All albums in the trilogy are released on Nonesuch, my favourite record label – of which more detailed posts later.

Personally i have an ongoing problem getting through my ‘music pending’ pile, which just gets bigger & bigger each week and ends up with albums being pruned from the pile before i’ve had a chance to actually hear them. There are certain records though, that stay there until i’m damn well ready to give them a proper listen – and these often share a characteristic - they have a story i’m interested in.

Themed records often go way beyond mere concept albums in that they have a whole backstory to them, which lends itself to great cover art, ‘label copy’ and even a whole range of supporting products (books, documentary films etc.). These records can be musical odysseys’, essentially, and much more entertaining for it.