Thursday, 10 December 2009

Season's Greetings and Apologies #1

Each week I receive at least one, sometimes two or three, e-mails that come via this blog, from artists just starting out in life, or managers looking for a new way. It has only really dawned on me that this adds up to a hundred or so such contacts in the year.
I’m sorry to say that I have responded to no more than a dozen. I’ve only managed to read a few more than that properly. And I have on just one or two occasions got ‘round to giving the audio clips sent through to me a play. Any that I have replied to or listened to have been on a fairly randomised basis – catching me on a good day so to speak.

So – to all who have contacted me and have either had a half-arsed reply or more probably no reply at all, please accept my sincere apologies. The same goes to all those brave folks who have written to me about their brand new digital music ventures – I’ll post a proper apology to you folks in a day or two.

For the artists and managers, firstly, I wholly appreciate that you read this blog. And I appreciate you taking the initiative to contact me directly, it shows how much you are scanning the market and seeking out any clues to a new approach – something outside the over-worn and ever more precarious tracks of ‘route 1 to market’. To me that’s a positive sign you’ll have some success.

The reason for my non-reply rate is simply that most precious of modern commodities, time. I’m no A&R guy either, as you might have figured out by now if you read JB regularly. You’ll also know that I don’t give out codswallop marketing advice or cod-self-help, this blog isn’t the place for that.

There are plenty of actually rather good places to get genuine advice and fresh ideas. Music Think Tank is great. Derek Sivers’ stuff can be insightful and inspiring. There are occasionally inspired interventions by David Byrne & others in the space – all of whom know this subject rather better than I do.

The ‘Artist Services’ business is booming – you should take advantage of all the low-priced digital service platforms out there – the bandcamps, reverbnations etc. I even signed up to RandR World myself and have found that as a ‘linked-in’ for musicians, it seems to work just as effectively (does Linked-In work effectively?). There are emerging services that focus more specifically on artist career strategies including Rick Goetz’s Musician Coaching. In short, the ‘answers’ are out there.

That said, and for what it’s worth, whenever I have had these types of conversations, what I think I know and do advise comes down to a few suggestions and these are they:

My five codes of conduct for the emerging artist that’s different:

  1. Be in no hurry whatsoever. Why would you be? You are in the field with several million competitors, so an attempt to win a race this isn’t. New music flows onto the market in a continuous, random fashion, so the fans are expecting nothing. Your ‘market-entry-strategy’ is all basically about when you are ready. One trend that does strike me these days is how apparently full-formed bands look when they do emerge. Have you seen & heard Delphic yet? They remind me of Radiohead several albums in. You can’t rely on music to sustain you a living in the early days anyhow, so you are likely to have alternative means of support anyhow. So write as many good songs as you can. It’s better to have two albums worth of strong material when something starts to happen for you.
  2. Set expectations high. Why wouldn’t you? You know all that commentary about the new ‘middle-class’ artist and sustaining a career ‘from 1000 fans’? It’s all utter bunk. Claptrap. Total rhubarb. How on earth, in the current climate of low-loyalty and limitless choice, will you ever convince a small army of dedicated fans to stick with you and buy your stuff long enough for you to have a decent career? It’s too much to ask. The only way bands have acquired a sizeable, dedicated following is by breaking into the big time, for however short a period. You must strive and work towards a breakthrough. How you sustain it from there is critical too – but you need to breakthrough somehow.
  3. Hone your craft in live performance. Can you win over audiences? If the answer is a genuine yes, how are you doing it? With song quality, performance, charm or shock value? Work on the combination. Artists that can get there audiences to ‘transcend’ are, as they say in the old school, the ‘real deal’. You will build a local following and word will spread from there. If it isn’t working on that level, consider changing the material or the membership!
  4. Scan the market. The music market changes constantly. As with all good marketing strategies, understanding the environment in which you are operating is critical to success. Did you catch the news of a new artist investment fund the other week? Did you see that a big corporate is working with an ex-musician to develop services including A&R? Do you have a song that is relevant to something happening out there in which your song could give resonance? Marketing is all about finding context for your stuff. You will need to have one band member or manager or someone out there for you market scanning with one eye on the prize. This is an investment of time and thought, not necessarily money.
  5. Get a plan together. There is no substitute, in my book, for a proper business plan. They never work and they always get scrapped in the end, but the discipline of knowing where you set out from, with what – and a bit of the how – is the best way to get started. I recently met guitarist Martyn Shone from the band Honey Ryder. He shared with me some of the band’s business plans. It was impressive. No wonder the band sold enough shares in themselves to build up a marketing budget equivalent to that of a major label with launch band, but with none of the binding clauses. Just an obligation to do everything in their power to succeed on the major stage.
Good luck. Seasons Greetings.
Oh, and apologies.

In the next couple of posts, I apologise to any number of start-ups, sum up my music of the decade and look forward to major business breakthroughs in 2010. Also, do look out for my next guest post on the MIDEMNET blog as you might like it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

2009: The year of music not necessarily from 2009

This will be one of a few year-end round-up posts, just for fun really, nothing too serious. If you want to catch more ‘business-like’ music related writings then keep an eye on my guest posts on the MIDEMNET blog, with the next one through in a week or so. If you’ve enjoyed the JB blog’s insights into the music business throughout this year look out for a series of insight-led pieces I will be writing from next year on the wider media sectors and beyond...for now it’s about the music...

It’s coming up to that time again, reflecting back on the musical year. All the papers and music magazines have had double debriefs to contend with as we wind up both 2009 and of course the decade. My reading pile is substantial, which does not sit too well with my first resolution for 2010 to ‘read less, listen more’.

As ever, music itself played a central role in my year both in terms of consulting projects but of course in terms of music itself. I can’t help but feel compelled to round-up each year – I think I have done this more or less for as long as I can recall. But here’s the thing – this will be the last year in which I do this.

The reason is simple: I’ve stopped defining my music consumption and experiences by time, certainly by year. In 2009, I found myself discovering (I use the term ‘discovery’ to embrace not just the practice of finding music, but connecting with it) music that could be from anytime.

Most notably, the record I played most this year was GaGaGaGaGa by Spoon, which was released last year. I have also just being enjoying Martha Wainwright’s album from last year ‘I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too’, which is a really rich collection of songs. I’ve been much more tardy though, in discovering I Am Kloot’s ‘Natural History’, a wonderful album that I actually did buy the year it came out – 2001 – but have played to death only this year. I will definitely pounce on their new record next year, not least as it is being produced by Elbow’s Guy Garvey who is a patron of the band – context that might have provided some glue for my connection to them after all this time.

I also just discovered Gil Scott Heron following news items about his ‘reappearance’ this year. And I’ve re-discovered Grace Jones, Talk Talk and The Beatles for the umpteenth time. Much of this of course is related to events in 2009, so the context is contemporary, but the music itself is from way back.

As for music released this year there are plenty of records I’ve acquired but have yet to connect with, somewhat disappointingly. This includes, to my surprise, the new albums by The Arctic Monkeys, Wilco and Metric – three artists I have absolutely loved, previously. Slightly disturbed by this, since I can’t tell when the opportunity will come to hear these records in a new light. I was also disappointed with quite a few records that came strongly recommended or anticipated, including The Duke & The King (it's just a bit dull, no?), Doves and even The Hours’ ‘ See The Light’, which lacked the intensity and staying power of ‘Narcissus Road’. The latter is one of my records of the decade by the way, which I will post on later.

From the year itself, I more immediately connected with the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s ‘It’s Blitz’; EG White’s ‘Adventure Man’; Adela Diane’s ‘To Be Still’ and bona fide ‘return to form’ albums by Madness, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains.

Pride of place in the CD player and on the iPod however were Portico Quartet’s ‘Isla’ – a genuine ‘grower’ that gets richer with familiarity; John Vanderslice’s ‘Romanian Names’ - he defines the genre 'interesting pop'; Spiro’s wonderfully uplifting ‘Lightbox’; Pink Martini’s ‘Splendour in The Grass’ and Bill Callaghan’s wistful ‘Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle’ which has marvellous arrangements.

The surprise of the year for me was Starsailor’s ‘All The Plans’ which I was moved to blog about back in March. There is always delight in discovering music accidentally, but that’s sometimes even greater when you really didn’t like the previous work of an artist. I didn’t previously like anything about Starsailor – suspecting them of being a bit run of the mill – but they completely won me over with such a superbly written, performed and heartfelt record that really doesn’t contain a single filler track. Put away your preconceptions is the lesson there I suppose.

I did not get around to Animal Collective and any number of other ‘buzz’ bands, but that’s not untypical for me. I discovered Arctic Monkeys on the second album, not the over-hyped first. I’m in no hurry. And that’s our divine right as music fans isn’t it? I’m really not interested in having music rammed down my throat – that’s the old way. I don’t really listen to music radio (with the exception of Guy Garvey, Gideon Coe and occasional KCRW) so I have no idea what’s being pushed. I’m very much on the pull side – actively using the reviews and taking in other contexts.

I know what I’m ready to like and when I'm good and ready. As Daniel Levitin says in his fascinating book 'This Is Your Brain On Music': "Trying to appreciate new music can be like contemplating a friendship in that it takes time, and sometimes there is nothing you can do to speed it up".

But the era of lists and end notes on a year may well be over. As music fans, it’s increasingly unimportant what week, quarter or even year, we discover the music, but how we discover it, enjoy it and pass on the good word about it. I wonder however, if I can resist the urge to list.

