Monday, 23 March 2009

Spotify, 1000 songs & another paradigm shift for music? Probably not

All last week I was buying the Guardian and setting aside its (excellent) set of seven supplements of ‘1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear’. I’ve browsed through each of the seven categories: love, heartbreak, people & places, sex, protest & politics, life and death and party songs. These were really well put together and I found myself casually marking with a pencil the songs I wanted to hear – for the first time or again – in the old fashioned way (I haven’t done that since circling essential Christmas films in the Radio Times, centuries ago).

Being deliberately ruthless, I got to a tally of 49 songs that I became immediately interested in listening to. I virtually ignored the protest & politics section so it could’ve been higher. And like I said I was ruthless. My most popular category was heartbreak with 13 songs. That is irrelevant to but I thought I would share it with you anyway.

Now what’s missing from this story so far? Exactly right. Any intention on my behalf to buy the tracks.

Out of the 49 songs that caught my eye I already owned a copy of just over half of them, mostly strewn across my CD collection which spreads throughout lounge shelving (prime spot, my classics & recent bests), office shelving (current playlist, new releases, freebies) and boxed up in the shed (abandoned, just not forever). I had a handful of the 49 in my iTunes library, but since most were songs I hadn’t heard for ages - or at all - I’m unlikely to have them to hand.
With the sheer inconvenience associated with actually seeking out the 49 songs, the whole exercise was looking like a source of frustration - yet another small music project to put on hold.

But guess what? The people at the Guardian have, this time, been smart enough to link the series with a digital song platform, in this case Spotify. The Guardian’s (again, excellent) music blog has a simple hyperlink to Spotify under each song’s editorial. You can even copy & paste the HTML for a blog widget (I’ve installed one there on the right – my 13 irrelevant Heartbreak songs for you to check out).

Now, while this is fantastic and has indeed taken the inconvenience out of my little project perfectly, it also got me thinking about how the industry is making leaps & bounds forward so fast, that we might be missing a trick or two on route. Curiously, there is very little mention of the link anywhere on Spotify. Nor does The Guardian make it at all obvious in the published supplements. This seems to be either an unofficial arrangement, or a joint promotion done on the quiet (which kind of defeats the purpose doesn’t it?).

Two things occurred to me about this:
  1. Here was an excellent chance to promote both The Guardian and Spotify (and for labels, the songs!), but even more critically, encourage consumer interaction between old & new media platforms (among a key high-value, mature consumer demographic to boot).
  2. The link to Spotify made sense, but hang on a minute – Spotify is free – were there e-commerce, transactional opportunities missed here?

Both the above struck me as lost opportunities, with the latter a real issue in demonstrating how the digital music industry is currently positioned.

I’m still curious as to why it’s not made easier, in this digital day & age, for consumers to simply click-to-buy an album for which they have just read a glowing review. Last year I received some excellent music book gifts – Robert Dimmery’s ‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’ and Garry Mulholland’s ‘This Is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco’. On reading both I became eager to check out a shed-load of music. But again, with no linked incentive to buy digitally anywhere connected to the publications, I ended up making a less than pertinent mental note and buying one or two CDs on Amazon.

Of my 49 songs, let’s say I would buy 20 (I would!). Why didn’t the Guardian link up with iTunes or Amazon, or 7 Digital, to offer a simple menu of purchase options: 20 songs for £9.99 say? Or how about the whole 1,000 songs categorised by the seven sections for £99? Higher quality song files with a glossy collector’s booklet? Make that £149. Whatever, you get the idea. We are talking nicely incremental sales here, so incentivised pricing would work extremely well for both consumers and suppliers.

I know about the technical issues – metadata, bandwidth, dynamic pricing – all surmountable. Publishing is an issue of course – again surmountable. The logistical issues are well worth sorting out for a better digital future anyhow.

So why don’t we see more of this? More fundamentally, why does the industry now seem to be steamrolling forward inexorably toward ad-funded streaming models before we have explored more innovative transactional models?

It’s a key question. Rather than debate about whether all-you-can-eat streaming cannibalises existing sales, what about the opportunity cost of transactional opportunities not yet explored?
I have read in recent weeks at least a dozen articles about how Spotify’s momentum and the growth of ad-funded streaming services is tipping consumer behaviour into a new paradigm of access, not ownership. Tosh! Kind of – of course there is some truth in it, but the real picture of changing music consumption habits is far more varied.

Streaming music services represent snacking on music, the equivalent of browsing in one of those super-fancy-stationary stores where everything looks enticing and is mostly very affordable. But since you don’t need any of it, you pick up & flip a few things around in your hands and then walk away, empty handed. Or maybe you remember you actually did go into the store because you needed a new notebook.

Spotify is a form of music discovery and consumption, not a panacea. It is fun, convenient and superbly ripe for the kind of editorial tie-ins like the one with ‘1000 Songs’. It’s even better for background streaming while working on the laptop. But I for one am not ready to walk away from music ownership because of it.

I want to commit to certain records knowing that the pay-off comes from repeated listening in a range of environments, situations and emotional states. Streaming services are a way of filtering through the tide of new music and a way of snacking on new stuff, but that’s not how you discover what your primary collection of music for life sounds like. It’s unlikely I would have discovered Wilco or Sparklehorse or Merz on a streaming player. I certainly would not have warmed to the new Starsailor or Adela Diane records through that medium.

As that consumer who wants the deeper connection with music – who seeks out the next life-affirming records that can make the difference, I’m still here waiting for a reason to have a digital music collection, and for reasons & incentives to buy more music digitally. Until then, it’ll be Spotify, CDs and live shows. Not a paradigm shift for me.


webbo said...

Interesting post. I would suspect that this was all a promotion for Spotify and as such they would not want to include links to download sites like i-Tunes.Why? Because they are seen as competitors. In reality they almost certainly are not. In the new digital space many are concerned that streaming sites will diminish much more profitable download sales.
The only real evidence so far however, that of the all you can eat service provided by telecom company TDC in Denmark, demonstrates the opposite - that the introduction of an all that you can eat streaminhg and downloading service like TDC made no difference to the growth of I-Tunes sales.
In addition why should there be such a drastic reduction in price for buying 1000 tracks from £790 to £99? seems a hell of a discount


Keith Jopling said...

Thanks Jon

Exactly my point really - this could have been a tie-in with a transaction service rather than a streaming service.

But how would it drive purchase?

Through deep discounting, hence the price suggestion. The sale is incremental, so it's £99 more than zero. There would be no takers for the 1000 songs for £790 but might be a 1000 takers for £99. Besides, consumers might go on to buy the albums. Again there could be a special £5 price attached to each album that hosts the songs in the series. It's mostly catalogue and catalogue needs new drivers like this.

The possibilities are there once we move to a psychology of dynamic pricing, not standard pricing.

MikeH said...

Hi Keith,
Just found your blog and would like to comment on this post because it is something that I used to say also when reading such list-based articles in the print media.
My concern with your proposal is that articles like these ("1000 songs...") could become, or be seen to become, thinly-disguised means of selling content, assuming that the publisher gets a sell-through royalty which presumably they would.