Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Shifting the needle on new digital music services

This is the second post on new fit for purpose digital business. Following the previous post on music companies this one focuses on digital service providers.

It seems that in recent weeks, there has been a real rush-on in the digital retail space for music. We’ve had announcements from Nokia that Comes With Music is indeed coming soon, with Sony Ericsson pitching in with its own version of the ‘total music’ bundle – PlayNow plus (you can read a nice summary of differences between the two propositions on Mark Mulligan’s blog). We’ve had DRM dropped, Amazon moving into the space and the ongoing saga that is MySpace music now finally emerging with some real news.

In the UK We’ve had a recent announcement from Sky about its forthcoming SkyTunes music subscription bundle, with rival Virgin Media pitching in that it too has plans for a new music service – at least a music portal anyway. Also in the UK we’ve had our much beloved Aunty Beeb (well okay, her ambitious ruthless younger brother, Uncle Worldwide) planning its own branded and ad-funded music streaming service next year, tapping into The Corporation’s vast audio and audio-visual archive. And Amazon said to be launching before the year is out.

It’s enough to leave one breathless really – it’ll certainly hot up the air at the various forthcoming music conferences. My suggested subject for these events might be this:

Is the Digital Music Business Finally Bigger than the Digital Music Conference Business?

2009 is going to be an exciting time of it for digital music that’s for sure. One thing is niggling me about all this though – will this latest flurry of activity on the supply side really shift the needle for the demand for legal digital music? After all, we’ve seen supply-side digital surges before. IFPI’s digital reports (excellent resource if i say so myself as one of the founding authors!) show the high-level indicators each year...

Back in 2003 there were 50 legal music services worldwide, with retail revenues for digital just $20m. This exploded to over 500 services and $2.9billion by the end of 2007. But are those impressive statistics really? Online downloads made up just 48% of those revenues (with mobile – mostly ringtones – making up 47%, and subscription revenues a tiny 5%). With iTunes making up a minimum of 70% of online digital, it leaves only crumb-like revenues to go around the other multi-hundred digital music providers. And we know the profit margins are wafer thin. We’ve seen big brands like Virgin and HMV suffer digitally, while MP3 pioneers like Wippit have died a painful, slow death. As for new big digital brands – only iTunes and possibly eMusic, can be described as successful.

In short, digital music is a difficult market to trade in. And yet look at who we have coming to market!

So what is it that Nokia, Sky, Amazon et al think they can bring to the market that isn’t there already? It’s a searching question when you think about it. It’s not the ability to download single songs from a deep catalogue. It’s not DRM-free. It’s not the ability to sample-stream full tracks. It’s not a more ‘indie’ or long tail catalogue. It’s not music community. All those service elements are well provided for already. So what’s the answer? I’m not sure that these big brands are totally clear themselves.

They each have an angle of course. Sky – an ISP as well as entertainment network – can reach a family market via multiple platforms and is a master of the subscription model. Nokia has, for the time being, a 35% share of the global handset market and knows it must move into the services business. And Amazon has online retail licked. So how do these competitive advantages lend themselves to unique or compelling music services?

There are some fundamental service elements still to play with – price, product and customer experience are still up for grabs in developing something a bit special. But with labels gatekeeping price and savvy service providers unwilling to subsidise music, i think price can almost be ruled out as a differentiator.

This leaves product and customer experience as the two major drivers for breakthrough music services and i think both can be leveraged far more than they have been so far. Firstly, product. It’s silly that we are having debates about albums vs. single songs in a market where the value of both is being steadily commoditised. Kid Rock & Estelle’s non iTunes experiments are fairly meaningless in this context. A service provider that can offer a wider range of music products from one artist or in certain genres, in more interesting bundle packages, will attract interest from paying music audiences as well as file-sharers looking to upgrade a bit on what they can get for their favourite bands.