Monday, 23 November 2009 – the music store that’s different

Before I launch into my solution for ‘music that’s different’ it’s worth pausing first to consider something amazing about 2009 (a year of otherwise distinctly gloomy trappings – a real annus horribilis as The Queen might put it) and it’s this:

2009 is the 20th anniversary year for Real World Records and the 20th anniversary year for Warp Records. It is also the 40th anniversary year for (dare I say the word ‘iconic’) jazz label ECM. And it is the 70th anniversary year for legendary folk label Topic. Of course, joining this label anniversary bonanza are Island Records (50), Bella Union (10) and Transgressive (5).

So one way or the other – music that’s different and/or eclectic is thriving. Though who knows what the bottom line looks like in these labels, there’s no denying their individual and collective endurance – as both commercial and cultural entities.

This is some ten years after Napster of course, when the first declarations were being made on the ‘death of the record label’. What a time for Simon Raymonde to launch Bella Union – a label that has since blossomed as a home for indie music with a twist. The label is home once again to my favourite recording artist of the moment – the wonderful Laura Veirs – her new album July Flame will no doubt welcome in 2010 with a refreshing air of optimism and loveliness.

It’s worth paying some dues also, to a bunch of music services – many already mentioned previously on this blog – that are making a concerted effort to serve natural niches in the marketplace, rather than aim to serve the homogenous mass that are ‘music consumers’. These would include Calabash/Mondomix (world), Bleep (dance), Lost Tunes (heritage pop), Society of Sound (lossless downloads) e-music (indie, mostly) and Boomkat (indie) among a few others. I also think it’s interesting that Naxos seems to have quietly cracked the problem of how to make music subscription model work commercially – did anyone notice?

Still, as analysed in the previous post – niche genres that so often appeal to older, wealthier and more committed music buyers – have yet to reach more than the sum of their parts. As the digital market has developed, the global long tail aggregators for niche music have yet to arrive in any way that scales beyond say, those services mentioned above. Meanwhile in the great fire of brick & mortar music retail, the ‘jazz, classical and world’ sections seem to be the first ones to shrink then disappear.

So here’s my suggestion – there for the taking for any major music retail brand currently in existence – or for any brave new music venture willing to use peripheral vision – as opposed to another vain attempt to ‘own the digital music space’ by way of a more radical pricing model.

Let’s call it ‘’ (though you wouldn’t actually call it that of course – that would be commercial suicide). stacks up as follows: for £4.99 per month (an established ‘sweet spot’ subscription price according to the surveys I read) you get access to all the niche music you want to stream + the option to buy high-quality MP3 or CD albums at a decent discount – knock a pound or two off the Amazon retail price, say. You get ‘Unpop’ quarterly – a feature catalogue with high quality editorial about classic recordings and forthcoming releases – this makes you feel special. You get one featured free MP3 download each and every week day – nicely manageable, delivered through your in-box, if you want it. A few pre-programmed or socially programmed radio channels wouldn’t hurt.

Thus the market secures a minimum of £60 per year and probably a good deal more for a-la-carte purchases on top. Offering this sort of value proposition for this market doesn’t hurt mainstream music at all – no cannibalisation. ‘Unpop’ is differentiated from mainstream ‘pop’ stuff, so the overall music market economics are unaffected – ‘’ customers don’t care how much standard music prices are – the mainstream can go on being mainstream.

Meanwhile ‘Unpop’ opens up a whole new world of discovery while obtaining underlying revenue from subscriptions. Now that would be different...

Friday, 13 November 2009

Music is a different business – it should do more for music that’s different

A week or so ago, I made five recommendations of music that’s a bit different to my (& maybe your) usual tastes, as part of my strategy to prioritise my music consumption – as set out in this previous post.

Those records were new or recent releases by Portico Quartet, Spiro, Steve Martin, Bill Frisell, The Unthanks and Pink Martini. None of them are ‘popular’ – but each album does fall into a category of sorts – one the many hundreds of music genres or sub-genres. Even Pink Martini – a blend of just about everything except pop, is described on Wikipedia as ‘vintage music’ – a sub genre probably, of ‘easy listening’.

As an industry – if you can really refer to the distribution of commercial music as an industry (a worthy post-grad paper perhaps) – the incredible, bewildering variety of products is what makes the music business totally unique. No other business that I know of puts full-blown produced products out there on the market without any prior knowledge of what will happen next. Sure, if you have a major pop artist with a known commercial track record and the whole dashboard of modern demand metrics, you might be able to put together a half-decent sales forecast – but you’d still be pushing it to be within + or – 100%.

But forget those, if you have any one of the above records – in niche genres – how on earth do you know if you can even hope to break even on releasing the record commercially – i.e. having funded its discovery, production, marketing and distribution? Because the one thing you do know is that you will not have a global hit on your hands.

In this sense, the music business is also unique – in that there are few genuinely ‘independent’ or ‘alternative genre’ records that become global smash hits. The movie business is different – it produces - even if it’s just a couple - of real indie smashes each year, pretty consistently. Be it Blair Witch, The March Of The Penguins, Slumdog, or the very latest example - Paranormal Activity – the small guys can make it really, really big in film.

It happens less so in music – if you look at the top fifty selling albums each year they are dominated by pop records released by majors. Neither small independent’s or niche genre artists get a look in. There are clear reasons based on industry structure. Film has an established independent film network that is supported by major festivals around the world – many of which are celebrated as significant cultural events. It has an ‘art-house’ cinema distribution network too. Film also gets significant government support on the investment side.

The music industry doesn’t have the equivalents. Yes there are numerous small venues that cater to the alternative – but they are not effectively networked and so do not make up more than the sum of their parts. Same for independent labels, really – hence there have been recent initiatives to give the sector a much needed leg-up – such as independent charts. But these often confuse ‘independence’ between source – i.e. label and actual musical style. As for retail, well we can see what’s happened there and it is almost too painful to keep watching.

Music that’s genuinely different, alternative or niche must simply submit to being commercially second-rate. The only global phenomenon of the same nature I can recall is the success of the Buena Vista Social Club Cuban music movement – and that all started with – an independent movie!

I applaud initiatives that try up the ante for the ‘movement’ that is niche music – such as the upcoming January 2010 Reverb festival of concerts at the Roundhouse, which has some support from the Arts Council of England and local Camden Council – though only small commercial sponsors.

However, I’m absolutely convinced this music can scale better than it does, if only it had the right platform. After all, this is the digital age where niche content was in fact supposed to have become the heir to the Blockbuster King, by now according to the uber-thinking-journalists.

Take this simple insight. I have three Pink Martini CDs so I like them – they have grown on me over the years without necessarily becoming an act I would recommend to others regularly. But I know I could name maybe 20-30 other people in my life who would like them as much as me if not more so – but who have never even heard of them. My feeling is that Portico Quartet could achieve the same sort of crossover potential in the UK that Jazz trio E.S.T. achieved in their native Sweden – where they regularly made the mainstream charts.

While I wouldn’t say the same for Spiro or The Unthanks – I’m am pretty convinced that they could probably triple whatever little they do sell - easily – if only they could get some effective, targeted exposure to their receptive audiences, and that could well be the difference between loss & profit.

Steve Martin, well, he doesn’t exactly need to have a hit – and has in fact spent extravagant amounts of his own money on making and touring his ‘The Crow’. But it is such a good record it deserves success in its own right, not just as some kind of vanity project. As for Bill Frisell – at least he is on exactly the right label to connect with his audience – Nonesuch – which specialises in route-to-market for eclectic, different music aimed at the more mature, discerning ear.

And here is the second insight for today. I’m a mature and enthusiastic music fan who has listened to so much stuff that I am receptive – in a state of absolute readiness – to hear more music that’s different. Where do I connect with my fellow audience? I’ve no doubt that audience is large (huge globally); fairly well-off and fairly uninterested in piracy – probably even pro-actively disposed to paying top whack for music - as the rich cultural good that it is. The reason we don’t buy much these days is we are uninspired and ill-informed. No one is putting this music in front of us.

Now I know there is the BBC and in the US, ‘public radio’ – and this is great. Programmes like ‘Late Junction’ are the equivalent of splendid cuisine for the ears – even if you sometimes have to work at it to acquire the taste first. But I don’t really do radio. I want to check this stuff out on demand and then buy it and keep playing it until I love it.

Also, I know these artists could get greater exposure in a number of ways – like what if Portico could get a support slot for Radiohead, or if Spiro got a great synch opportunity? That could break ground, but only as a one-off, transient thing – it might serve those artists well if they are lucky – but it’s not reaching that huge global audience of un-served, unlucky listeners.

And finally here’s the irony. In the UK we are about to get bombarded with new music services (again) – each one upping the ante on the ‘business model’ – more & more music for less & less cash. But the music is always the same stuff. The front-line recommendations are the big artists about to assault the radio networks, the TV and press. Spotify this week has the exclusive with Robbie Williams (do they really need each other?). Sky Songs has launched – in a promotion with The Sun newspaper. It’s like daytime radio all over again - the same music to the broadest audience possible.

Even out of those six million songs in the impressively large catalogues, there’s nothing for we-who-want-different, since we don’t know what we’re looking for, or if we do and hit search, it will not be there more than half the time.

Why don’t we do something different for those people who want something different? I’m on the case...the next post will show us the way...

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The new way to listen #3: Music that's 'different'

This is a two part post: first, some music I recommend; second (later in the week) – how can this music be ‘business’?

Recently I wrote about how my music consumption and listening habits are changing – including spending more time opening my ears to music that’s different. It comes not necessarily from boredom with more ‘popular’ genres, but from an adversity to their over-supply – there’s just too much of what’s essentially the same. I need something that pokes my musical senses in new places.

Just last night, at London’s Koko, was a case in point, with the rather marvelous Portico Quartet in performance. They’ve come a long way these four young men. I first heard their music some six years ago, wandering along the Waterloo south bank, where they regularly busked. My wife heard them first - and we gathered round, listened and came away with the band’s self-made CD for fiver, suitably impressed.

I didn’t play the disc much and thought nothing of it until a couple of years later when the band glimpsed the limelight with their 2008 Mercury Music Prize nomination for first album ‘Knee Deep in the North Sea’. I never got ‘round to that album either, as I was still gorging on records back then, working my way through piles & piles of CDs and streams on Napster & Rhapsody, in a futile effort to find those precious few records that get under your skin and become essential slow-burning, long-lasting fuel. I had a filter (not a very good one) for finding the good stuff but no effective mechanism for discovery of what’s really different.

But, with my new priority system in play and working nicely, a portal opens for bands like Portico. And it’s a blessing because this is genuinely thrilling music. I wouldn’t classify it as Jazz. To me its hybrid music that happens to be created by four musicians playing what they play – which happens to be the Hang (look it up on Wikipedia), Soprano Sax (the curved one that looks more like a toy instrument), Bass and Drums.

So what else is different in my music world right now?

Spiro’s ‘Lightbox’ has occupied pride of place on the 2009 playlist and could well turn out to be my album of the year. Peter Gabriel describes Spiro as “soulful and passionate” and you might find, as I did, that this is pretty much spot on. Seeing them earlier this year on a major stage at WOMAD was a life-affirming experience, as is listening to this record repeatedly.

I also recommend Bill Frisell’s fascinating ‘Disfarmer’. I love an album with a theme, a story – something that immediately sets it apart from just an album. It draws me in. Frisell’s album is homage to dustbowl America as seen through the lens of depression era photographer Michael Disfarmer. It’s on Nonesuch records – a label that’s a specialist in the eclectic like no other – look out for this blog’s forthcoming case study on that Label featuring some great insights from legendary founder Bob Hurwitz.

I’ve also recently been streaming Steve Martin’s ‘banjo record’ The Crow (as it says on the cover “truly wonderful and just as advertised”) and The Unthank’s ‘Here’s The Tender Coming’. When my conscience gets a grip on me, I will invest in both albums on CD - perhaps.

Finally – just delivered on CD from Amazon is Pink Martini’s new album Splendor In The Grass. This record is a musical equivalent of treacle – The Times review summed it up: “Mamboing transvestite district attorneys, a 90-year-old Mexican ranchera singer, a Tchaikovsky piano concerto, Italian pop kitsch, missing heads, Peter Sellers’s sitar, Sesame Street singalongs and a Neapolitan lullaby”. It’s easy listening, yes (nothing wrong with that!) but it is also authentic, beautifully performed and meticulously recorded. It’s lush – a joy to behold.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Black Gives Way to Blue: The Return of AIC and resulting format confusion...

There’s nothing like music for taking you back. Seventeen years ago (at the start of my professional career) I was what you might call an angry young man. Music has always provided me with a kind of fuel – and at the time music - specifically the music of Alice In Chains, was fuelling my anger rather nicely. This past two weeks have taken me right back there, but in the best way imaginable.

Back in 1992 I was on some major systems project or other for an energy company, in the employ of Andersen Consulting, now otherwise known as Accenture. I was sharing a flat with a studious American called Floyd and a conscientious, ambitious young lady called Heidi, neither of whom could make head ‘nor tail of me or my anger.

To Floyd & Heidi, that project seemed like the place to be, the pinnacle of professional assignments. To me it just sucked. So much so, I would start my days with a loud blast of AIC’s ‘Dirt’ (I’m talking LOUD and before 8 am). I must have been the flatmate from hell. Belated apologies Floyd & Heidi wherever you are.

For those unfamiliar, Dirt is an absolute classic. It’s unforgiving, relentless, driving, bleak, but as melodic as rock gets. It was my album of the year and AIC was my favourite band then, my fuel of choice.

It was with trepidation then, that I approached the new record by AIC released just a few weeks ago. It was a real surprise to me. I read a gig review in The Guardian while I was on vacation (I had NO IDEA they had reformed). Anyone at all familiar with the group will know why this is more than a little remarkable.

What I loved about AIC is what was makes so many bands special – the blend of two great talents working together – the 2+2 making 5. In AIC’s case this is guitarist and songwriter Jerry Cantrell and, back then in the angry days of 1992 – singer and frontman Layne Staley. Cantrell brought the driving, power-drill guitars, Staley one of the most organic and original voices in rock music. The two also combined for those distinctive harmonies that made the band stand out from anything else from the grunge scene at that time, or since. But Staley was a heavy heroin user and eventually died of an overdose in 2002.

And that is what makes AIC’s revival so remarkable. Staley was essentially irreplaceable, but some years on - has been replaced. The new singer William DuVall (a 42 year old who has been around for years with other bands) not only sounds remarkably like Staley, but of course, fills in perfectly for those harmony parts, that can be heard throughout the new record in all their glory.

Black Gives Way To Blue is a fabulous album that has somehow arrived just at the right time for me personally and for other AIC fans I hope. Nearly 20 years on since I became a fan I was frankly worried I might find it too LOUD, but I don’t at all - though I do prefer the slower tracks. The title track (which features some lovely piano by none other than Elton John) is the best ballad I have heard this year. It’s about death but somehow is utterly life-affirming.

Of course, I had to have this particular record on CD. I could not possibly be satisfied by previewing a new AIC album on Spotify. Not only did the reviews reassure me it was an album good enough to invest in (there are no weak tracks on this album - it's filler free), but I didn’t want to listen to it and think it was ‘just okay’ which is how most stuff sounds to me on Spotify – not because of sound quality issues (I have some pretty good computer speakers) – but because it’s on tap, so I can never quite concentrate on it for some reason.

I didn’t want to download it either, probably because I have all AIC’s previous releases on disc (the last full album being 1995’s self-titled release). This isn’t logical either, because I'm hardly a record collector, even when it comes to my favourite bands. I can only readily find Dirt, as it sits there pride of place on my ‘All Time Classics’ shelf. Where the hell are my ‘Jar of Flies’ and ‘AIC’ albums then? Somewhere in the rubble – either in the ‘transitory cupboard’? (not current, not classic, not yet in the shed) – or surely not – actually in the shed! Or worse, gone.

So, ironically enough, I’m now back on Spotify streaming the back catalogue...convenient isn't the word. There just isn’t one way to access, listen, organise and store music these days and that’s a good thing. But sometimes it drives me crazy.

Music in-box jammed full this week. I’ve been reading about the Pixie’s outstanding re-union gig at Brixton Academy and since I don’t know their music (I’m acutely aware of my ‘music gaps’) I’m really keen to get to it. But then I am enthralled to the new Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam records and enjoying my own personal grunge revival. On the other hand, I bought three albums yesterday (7 Digital’s £5 albums are irresistible) – Editors, Ravonettes and The Flaming Lips. I’ve checked out a few tracks from the first two records and they are red hot. But I'm so enjoying The Temper Trap's 'Conditions' still. I've just received a few interesting playlists from respected music colleagues as well. And I’m still trying to work my way through The Beatles re-masters. Think I’ll just combust, it’s much easier...

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Can The Beatles finally realise their ambitions?

In Richard DeLillo’s book The Longest Cocktail Party there’s an amusing passage around the release of The White Album (I think, from memory, I can no longer find my copy to check) whereby Apple Corps, the then recently formed Beatles operating company, were positively vexed by the album’s sales performance. The album – an expensive double – was comfortably installed at number one of course, but someone in the Apple camp had calculated that only one in ten households had bought the record. ‘One in ten’ seemed like an outrage – nine out of every ten households hadn’t (yet) bought it! The marketing plan – if such things existed in 1968 – became a ‘how do we get the other nine to buy it’.

Even in their heyday, The Beatles didn’t quite achieve ubiquity (indeed, another band on the EMI label – Queen – has sold more albums to date, worldwide, if my copy of Mojo rock trivia is to be believed). But the remarkable fact is, The Beatles have – as a commercial musical entity – never stopped striving for it and probably never will. Thirty years after the band split, 2000’s “1” compilation of the collective number 1 singles, broke sales records around the world and introduced the band to a whole new set of audiences. Throughout the nineties The Beatles had seen a steady renewal of interest, thanks to the rise of Britpop during that decade.

Now 2009 marks another landmark year in The Beatles commercial career, with the re-masters releases and the arrival of the band into the gaming world via Rock Band. The early sales analysis on the re-masters is impressive, with sales of 2.25 million in the first four days. See the country breakdown on Hypebot here. The campaign seems easily sustainable as Christmas approaches with those two juicy box sets to choose from – there’ll be plenty of fans who want to own both.

With the re-issue campaign being ‘insight-based’ I’m curious to know more about who has bought what of the re-masters – not just the country-based data. I’m intrigued as to whether the re-issues have found truly wide audiences as “1” did, or whether the majority of purchases have been made by the owners of previous recordings. What does the audiophile market make of the re-masters? Did they rate the stereo mixes or stick with the mono?