There are plenty of product elements in the mix to play with other than songs & albums. Video, session tracks, live footage, tickets, merchandise, games, information and editorial offer a plethora of ways a music service can be packaged, presented and sold to consumers, particularly if exclusivity, artist engagement and higher quality thresholds can be achieved as well. There’s no way around it – for a service provider to move the needle with something really special, it will need to get into the content development business – licensing exclusive windows and possibly commissioning exclusives directly from artists. This is very common in TV & film. Comcast, HBO, Channel 4 and the BBC all integrate backwards into production. It takes investment and risk and is expensive, but it’s done with a deeper knowledge of what consumers want than ‘pure-play’ producers, as Comcast demonstrated with its drive to create free VoD services.

Secondly, customer experience. It’s no secret there are major gaps here. Legal music services are still predominantly search based, song-album based and very much push marketed. iTunes has dragged its heals here – taking ages to offer Cover Flow, Mini Store, Complete My Album and now finally, Genius. Nonetheless, Apple shows how customer experience is based on learning by doing, and doing well. Meanwhile eMusic has had some success through focus on editorial and DRM-free.

With recommendation technologies improving by the minute, new open application platforms to drive major improvements in navigation (iPhone Snow Patrol app.) and great editorial brands to link up with (Sony Ericsson& Q), we are getting closer to truly personalised music services, slowly but surely. But it takes research, programming expertise and passion to leverage these resources to offer exciting music services to targeted customer bases.

It’s these elements new market entrants should focus on – not as an ad-on to the basic offer of a DRM-free song catalogue for cheap – but as fundamental to the music offer to consumers who want a better digital music experience and will pay for that pleasure.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Knowing your Elbow from your arse – a small lesson in artist development

Heartfelt congratulations to Elbow on taking the Mercury prize last week. I predicted it (i really did, ask my wife or hairdresser!) and was rooting for them (my very first choice would have been Merz, but he wasn’t nominated so never mind).

I say heartfelt ‘cos i really mean it. I love Elbow. Absolutely adore them. And i’m delighted to see a band reach a new career high (and maybe, just maybe, a breakthrough into the mainstream for a while) after 18 years on the slow burner.

I have a history with this band. I bought their first album Asleep In The Back when it came out in 2001, on the back of good reviews. It didn’t work for me so, i passed it on to a friend and forgot about Elbow. What brought me back to them four years on, was a strong recommendation from Eamonn Forde (friend, music writer & general man of impeccable music tastes) to try Leaders Of The Free World. I duly did, and liked it a lot – enough to buy tickets to see the band play at The Astoria. And that was that - hooked for life. From the moment the singer ambled on to the stage with nothing less than a Styrofoam cup (tea, coffee?) in hand, you could tell something was different about them. They played an absolute stormer that night. I remember saying to my friend afterward that they really should be playing stadiums along with Coldplay (if it wasn’t for the way they looked perhaps, as well as having a more complex, edgier repertoire). After that it was back to the second album Cast Of Thousands – very good (with the track “Switching Off” literally one of the most breathtaking pop ballads i’ve ever heard).

It was after that show, shortly after the release of “Leaders”, i was curious as to Elbow’s commercial curve and pulled their album sales from the UK Chart. Not a good picture at all. Steadily downward from album one in fact, despite a clear artistic improvement and consistently high critical response (see the chart courtesy of the UK Chart Co. and
The band were in that classic space so many bands have been before – getting better and better but selling less and less – in the hole basically. And when in the hole, it’s hard for band, manager or label (if the label still cares) to see a way out. Any cold hard (and blind) analysis by a label accountant would suggest one solution: DROP. Beyond such a myopic view, one can only look forward and hope something breaks for a band in that position. Whether it be getting a song in an ad or TV show, an endorsement from a DJ – whatever – but something.

That something for Elbow seems to me to be their new label. And here is where the business of the labels is so much maligned and under-appreciated – artist development. I know from speaking with the people involved that Fiction worked hard to get Elbow out of its deal with V2 and on to Fiction, for almost a year. Ironically in the end, Universal, which owns Fiction, bought V2 wholly and so could have signed the band by default. That deal does now mean of course that Universal now has Elbow’s catalogue, which suddenly looks like a very shrewd move.

So what happened differently for Elbow under Fiction?