Also, I’m wondering if many consumers have been tempted to make their first CD purchases for a good while having otherwise ‘gone digital’ – or whether indeed the digital audience has shown any interest at all. Have any digital natives bought their first CD from this collection? If so, they may now understand what they’ve missed in never having a physical relationship with music.

Sifting through these beautifully presented packages (EMI & Apple have got this packaging decision right – no ugly jewel boxes - but attractive digipacks, with the Mono sets coming with a nicely replicated vinyl aesthetic). The Beatles records make so much sense as tangible objects. Playing back Revolver, The White Album, Abbey Road – I’ve found myself just staring at the back covers – something I haven’t done since I was a teenager, basically.

Among the Beatles’ many remarkable ‘firsts’ are breakthroughs so attached to the concept of albums – in physical form - it’s somehow hard to imagine a ‘digital Beatles’. The iconography of the cover art, the photogenic nature of the band, the sequencing of songs (alternating Lennon & McCartney-led compositions but throwing in the odd George & Ringo number in just the right spots), the fact that most of the albums are albums in the truest sense – with no actual singles taken from them at all.

Holding these products gives a sense of music worth the money – at a tenner a throw these packages and their contents are phenomenal value. This feeling is exactly (desperately) what music needs to instil in music fans – this sense of immense value from what we hold in our hands as the music plays. Can this ever be achieved with digital?

Perhaps it can, via ever more beautiful devices and with music as the killer application in those devices. But we have a long long way to go. The Beatles digitally, could deliver everything digital music so far lacks – an amazing library of context. I can imagine holding a device with which I could browse the incredibly rich vaults of artwork, photography and editorial as The Beatles’ music plays. For example, the absorbing stories of their songs as captured in Ian MacDonald’s remarkable book Revolution In The Head. That could add a new dimension to this music, but could it ever be achieved with all the rights clearances required? Would we buy it at a price that makes it all worthwhile?

Could the re-mastering process be applied to a lossless sound format for digital? If so maybe another new dimension is possible. But I guess these days, for The Beatles to finally achieve that modest ambition from 1968 to be in every household, it must come down to whether they get licensed for streaming – but I can’t see the value in that commercially for EMI & Apple. Why would they reduce a valuable, renewable asset like that to the common denominator of streaming?

The same reasoning lies behind a recent Sony decision to remove the Bob Dylan catalogue from streaming services. The classics live on forever, sell steadily and get a new lease of life every so often – a pattern that would be discontinued by availability on streaming platforms. Then again, every music fan – of any age - should hear these songs at some stage, especially now they have been re-tuned for the modern age and sound as fresh as they do timeless. For that to happen I guess The Beatles will need to join the great music library in the cloud, eventually.

Next: A new Pearl Jam album, followed by the return of Alice In Chains. Can any genre from the age of CD buying make a comeback before it’s too late?

post-note: Listening to the Beatles catalogue I had never realised how much their sound has influenced the music I've listened to most in recent years. If you are looking for a modern equivalent, try Elliot Smith, Spoon, I Am Kloot, Super Furry Animals, Brendon Benson - they all sound so much more Beatlesesque than anything from the britpop era.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Do all music ventures have to be digital now?

Almost there in a week of asking some searching questions, the next question might have to follow next week, as I want to comment on The Beatles but have yet to work my way (joyously) through the remasters. I need the weekend for that! This post is a little bit long (I know my posts are not too short). But it's still ten minutes with a nice strong coffee - take your time...

The web is wonderful. It has done the most remarkable things for music. I haven’t read one of his novels, but I couldn’t say it better than Nick Hornby when it comes to what the web has done for music and for music fans.

But, as Hornby alludes to in his piece, has the web been good for the music business? In the wild west of web commerce look at how many music related ventures have come and gone, with barely a trace left to even learn valuable lessons from. At the start of this year, MusicAlly listed no less than 200 music start-ups from 2008 (not an exhaustive list) and I can’t bring myself to skim that list now to see which of those are still in the game.

But why is the universal assumption now that all new ventures involving recorded music have to be digital? I know it’s a dumb question. But then it’s not that dumb. Any investor or entrepreneur will know that a contrary strategy is always worth a look.

Prevailing market trends point to online, mobile and gaming platforms for sure – particularly with apps invigorating the mobile sector – a true breakthrough there. However, the assumption that music – or any content for that matter – will migrate from physical to digital in a steady linear fashion (at whatever speed), could well be wrong.

It’s something all content industries are assuming to a greater or lesser extent. There will always be newspapers, magazines and books, but music and film is a bit more difficult to imagine in a physical form in the longer term.

But the longer term could be quite a while. At this stage, the majority of music consumers will not let the CD go, especially but not exclusively, the older demographic. From recent UK research by Speakerbox - 85% of music buyers buy CD, with BPI data confirming that just 10% of buyers now buy digital. Recent work I have been involved with confirms something I first measured at IFPI and long suspected before that – many music buyers try digital (primarily through iTunes) and don’t actually like it, much. So they go back to CD, even if reluctantly.

When music (and other content – for example news) is consumed online, the experience changes. Online ‘dwell times’ are often measured in just minutes per month, whereas actual music listening is in hours per day. The digital experience of consumption switches to a more fleeting, contextual experience (strange then when so many services strive or claim to be ‘immersive’) – very different from playing back an album.

With mobile, the impact of apps may now drive more consumption this way – a constant pecking away at a smattering of content, rather than a settled, focused listen on something you carefully chose to invest in first. On the other hand – breakthroughs in metadata based apps like Cocktail & CMS may yet make digital more genuinely engaging – maybe.

What’s remarkable is that there have been so few successful ventures in music that – rather than get in painfully ahead of their time and then painfully run out of operating cash – have transformed consumer benefits on the basis of consumer habits now. The alternative in movies is LoveFilm, a phenomenally successful young business that obliterated the inconveniences of movie rental, but was smart enough to do so leveraging the standard format of now – the physical DVD. LoveFilm can get to digital movies later, there’s no point running if your punters are still walking.

However, when you do look, the recent track record of consumer-facing non-digital music ventures is awful. The lack of no new physical format successor, the demise of music retailing thanks to online competition and the general erosion in the value of music and low motivation to pay, just seem to kill any good idea in its tracks. Let’s briefly look at some, first, format based innovations:
  • Slot Music. Sandisk’s commendable but ultimately surely doomed, effort, to somehow embrace digital but still keep the inanimate object element intact. You can see what they were thinking: free DRM, nicely restrict the content to bite size chunks, keep the album intact, provide consumers with a little extra utility – some good features. But it’s not clear who it’s for.
  • Similar, USB albums. Launched by Labels with Universal giving it a fair go, USB’s certainly have novelty value. It’s a standard format for PCs, so no issues there. But it just about stops there.
  • Warner’s various attempts at new CD formats didn’t work either – too niche and marginal of benefit. With lack of industry-wide support the development has gone a bit quiet.

Now some non-digital music ventures:

  • Starbucks Hear Music. This looked clever to me at the time. Why not leverage 14000+ prime retail spaces and a high-value, high-footfall user base to sell them music – something that also fits perfectly within the ambience of the coffee house concept as well. But then it got a few things wrong. Why the CD burning booths? Why make a move into A&R when it’s such a tricky area? Then the recession came and that was that. It’s a shame – I still think coffee & music works – that’s what this blog is kind of inspired by after all!
  • Music Zone ‘Bugs’. Music Zone (a fleetingly successful UK ‘discount’ music retailer, a bit like Fopp – and with similar subsequent operating difficulties) wanted to introduce ‘pod-like’ CD booths in busy travel hubs. But MZ didn’t even get the concept off the ground before its main business went bust.
  • In the US, both Nordstrum and Downtown Locker Room began retailing a selective set of CD titles, sometimes exclusively and with special packaging. It made a rumble then petered out.
  • Finally, for a while, the industry pondered Kiosks. To my mind, CD-burning or iPod filling Kiosk’s where a hopeless folly. The last thing a consumer needs when filtering their music, is time pressure and the last thing a retailer needs is a consumer taking all the time in the world to spend $10.

These are just some of the failures and you can see their problem was being limited largely by format, combined with a good dose of strategic and operational errors. There successes:

  • Hot Topic. This was (I hope still is) a phenomenally successful US-based merchandise chain based around ‘emo’ & ‘goth’ – two pretty evergreen, high value genres (shock market insight – young consumers will spend money on, and around, music!). Its secret was targeting that cultural group, with a neatly executed concept. And of course, though music centered, Hot Topic sells mainly merchandise. The company’s attempts to expand into the digital music space have looked less impressive however.
  • Rough Trade. A flagship record store in a thriving area of East End London, plus a moderately successful, against-the-grain mail-order CD club (The Album Club). It’s a heritage brand that for the time being prevails and appeals to a good segment of ‘real’ music fans.
  • Amoeba Music still goes strong as it mops up the detritus of what’s left of US CD retailing, though you have to wonder how long it can maintain its vibrancy.

Meanwhile in the UK, the last man standing HMV Records seems to be getting the smarts - albeit by diversifying from physical recorded music - investing in a network of live venues and most recently acquiring solid digital music business 7 Digital. But mainly, HMV has done okay by selling more & more stuff that isn’t CDs.

I think physical music could still do well where it can be aimed at pockets of high-value culture – like Hot Topic and Rough Trade. Combining a physical indie music store with graphic novels perhaps? Banning jewel boxes outright, definately. Or maybe someone else can have a go at Music & Coffee, but execute the concept better than Starbucks did. Could Kerrang! Do a similar thing to Hot Topic aimed at the hard rock sector – another high value segment there for the taking in the UK?

The marketing criteria would seem to be a product range relating to but not exclusively, recorded music, a clear cultural segment to aim at, and good branding & execution. Not an easy formula.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Will the music industry ever extract real value from digital?

When Steve Jobs announced the launch of iTunes back in 2004 and queued up the slide for the song price – 79 pence – there were audible gasps among the audience. People were that little bit amazed. They were impressed that Jobs had pulled off the deal to sell individual songs - at a reasonable price. It worked too, with iTunes notching up over a billion songs for each year of operation since.

But the six billion songs sold on iTunes are part of a slowing curve – the overall digital business growing by just 25% in 2008 – to $3.8 billion, 20% of the global music business. With the business generating nearly $5 billion less in 2008 than five years before in 2004, before iTunes launched and digital kicked in, the ‘holy grail’ whereby new digital revenues more than made up for lost revenues from CD sales, never arrived. If digital sales grow by more than one fifth in 2009 we’ll be lucky and it still won’t be enough.

Nearly six years on from Apple’s genuinely sensational announcement, that same service dominates the digital space, to the satisfaction of no one, much. Earlier this month Apple’s iTunes related announcement – the iTunes LP, in contrast to six years ago, distinctly underwhelmed. Just a few titles in stock, and looking distinctively expensive.

There’s nothing wrong with the attempt to add value to digital albums by adding extra content – iTunes LP, CMX etc. Other than it’s too little too late. I was all for it back in the day, but the world has since moved on. The market is polarising with high-end CD box sets still in healthy demand but digital pretty much becoming established as the way to get your music for cheap.

The digital market hasn’t developed in a logical order – and has therefore struggled to add value year-on-year – like pushing a boulder up an increasingly steep hill. Had digital albums been launched with extra content originally, or quickly after the iTunes launch, it might have worked. It might have convinced consumers that they are losing packaging, but gaining content.

But while iTunes had DRM strangling its value and held its prices at a constant, CD prices fell by one third over five years. CDs albums are now routinely cheaper than digital – that’s counterintuitive to every music fan interested in ownership.
Meanwhile, digital song value has headed south, first with subscription packages, then with free to stream ad funded services. It’s a journey that has led at least, to a challenge to iTunes’ unhealthy market dominance, but at a potentially heavy price to the industry as a whole.

I love Spotify as much as the next music fan, but its struggle to extract value is in danger of becoming a spectacle. To consumers it’s a miracle, to the industry it’s a problem to be solved. The strategy looks right – drive a developing ad-products business as much as possible, while trying to upscale users to a pay model for a better experience. It has to be the test case and I would strongly argue, deserves all the help it can get from its music partners.

We need to begin to realise though, Spotify’s potential. It has the potential to generate revenues equivalent to a large niche, while at the same time eating further into CD revenues. This is the future music market – fragmentation into a number of niches.

iTunes (i.e. the a-la-carte song market) carved a niche, delivering 10-15% of revenues to the business. Subscription services carved another, smaller nice at under 5% revenues. E-music’s hybrid model carved another niche –delivering 10-15% of revenues for its indie label partners. Ad-funded streaming will be similar. All-you-can-eat services through ISP providers similar again. With each niche there is some natural cannibalisation – gradually creating another niche – the CD market.

This is not an unhealthy long-term picture – provided each of these niches can be sustained – serviced through good partnership and the positioning of the right content and payment models. Forrester’s latest angle in content windowing provides one example of how to do this. It’s something all smart labels know is a good way forward – account managing these relationships and managing the channel conflict that is bound to arise on an almost constant basis, using shared insights and data.

What’s more – this multi-channel, multi-audience niche scenario obliterates the random thoughts of the ‘free economists’ – increasingly supercilious, unconstructive and pretty dumb. There’s value in these niches – little patches of gold in them there hills.

There is value here provided each new wave of services is not met with the expectation that it will be the next big thing – making redundant what’s gone before. Instead it’s a landscape that needs to be cultivated, managed, serviced, through shared vision, insight and data. The answer is yes, but it’s more a ‘yes we can and we will’.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Today's question: Why didn't In Rainbows open the music industry floodgates?

Back in 2007, Radiohead exited its record deal with EMI and promptly self-released their new album In Rainbows as a ‘pay what you want’ download. This I know did not escape your attention.

The genius of the strategy was multi-layered. The move generated such a huge wave of PR that the record hardly needed a marketing budget. And ironically, the band themselves avoided the need to do the usual round of publicity appearances and interviews – an established system the band loathed. It made them look forward thinking and brave.

Best of all, the release of In Rainbows demonstrated Radiohead’s complete understanding of today’s music market, efficiently skewering both ends of the polarised demand for music: digital - the get it now, get it cheap (or free) no frills option; while the high-end £40 box-set satisfied the insatiable appetite for quality stuff that still exists amongst die-hard fans and music collectors.

I know you’ve reflected on all of that as well. But how about this – why didn’t Radiohead’s phenomenally successful strategy with In Rainbows catch on with other established bands?
How come the vast majority of major releases by established artists are non-innovative, conventional, publicity-machine driven affairs involving the usual parade of press, radio and TV mainstream slots, maybe with the odd free download, social networking or viral video strategy thrown-in for appearance’s sake.

For example, the world's biggest band U2. U2 hardly needs a leg-up, but the band still blitzed the BBC - the mainstream of mainstream - when it launched their last record. Although the band did exclusive streaming deals prior to release (Spotify in the UK) it was still a conventional release. Ironically, that record sold disappointingly. Maybe a more innovative, devil may care approach might have stoked up more interest? Who knows.

It might look obvious what the explanation is. That U2 and so many other major bands with a global footprint – Coldplay, Kings of Leon etc. – are on major labels, so the release method has to be by numbers. When the machine cranks up, who will try & stop it?

But there’s no reason why the label and the band couldn’t come up with something genuinely different. Coldplay is on EMI, but the ‘Viva campaign’ was impressive at least – and brave too when you consider the revolutionary costume styling – risqué even! But it was still conventional, big budget stuff.

The tipping point then – whereby bands can explore valid go-to-market strategies beyond the press, radio, TV and tour treadmill – is yet to arrive. I guess two things need to happen to tip the current record marketing establishment:
  1. More established bands do an ‘In Rainbows’ (either without, or with, their labels). Coldplay for one seems to be chomping at the bit for the chance to do something that can put them in that kind of light. Next time perhaps.
  2. A platform emerges that somehow democratises promotion – giving many more artists – especially new ones – fairer access to (the equivalent of) mainstream promo slots. Any one of Slice The Pie, Reverb Nation et al. Are attempting to do just that. The problem is that many don’t get beyond early adopter niches, or reach young but ultimately low-purchase audiences.

One small but significant step – announced last week – was the CBS and initiative that facilitates to programme a number of CBS’s HD radio slots in large US cities. That could lead to some genuinely interesting eclectic daytime radio in the US. This deal was obviously enabled by CBS’s outright ownership of but that shouldn’t be a necessity. With Spotify, We7, Yahoo, AOL, Myspace and others (Twitter if we must), we surely have now mass market platforms to rival the old guard media.

Surprising then, how many established artists are not taking these platforms seriously. Is it a lack of belief, a lack of interest? Or is it that the old media platforms are better connected to music buying audiences rather than simply music listening or music-social audiences?

What we really need is more collaborative initiatives between new & old media - that focus on new artists not those we know already. These initiatives need to be new aggregator brands for music – doing what Top Of The Pops or MTV Unplugged did back in the halcyon days.

Why aren’t there more music brands like this today? That’s another question.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Why doesn't the music industry have answers to the big questions?

It will not have escaped your attention that for the past two weeks the UK music industry has been ‘debating’ (in public, via the press) the Government’s latest proposal to clamp down on file-sharers by forcing ISP’s to issue temporary suspension notices to persistent file-sharers.

Lord Mandelson announced the move, got mixed reviews but industry-wide support from BPI, PPL and HMV, underlined his position vaguely in The Times, but then the FAC (together with BASCA & MPG) – waded in with various comments amounting to ‘serious reservations’. The main thrust of their argument being summed up by Dave Rowntree as “taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut”. UK Music (how many music-based associations are there?) has stepped in to try & broker common ground.

It’s good to see artists voice their opinions in the debate, with Lily Allen blogging and writing an op-ed in The Times against the FAC, followed by Matt Bellamy from Muse chipping in with the ‘solution’ of the compulsory collective licensing of music for digital platforms.

Having read a bunch of press about all this I have at least one observation and it’s this:

What’s happened to the facts?

Where’s the established evidence – empirical & researched – that clearly benchmarks the position that file-sharing has damaged the music industry in terms of sales, artist development, investment in new artists & creativity, and jobs? In the various articles I haven’t seen a single figure, specific or contextual. The work just hasn’t been done. Or if it has, it hasn’t been well communicated.

No wonder it’s proving difficult to get unified agreement. Some members of the FAC have wheeled out the old adage that ‘file-sharers are also music buyers’ – an established fact, sure, until the issue of causality is considered, until the changing nature of that relationship is explored.

Now it’s easier said than done, I know. I’ve had enough experience, in music and other industries, to know that when you do work to try & know something (as opposed to a quick & dirty bit of lazy desk research to try & back-up a PR position) you open up a can of worms. People will argue over costs, methodology, timing, objectivity & god knows that else. You must be ready for that debate – and the facts, the evidence, the methodology, is what makes you ready.