It wasn’t the music. The band worked on the Seldom Seen Kid album (2 years in the making) entirely on their own – both recording and producing. However, from the moment the band signed with Fiction, what they now had was the unwavering support of that label’s founder Jim Chancellor, who believed in the band fully and dedicated the label efforts to getting Elbow’s music to the wider audience it deserved.

The other major difference for Elbow this time around was marketing power (maybe promotional clout is more accurate). Seeing giant posters all over London and full page newspaper ads for the Seldom Seen Kid was a surprise if a delightful one.

The band has worked hard as well. Elbow effectively toured the album continuously with a UK tour on release and appearances on the festival circuit throughout the summer (including one very special night during Massive Attack’s Meltdown, an unusual one off show at Delamere Forest and most significantly, a show-stealing sundown set at Glastonbury). Another round of shows starts with 3 nights at The Roundhouse next month.

But the critical thing is how varied and sustained the campaign around the album has been. In Jim Chancellor’s words the campaign was designed not just to promote the album but to “grow the record over six to 12 months”. A campaign of well chosen media placements (anyone interested in the inspiring music behind the BBC Olympics coverage would have discovered the song “One Day Like This” an SSK highlight) has culminated in the shot-in-the-arm Mercury nomination – with the band doing the rest.

All of which adds up to two insights of value to the business and those who observe and commentate upon it. First, the band would not have achieved this on its own. No way. We sadly don’t live in a world where good music rises miraculously to the top on its own merits - it needs the work.

Second, artist development drives how the business works. Belief in the best artist projects is often – as in this case - contrary to hard metrics or measures. However, a belief-driven campaign for an album like this one also works at its best when there exists a creative and cultural context (the alternative being blind belief which is plain foolhardy).

In Elbow’s case the context was all there: a very good and improving songwriting band; a brilliant (but grounded) frontman - a true auteur indeed; a very good song catalogue; a loyal if small, core following and a consistently brilliant live repertoire.

Most of all, perhaps, a band making sophisticated, emotive music with a very strong potential to connect. A band craving a wider audience if ever there was one. In the opening track on The Seldom Seen Kid, the wonderful “Starlings”, Guy Garvey sings the line:

“I guess this means i’m asking you to back a horse that’s good for glue, if nothing else”.

In backing Elbow it suddenly looks like this horse will be good for much more than glue. Glance back at the chart to see the effect post 1 week on from the Mercury's, with unit sales of 20k taking SSK to sales of 153k - now easily the bands best-selling record and back in the album charts at number 7 this week (from 61 last week). On the way to Platinum? Just maybe.

Footnote: If Guy Garvey writes a more entertaining line than “Charging around with a juggernaut brow”* I might have to change the title of this blog.

*The line is from the track “The Bones of You” from The seldom Seen Kid and is a song about looking five years back from a stressed life “cramming commitments like cats in a sack” to a more carefree time when one could oversleep to the point only when the head of your sleeping partner starts to deaden the feeling in your arm. As poetry in song it’s simply divine – there is no better lyricist in pop right now than Garvey.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Surviving Majors: How to Keep the Dream Factory a Dream Factory

“I got a job washing cars…across from the high rise building where PolyGram Records was. I would stand there with the hose in my hand and look up at the building with reverence, like it was a monument”.
Mark Oliver Everett (Eels) “Things The Grandchildren Should Know”, Little, Brown publishing, 2008.

This quote encompasses everything about the romance of the record companies as they were until very recently - dream factories, star making machines – institutions with a glam factor matched only by the movie studios or the plushest ad agencies. These days they are barely recognisable as such and are gradually becoming monuments of a bygone era. The irony is that Majors are the ones with the resources to affect a real shift in landscape and achieve market tipping points in their favour, yet they are so encumbered by existing systems, contracts, relationships and skills, it’s questionable whether or not they can transform successfully.

I can hardly write an opus here on a blog to suggest how every aspect of a major label can be transformed and it would be pointless anyhow, since writing is so much easier than doing. But based on my study of the majors while at IFPI and more direct experience of working within a transforming EMI, i can at least make a shortlist of areas in which i think, music companies can focus to achieve successful transformation.