It’s not a luxury. It’s necessary to try & research – from multiple sources if you have to – some kind of impact analysis that can form the basis of debate, policy and decisions. The music industry doesn’t have a great track record in this area however, due to the sheer complexity of the industry value chain, but also due to the lack of will and resources when it comes to factual, evidence-based understanding.

There shouldn’t be any room for debate left about the impact of file-sharing on the music business. But the press, academics and sizeable elements of the artist community and music consumers, remain unconvinced or at best sceptical.

It’s partly a symptom of legacy. Home taping didn’t kill music – that particular relationship was badly communicated and poorly understood and still leaves a bad taste. But the music industry has never had a good handle on other major relationships, like radio airplay and record sales (i.e. overall record sales not just for those artists on heavy rotation). Like singles and albums (it’s never been concluded whether singles promoted or cannibalised album sales). More recently, we seem to have no real analysis of the substitution effects of music streaming services (to be fair, it’s a little too early to say, but I know what my hypothesis would be).

As the current ISP & file-sharing enforcement debate moves on (hopefully soon) in the direction of alternative solutions, we will again be revisiting the idea of the collective license and whether that is a viable solution for the music industry.

I’m a sceptic of this solution – directly because of the analytical work I’ve done in this area – on a couple of separate occasions working with different parts of the industry. But that was over two years ago and things have moved on since then, what with ad-funded streaming, ISP mooted solutions and a dangerous slowdown in digital music growth.

Soon might be the time to look at collective licenses again. But once again, who is now developing the methodologies and gathering the objective facts and evidence to understand the impact for artists, music providers, ISPs, consumers and the Government?

It needs work – a budget, a methodology and a consultation process. Maybe the Government could facilitate the music and ISP industries to collaborate on doing that?

This blog asks a major question of the industry each day this week. Tomorrow's big question - Why didn't In Rainbows open the music industry floodgates?

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Major Music Labels: Great Power, Great Responsibility

At the start of the summer, Billboard magazine published an opinion piece by me on Marvel Entertainment - that company's remarkable turnaround and the potential lessons for major record labels. You may have seen that in recent days, Disney has also seen the value in Marvel, acquiring the company for $4 billion.

This being a music blog, I won't go into the why's & wherefore's of Disney-Marvel, but it's one to watch as to whether Disney will get its return, without compromising Marvel's brand too much. Anyhow, with kind courtesy of Billboard, my op-ed is published here in full for anyone who missed it. For similar food for thought, you might also want to re-visit my very first blog post on HBO - Music Lessons from a Content Powerhouse. For the true believers then...

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Music is being consumed by more people in more ways than ever before—we just have to figure out how to monetize it.

How many people have said that now? More people in more places than ever before, basically. Yet all is not well with the way the music industry is adapting to the new paradigm. Digital delivery may be changing the game for consumers and artists, but the bit in the middle—the industry—hasn’t yet figured out where the real money is going to come from. Meanwhile core product sales are in structural decline. What’s an industry to do?

Well, back in the late 1990s, another great entertainment business was dying on its back—comic book publishing—and specifically a great American cultural icon, Marvel Comics. In 1997, Marvel Entertainment escaped bankruptcy by a thread thinner than one of Spiderman’s. The company had failed to diversify its publishing business and flooded the market with comic book lines, effectively commoditizing its core business and leaving the company with a stock value of under $1. Yet today, Marvel is transformed with a stock value of $32 and a market capitalization of $2.5 billion. It is currently piling on the growth, riding roughshod over the global recession.

In order to rebuild, Marvel was forced to transform itself from a products business to a licensing business. With its “superstar” characters bringing in consistently lower yields, it needed to find a way to make money from its entire catalog of characters—not just the big names.

Three strategies began to turn Marvel’s fortunes around:
  1. Licensing. After the success of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” Marvel had hot IP once again. Other studios took a renewed interest in its characters and there was a rush to license other major characters from the portfolio.
  2. Product development. Nothing impacts on the culture like blockbuster movies, enabling Marvel’s characters to become hugely popular toys, video games, clothing and party accessories.
  3. Character development. With a library of over 4,000 characters, Marvel went to work on strategies for commercializing the mid-tail brands, including Daredevil, Elektra, X-Men and Ghost Rider.

By 2003 Marvel was rejuvenated, with steadily increasing revenues and profits. One key insight that helped drive this new phase of growth was the Marvel brand itself. Marvel had created a universe where characters not only had their own compelling stories, but where those stories were carefully and complexly interwoven with other characters. That universe is what drew many fans (including me) to Marvel comic books in the first place and still does, to its increasing stable of movies and related products. Now, the Marvel Universe concept is integrated throughout the company’s strategy.

The potential is there for record companies to use their labels in a similar way. Not easy, but it could be essential to long-term success. Island’s 50th Anniversary celebrations couldn’t be achieved without focusing on its identity. Nonesuch has created a wonderfully eclectic but somehow cohesive community of artists—and loyal fans. Indie labels might argue their identity is their lifeblood, even if not directly recognized by every music consumer. The music business needs to organize communities of music lovers and buyers, not just social networks with music tacked on.

Marvel’s turnaround isn’t complete. The company made nice profits from licensing (which involves no capital outlay) but could only take a small cut of overall box office. To really scale revenues it moved directly into distribution—risky for a company so focused on content creation—forming Marvel Studios to produce “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk,” a move that paid off handsomely.

Most music majors now have in-house production companies but not the strategic purpose and budgets to be equivalent to the commitment made by Marvel. But music companies should be making documentary films and session content for their artists—highly attractive to sponsors and licensable to all the digital networks increasingly desperate for quality content. [iTunes LP, announced yesterday, is a step in the right direction for example].

Direct-to-consumer is a key part of Marvel’s digital strategy—in 2007 it launched Digital Comics Unlimited—a subscription-based service with thousands of comic books available in digital format. Like another successful subscription provider in TV, HBO, Marvel realized that to offer a compelling subscription service didn’t mean having to make everything available—few subscribers want that. But they will subscribe to a service if that service contains something they do want that’s exclusive to them as subscribers.

From a successful licensing model, Marvel evolved its strategy into bigger plays: harnessing brand power, building on insight, diversifying its product and making major moves into distribution. Subsequently Marvel Entertainment now controls its destiny, when all looked hopelessly out of control a mere decade ago.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Thoughts from a beach: Michelle, Mandy, reading not listening and Radiohead. Not in that order.

I’m just back from ‘annual vacation’. As an independent, that basically means the summer off. Since you can’t get a rise out of clients or colleagues in the music business during any day in August, the only thing for it is to down tools and enjoy it.

Some quality time on my favourite beach in Cornwall helped (weather: acceptable). For most music nuts, extended beach time equates with long iPod listening sessions but alas, not for me. The need for vigilance in policing the whereabouts of three small children means I have to be satisfied with the sounds of the beach. Which is okay, because I love the sounds of the beach.

Reading not listening

However, my music consumption never stops. Rather than listening I found myself reading music. The usual sources came into play: The Guardian’s Film & Music on Fridays (beach reading doesn’t come much better), the latest Word, Uncut and Mojo (best of the three – the Word’s interview with Robert Wyatt – whataguy). I did head out on August’s middle Sunday to buy The Observer Music Monthly, but sadly, there was no sign of it. Worrying.

However, more unusually, I took along issue number one of Loops, the new ‘journal’ of music writing from indie label Domino and Faber & Faber – arty, even a little pretentious perhaps, but diverting enough for more cerebral, abstract moments. Similar was the music special edition of The Believer, which came with the best covermount compilation CD I’ve heard yet, plus an interesting (but not fascinating) interview with Thom Yorke.

Thom’s one of the few artists I’ll always make the time read (along with Nick Cave, Mark Linkous and the Gallaghers (the latter purely for laughs)). His most interesting insight on music from this piece was the new emphasis on ‘natural selection’. Something I’ve blogged about recently is too much music and the inefficiency of current distribution systems in getting the right music to consumers. On the artist side, with so much ‘competition’ and noise – and hype – one thing that will be on your side is just how good you really are – the natural selection point.

It’s a view many artists hold now and I think is a healthy one for both artists and businesses alike these days. Quality of content and innovation in the way you release it, will prevail.
Also, his recommended music site Boomkat is well worth a look. It’s another new content brand featuring a filtered approach to independent music along with many of the others I have featured on this blog including Think Indie, Mondomix, Lost Tunes, Daytrotter et al.

Finally, his (rather secretive) comments about the new Radiohead project whetted the appetite nicely – though it looks like Radiohead will be releasing a series of singles or ep’s rather than an album. I hope they don’t disappoint. Seeing the footage from Reading reminded me of just how great Radiohead is. They are the only current band I can think of that can captivate and mesmerize a large audience live in the same way the old greats can (which seems at odds with the booming live industry). We need more of them and more from them.

Talking of greats, I also read a shed load of reviews for The Arctic Monkeys new album (it’s out, but I’m currently restraining myself) and The Fabs. Decidedly mixed reviews, which is interesting, but the bands current ‘career position’ fascinates me and I’m looking forward to hearing it for that as well as the music itself. Oh - and catching up with their Reading headline slot too.

Post-holiday with The Beatles

More pertinent to me is finally hearing what I’ve been reading about a lot recently – The Beatles re-releases. With reviews ranging from those insisting on the catalogue and especially certain songs such as Michelle, being ‘transformed’ (read Mojo’s review for example) to more sanguine analysis (The Independent today), playback has to be one of those rapidly disappearing ‘appointments to listen’ where you put the CD on and actually play it back from start-to-finish and listen to it, not just hear it.

I’m also interested of course, in the commercial impact of the re-issues. A few years back, EMI had pinned great hopes on the release of the ‘Love’ album, only to be disappointed by consumers’ reaction to it. I don’t have any such fears for the remasters. Not only will sales be a massive boon to EMI and Apple Corps, but will probably even have a suturing effect on the entire CD business in Q4 and Q1 2010. I wouldn’t be surprised by sales in the order of tens of millions across all the titles.

What’s more, this is hardly the end of the commercial story for The Beatles recordings. The decision not to release the catalogue digitally starts to make sense in the context of the new remasters releases on CD. Digital will come, but I wouldn’t discount vinyl either – surely with the rise in high-end vinyl box sets a-la In Rainbows, The Beatles catalogue would reap lucrative results. A Beatles vintage turntable anyone?

(bizarre but true aside: I find reading anything about The Beatles painful after an experience a few years ago related to a children’s birthday party in my neighbourhood, a rotten hangover and Sir Paul McCartney – yes the real life Macca, not an impersonator. It was all too much).

Fly Mandy, Fly

Finally, I found myself catching a whole bunch of music related business articles, thanks to Lord Mandelson. 'Mandy' has instigated a new push within UK Government to help enforce against file-sharing, upping the pressure on UK ISP’s to monitor file-sharing and step-in if necessary. He even wrote a comment piece in The Times clarifying his motives. It’s all a bit vague of course and given the lack of progress along these lines in other markets (and not a dickie bird about such an approach in the US) we’ll have to see if the UK Government’s strategy gets anywhere beyond rhetoric.

One thing struck me though is that if Mandelson’s title includes innovation – which it does – where is the emphasis on innovation with this approach? Yes, a crackdown on P2P (which I wholly support) creates breathing space for the industry to offer innovative approaches. But the complexities within the music industry and its inflexible structure means that’s precisely where it needs the help – in brokering truly innovative solutions between all parties. Come on Mandy get to that.

Amongst all this exhausting reading I did manage to squeeze in the briefest musical interludes, with some help from the iPod’s random function. In amongst it all some highly connected listening involving Alice in Chains, Peter Gabriel and some vintage Aha. My resulting vaguely beach-related playlist:

Merz, Silver Moon Ladders
Queen, In Only Seven Days
Neil Young, On The Beach
Peter Gabriel, Sky Blue
Alice in Chains, Nutshell
Sparklehorse, Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
Turin Brakes, Fishing For A Dream
XTC, You And The Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful
Aha, Memorial Beach
Blondie, Follow Me

Monday, 3 August 2009

The new way to listen #2: Too much music, so little time

A very good friend of mine is a very heavy CD buyer. His guilty pleasure is small but frequent (almost weekly) Amazon splurges – batches of three or four CDs, including lots of new releases. Just last week, to my surprise, his batch included albums by La Roux and Little Boots, two dangerously over-hyped UK female pop acts – not my friend’s usual fare at all.

I had to ask, why? But I do know the answer. Three years ago that’s how I used to discover new music – buying CDs on Amazon & For us, the CD generation, it’s easy to see the attraction. At around eight-nine quid a pop, the average price is 30% below when we began buying CDs in the 80s. And with many new releases attracting good reviews, it seems like good value. As for CDs vs. downloads it seems like a no-brainer – CD wins for sound quality, last-ability, tactile comfort etc.

But this kind of consumer behaviour is anachronistic these days. For one thing, these frequently bought CDs are unlikely to be played much – nothing like to a level of frequency reaching a good return on investment. My friend admitted to both the above mentioned albums being “alright, not earth shattering”. I’m guessing he’ll never play either disc anything like enough to become nicely familiar with, or to discover any hidden depths within, the music.

I’m placing no judgement whatsoever on those two artists or their debut records. I am placing judgement though, on the times, and on how we as consumers, are best place to navigate them to enjoy our music to the full.

As engaged, interested and active music buyers, we’ll simply never ever keep up with the supply on offer. Let me bore you with the statistics. There are more records released commercially now than ever – nearly 34,000 separate albums in 2008 (BPI data) – steadily increasing every year from just over 19,000 titles released back in 2000. In the US, over 100,000 album titles were released in 2008 (Neilsen SoundScan), a large increase on any previous year, thanks to digital-only releases.

And that’s assuming that, like me, you are essentially uninterested in wading through the oceans of records released by unsigned or DIY bands via Myspace, brands and blogs. If you are interested in those then double or treble your already overwhelming choice.

However, more critically than volume is the issue of the music’s qualities. The heavy buying CD generation has invested much time & money buying up their collection of classics – those albums they return to time & again. Those albums we played in full, in a darkened room in our youth. Those records that helped us through the formative years, the early big choices in life, etc. etc. Often these were bought on CD some time after we first loved them on vinyl or on tape.

However good modern music gets, it’s so hard for new artists to compete in that space – to compete with nostalgia. And with so much new music derivative of what’s gone before, new artists are sometimes no more than an interesting twist on what’s past – the stuff we really loved and still love. Witness the recent revival of synth-based pop – never done better than the eighties. And even if the Tings Tings, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LadyHawke, and swathe of more recent acts like Florence & The Machine can compete creatively with the eighties, can they compete emotionally with how that music caught on and connected at the time - how it joined people together en masse.

No wonder there is room even in today’s jam-packed music market for eighties revival bands – playing live and even making new records (for the record, Aha, Duran Duran and Simple Minds never actually went away). Those bands were lucky enough to come of age at a time when growing a fan base was easier. And for their fans, it’s easier nowadays to gravitate towards those artists you know, the one you invested in back in the day. It’s comforting that they’re still around.

For young music fans and for older but active music discoverers, the only way to navigate the modern level of choice is to prioritise. And this is where music consumption becomes personal – when we apply our own priorities to it. I’m thinking beyond prioritising the tools you use to discover music, though. Yes, we all will choose our favourite filters and content brands. Some of us will use Spotify to stream (for as long as we are blessed with it!), some will like to play around with Pandora or until they perhaps get bored with those.

Less and less of us will buy a slew of CDs each week though, as these other tools present far cheaper, less risky and more convenient access points. But the new filters won’t help that much in terms of enjoyment. They’ll help filter through the dilemma of discovery – like Oysters. They’ll insure us against the hype and against the great swindle of the CD age – album filler. But they will not help us really enjoy our music listening.

To get return on investment from music, you need to invest - mostly time, but sometimes money helps, since when you buy something, you naturally give it at least some time to bed down. With current filters, you don’t need to make a financial commitment to hear most new music. But when I'm streaming the latest new release - just to gut it - it perhaps doesn't feel quite as it should, experience wise.

Would you rather listen to your favourite song 100 times or 100 songs once?

With the oversupply of music, the currency of music isn’t so much the format – CDs, downloads, streams, plays etc. – but time – how much time we have to listen and what we choose to listen to in that precious time. Since this is personal to every consumer, I’ll share with you here my own conclusions about music consumption, and my own set of priorities from now on.

The days of frequent flutters on Amazon & are done – just don’t make sense. It’s not so much a question of price, or quality - there is not enough time to give those records the proper listening they required to really enjoy them. It just results in a greater pile of albums that you never really get to know. Subsequently, very few new titles get added to your classic albums collection, most just drop into landfill.

From now on my music enjoyment is prioritised, not by payment method, or by format, but by the type of music it is. Until further notice, the following basic ‘system’ applies to my listening hours, in priority order:

  1. The back catalogues of my recently discovered favourites. These include Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie and I am Kloot. For these, I know I’ll get great return on investment, so I’ll be buying these catalogues on CD. It will be an infrequent Amazon splurge. I won’t preview these on Spotify if I can help it, as I don’t need any reason to doubt the ability of these records to grow on me over time and with repeated listening.
  2. Play all the classics at least once a year. No financial outlay required, just time. I’m of an age where if I don’t make this decision now, I’ll literally run out of time to enjoy Autoamerican by Blondie, Achtung Baby by U2, Seven by James, Stories From The Sea by PJ Harvey and the 100+ other titles I consider my own personal classics. They need to played once a year and that is going to take maybe 80 hours of listening time. That leaves no more room for Amazon splurges.

  3. Listen to more music that’s ‘different’. Oh the wonders of specialist music labels like Nonesuch, ECM and Real World – labels I am undertaking right here & now to give more of my precious time to, whatever it is they might bring my way. Nonesuch just introduced me to Bill Frisell. ECM has fallen victim, temporarily, to my change in priorities, but will come ‘round as things settle down. Real World has blessed me with the music of Spiro – which has rightly received the heavy-rotation treatment in recent weeks at the expense of everything else. It might even be a modern classic. I want to give more time to alternative genres for so many reasons, not least I want my three daughters to grow up hearing music from all over the world, not be confined to western pop. Label brands come into their own in times like these and there will be case studies featured on this blog in future on the labels I think work on this level. I guess this will be a combination of streaming & buying, and for these labels I will maintain a direct relationship - on the mailing list, basically.