I suggest three focal points as a way to begin to turn things around, but essentially, the name of the game is Content Development. There’s a lot more besides of course, but it has to start and end there. It’s also about Creating Culture – much more significant than ‘creating communities’, since communities follow culture. It’s certainly not about being a ‘record company’ – that model can only exist in the medium term for the most A&R savvy, cost conscious indies. The majors must very quickly, really shift (i.e. not just claim to be shifting) to being artist-centred, production and marketing companies.

My three points on which to focus the transformation are:

1. Shift from a products business to an artist business. Walking around the HQ of a major it can be a shock to see that the CD is still the core business – CDs (in some cases CD singles!) stacked everywhere in exec offices and staffers desks tell a graphic story – a travesty of wasted plastic. A visionary artist would be concerned about this. A visionary business leader would now simply ban CDs in the office (physical products of course still exist, but those are for fans, increasingly made-to-order, too valuable for freebies). Basically, the artist is now the brand and everything they create is part of the product portfolio for wide exploitation and revenue sharing. To think of the products as simply the recordings is limited and a ticket to continued slow decline. It’s the Marvel moment – when the iconic comic book company recognised that its core product wasn’t comics but the characters themselves.

2. Shift from an album producing business to a production company built around artist projects. Artists should no longer be stuck on a two-year album-to-album treadmill. Through working with a visionary company, they will create projects periodically whenever it makes sense, depending on profile and preference. Every tour would then be an opportunity to showcase new material and work better synergies between recording and live performance. Artist projects can be wider than just music. If Robbie Williams wants to make a documentary about UFOs or retro gaming, there is a market for that and EMI could be producing this content rather than letting others. The mandate here is to turn the promotional model on its head - to commercialise content based on live, pre-release and exclusives - and to widen and deepen audience relationships through improving content and making it bespoke for platforms and brands.

3. Shift from a promotions business to a marketing business focused on high value audiences. Radio plugging, advertising, securing a TV slot, tour support...the list of promotional activity around ‘working an album’ is a long hard slog. And arguably none of it can really be called marketing. Do these cyclical tasks really deepen the relationship between the artist and their fanbase, or broaden that fanbase significantly? Few of these activities collect any customer information or sense changes in consumer habits. Many artists are already cynical about the promotional treadmill already and will only become more so as all this activity promotes nothing much more than ever-decaying album sales. A visionary content company now needs to be brave enough to take all this activity and stop doing (some, not all of) it in the name of album promotion. Meanwhile, with production values at the core, music companies need to increase the quality of artist sessions, interviews, documentary footage and all else – and package this material for sale, license, or at the very least, direct marketing to the fan base or genre base for the artist. A move to bespoke marketing plans (increasingly digitally-led), for each artist rather than a throw it all at the wall and see what sticks model must prevail.

These would be my three main areas of focus. I deliberately don’t choose a focus on shifting from production to distribution - why take that risk when the distribution business is so fast-moving and over-crowded? I deliberately don’t choose a move away from content to technology – why fumble about in areas outside your core expertise? And i don’t think the model of advances needs such a radical rethink either (though advances do need to come down). The way the relationship is funded should make no real difference to overall revenue and profit outcomes really.

Obviously these shifts do mean that label-artist contracts must change to the sharing of the full portfolio of IP rights, there is no way around the need for this. There is also no way around the need for better creative decisions in A&R, since this model requires smarter investments in a smaller portfolio of artists (with digital, the tricks & tools for reducing A&R risk are now springing up everywhere and can be used far more systematically).

Organisationally there are obvious shifts required in culture, ethos and skill. In all content companies, ‘suits’ and ‘creatives’ sit alongside each other in a fragile juxtapose. Investments in skills should focus around filling this ‘white space’. It takes creativity – both commercial and artistic creativity – to do this. And a new relationship with artists based on transparency, trust, understanding and a shared vision. Artists would come to a new label for this, knowing that this is the environment in which they can achieve their best work and find the widest audience that deserves to see & hear it. That is the new dream factory model – to do great work and be rewarded for it with the widest most loyal audience your music company can find for you both.