  4. Give the old masters more time. It’s getting tight now, timewise. I don’t really know the catalogues of Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Springsteen, beyond the obvious handful of songs. I suspect their stuff is worth some investment though. It has to be – everybody in the world says so. I have in my current collection best-of’s by all of these - that'll be where I start. There are so many classics to discover, that anything I've seen live or in a different context will get immediate priority. So Crosby Stills & Nash for example, I’m suddenly interested in after their superlative display at Glastonbury. I have just invested in some Peter Gabriel catalogue after seeing him at WOMAD. and I'm listening to Ry Cooder after seeing him at The Lyceum last month. Another late great discovery for me personally. These classic artists are shouting loud and clear ‘We Can No Longer Be Ignored’.

  5. New stuff when the hype has settled. And so here we are. New music has been re-prioritised out of sheer necessity. It’s not that I won’t listen to new music, I always will. I’m the guy so many people rely on for recommendations after all. But I’ll struggle to recommend anything brand spanking new from now on, because for me it needs to earn its place in my ears. I’m tempted to buy new records all the time, but I’ll happily wait until the hype has settled and time has done its work. I don’t see much point in investing in artists that won’t last, since I enjoy going on a journey with the artists I like, seeing how their work progresses, evolves or changes direction. It’s the pleasure and privilege of being a Radiohead fan, for example, even if that can also frustrate from time to time. And here is where Spotify comes into its own – I can take my time and work my way through new release without spending a fortune. Whether or not this is good business for the industry I doubt, but it works for me.

For me, music discovery has always been a search for the next addition to the classics – the next record that has the power to literally become part of my life, part of me. With 40 years of listening behind me and hopefully at least 40 more to go, it’s time to apply a strategy to ensure I get to discover, hear and enjoy as much music as possible that has the potential to become a personal classic. The ephemeral stuff can pass me by, I just don't have the time. If it’s too good to miss, something or someone will alert me to it, I hope.

I’m always vaguely excited about forthcoming music and for the next few months, that would be The Arctic Monkeys, Portico Quartet, Laura Veirs and my new favourite band I Am Kloot. There's nothing better than discovering artists late, when you can catch up on back catalogue at leisure, as with reading all the novels of a great author you just found out about. I love that serendipity and hope that will always be part of my music discovery. More to come on that next...

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The State of independents #1

In eight years working in the music business I never attended an AIM meeting, until this week’s 10th Anniversary AGM. I have to say I rather took to it. There was an informal and certainly collective, feel to the proceedings. And a celebratory feel too but in a modest, nicely understated way. Nothing seemed too staged or rehearsed.

Hearing Alison Wenham reflect back on the ten years since AIMs inception and give her ten wishes for the new era, it wasn’t difficult to get a sense of just how much AIM has managed to achieve, against the odds I suppose, when the job in hand is basically herding cats. And what cats. Alley cats that’s for sure. As Chris Blackwell says in his forward to the AIM Anniversary brochure “The indies will always be the lifeblood, usually started by misfits who are passionate about music and the excitement of youth culture”.

Having worked on a project lately that has required partnership with a number of indie labels I can see the spot they’re in and it’s a very sticky one. If we assume a future scenario of gradual continued devaluation of recorded music (can you see any other?) then the only means to long-term survival for record labels is diversification into other revenue streams and rights ownership. In which case, only the Majors (& not all of them!) have the muscle to wrestle their way through, surely? If you run an indie label, record sales are your lifeblood – not gigs, T-shirts etc. And that means that soon enough, you’ll be relying on the true misfits of society – record buyers – to keep you going.

But surely, someone somewhere will come up with a more effective platform for indie music than those currently on the market. There are so few around, most notably e-music – the world’s number 2 music service by value. The others –, Beatport – are small – smaller than the sum of their parts basically.

The indie scene in the USA is a little more dynamic, but mainly due to the proliferation and popularity of music blogs – Stereogum, Aquarium Drunkard, Brooklyn Vegan et al. including my own favourites and Ear Farm. But blogs are also less than the sum of their parts. Blog aggregators like Hype Machine and do a good but perfunctory job of corralling blog content, but these hardly make compelling music store experiences. The indies could do with a branded platform (digital and physical) to help them do exactly what these others fail to do – punch above weight, not below.

There cannot be a more marked indicator of indies punching below their collective weight than a glance at the annual best-seller lists. The IFPI publishes the top fifty best-selling albums worldwide each year. Over the past two years (i.e. out of 100 slots) indie label albums have featured just four times, with all of those from one label in one fanatical marketplace – Japan (Indie label Avex is basically a Major in Japan).

Small Labels, Big Ideas

At the AIM meet, board members sponsored individuals to shout out their big idea for AIM and the indie sector going forward. This was both intriguing and engaging, and the ideas were pretty good too – many of them pragmatic – like an industry database of media contacts to assist indies with their low-cost marketing efforts (a tie-in with The Guardian Media Guide perhaps?).

My favourite big idea was ‘Death to the CD promo’ – an industry wide switch to promo streaming. This is one of those no brainers for the modern age – creating a greener and more secure network for digital distribution of all promo tracks to media and brands. Not only that, but the flow of information from this network could be so much more effective than now, i.e. phoning around in vain to see if anyone in the media received or has listened to, your tracks. Not only that, with services like SoundCloud on the market, this could be achieved within a year. I’m sure it would be supported by the Majors but would be a nice one for AIM to lead. However, the idea was voted number 2, runner up.

Number 1 was this: ‘Lobby the BBC to encourage them to play a wider range of independent music on Radio 1 and Radio 2’. Now it’s easy to see why this got the most votes even in the absence of knowing what the other eight big ideas were (they’ll be on the AIM web pages by now if you’re interested). I’ve no doubt that if I switch on the radio right now (lunchtime basically) I’ll get one of Take That, Pixie Lott or if a commercial UK radio channel, inexplicably, ‘Halo’ by Texas. Either those, or (Still) Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol (aren’t they really an indie band though?).

I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog in the past how radio has a lot to answer for, in the UK and even more so in the US. Radio is still the number one music discovery platform according to surveys (though I’m convinced the surveys are wrong and that radio’s position as tastemaker is secondary to its role as background music for people who can’t be bothered to like music that much). And because of the huge audiences radio reaches it remains priority 1 for record promotion.

However, the strategic dilemma for indies is whether AIM should bother lobbying the BBC about the R1 and 2 playlists or whether it is better off working with alternative promotional platforms to get a greater presence for indies on those. To my mind it’s the latter, because I can’t see a huge audience of indie music buyers regularly tuning in to R1 and 2 during daytime, but I can see them streaming more alternative radio shows via digital channels or reading about new music in Clash, or streaming new music on Spotify.

And so to the other great dilemma of the day for indies – to license or not to license (or perhaps more how & when to license and at what price) – new digital services like Spotify. This was also a big idea: to ‘persuade digital service providers that independent music is essential for any complete, compelling and successful music service’. This idea didn’t get such a big vote on the day, but probably only because AIMs members felt this is already very much in hand – which it is, through licensing body Merlin and through digital distributors like The Orchard, IODA and Vital.

However, speaking with my strategist hat on, I’m not sure if the indies collectively aren’t missing a trick with digital licensing. Fighting your corner on deal terms is one thing, but AIM should consider if it’s worth licensing to digital streaming services at all. I’m not advocating that the indies don’t license, I’m saying that it would be a valid strategic decision not to, on the basis of unquantifiable net value (i.e. after substitution effects and relative assessment of deal terms compared with Majors).

It would be an even more valid strategy if the indies could create an alternative platform to the current crop of streaming services. On the day, several members emphasized the exclusivity and ‘quality’ of indie music and I can’t help but think that there are better ways to leverage this than licensing to a slew of services as second fiddle to Majors catalogues. They could opt to support e-music more proactively, giving it another push, though it seems that with e-music now actively courting Majors, the opportunity is lost. Or the indies could look at creating a platform of their own – perhaps working with more innovative technologies like Songbird or similar.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to an alternative platform strategy for indies is the music itself. Yes it is exclusive and of quality, and comes from a place of passion first, above commercial priorities. But that’s true of plenty of the repertoire on Major labels too. One out of 2 of my own favourite ‘indie’ bands are in fact released on major labels. While there is still a gap in the market for an indie music platform, consumers simply don’t divide music between Major and indie labels in that way.

So finally, to my big idea (with the benefit of a review of the ten presented on the day of course) as follows:

Launch a new branded platform for independent music (not exclusively indie label music, but it could begin there) that focuses on emphasizing the passion behind the music – the exclusivity, the quality etc. - everything that isn’t just availability, basically.

A boutique brand for indie music is what springs to mind. By necessity it would have a digital presence (downloads, streaming, radio and a licensing platform for blogs), but also very much a physical one as well – after all the brick & mortar space is somewhat less competitive these days. This could be through a small network of new stores or through a network arrangement of indie shops.

It’s contrarian, sure, but that’s the essence of indie culture, isn’t it?

The AIM meeting was the culmination of a week of events celebrating the tenth birthday and ‘Independents Day’ – when we are all meant to flock to our local indie music retailer to buy CDs & support the biz. I didn’t get around to shopping for indie music from an indie store on Independents Day, sadly. In the end I was too busy and not near an indie record shop – and in truth I would not know where to find one. Besides I suspect they wouldn’t be stocking my current wish-list of music. If I could have though, I would have!

My current indie music wish-list is the entire back catalogues of Spoon, Dinosaur Junior, Death Cab and Laura Veirs (only two of which are on Major labels).
Newsflash for latecomers: Glenn Peoples from Billboard (and formerly Coolfer of course) has alerted me to exactly what I refer to above - a new indie platform - in the US, called Thinkindie, here... is interesting innit?
Nice use of the black sheep mascot too. One to keep an eye on.