Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Music's changing product

[This post appeared in last week's Record of the Day as the Insight piece, just here in case you didn't catch it...]

A few years back I came up with an idea for a label, to present its pipeline as an online feature, called the 'Creative Curve'. The idea was to show a curve or spectrum with all the key creative points along it as a music project was being created - writing, recording, mixing, releasing, promoting and touring. For each point along the curve there would be a featured artist project at that stage of development.

The idea was meant to build anticipation, provide fans with an insight into the creative process (for example to see how artists work differently and handle those points along the curve with whatever degree of joy or dread) and potentially to offer products or at least promotional clips such as demos, song stems, interviews etc. which could also be widely syndicated to other digital platforms.

The idea didn't fly, since everything the label did needed to be artist-specific, not label specific. Also, there was a concern that opening up the creative process in this way would spoil the mystery and annoy the artists. In the end the will to mix up the product in this way wasn't there at the time, but things have moved on at a pace since then.

Indeed, there has been a constant, breathless innovation to the way music is being released to consumers. In recent weeks we’ve had the first pixel-interactive video, with Empire Of The Sun's new single, a new band More Than Thieves recording and releasing four exclusive sessions for each major streaming service, and another couple of high value box set packages from the likes of Metric and The Smashing Pumpkins. Meanwhile, some long-established artists have really been ripping up the rule book on what the ‘music product’ is, although I almost hesitate to mention the usual suspects since they get referenced everywhere (which is perhaps partly the intention – to capture our collective attention). No, I will not mention Trent Reznor in a piece about digital product. Doh!

To some extent these initiatives could all be categorised as promotion – an expanding array of gimmicks designed to shout the loudest to simply do what the industry has always done – “work the album”. But there's more to it than that. Music, it seems, is constantly in search of a new way to present and package itself now that the album has been de-coupled and the physical product is being slowly but surely eroded.

The business 101 book says that when a core product is being devalued and commoditised the only way forward is to build new products, services and experiences around what was the old cash cow (in our case, albums) and meanwhile milk that cow dry. Other sectors have made successes in doing just this - indeed it’s been the raison d'ĂȘtre of Richard Branson’s Virgin brand for some time – it’s how flying got a makeover for example.

Entertainment industries have had makeovers too. HBO did it for TV and Marvel did it for its catalogue of super-heroes - they transformed their respective industry’s products and allowed them to flourish whatever new distribution channels emerged. The movie business is currently working through product transformation via digital projection and 3D film.

With music, it's been harder to tell how to respond to the impact of technology and the resulting changes in consumer behaviours. Piracy, other entertainment products, digital distribution and now apps, have all shaken up consumption to the point where consumers seem to spend more time searching, writing about or playing with music than actually listening to it. The term the 'Kodak moment' just doesn't do music justice. What Kodak went through was child's play compared with the current challenge of music producers.

Arguably, those producers have placed too much attention on distribution, with little genuine sustainable value created from this. It has taken too long to switch focus to the obvious – music the product.

But with new product innovations now arriving that seems to be changing. We have high-end physical album packages that come with a range of valued extras including even gig tickets, like Metric & Smashing Pumpkins mentioned above. Some debut artists like Laura Marling did it with her ‘Song Box’ release of Alas I Cannot Swim. Radiohead really got that ball rolling. The much talked about release of In Rainbows skewered the two polarising trends in music consumption: digital - get it now, get it cheap, no frills - serving one end of the scale and the £40 box set serving the other. Clinical, simple, genius marketing.

Audio-visually music has come on leaps & bounds despite the reduction in the volume of expensively made promos. Again, the music video market has widened to cover lo-if or user generated low cost clips for YouTube to high brow art films for theatrical distribution, such as The Arctic Monkeys Live at the Apollo and Wilco’s two great movie projects. Artists at all ends of the spectrum are creating interesting film product, from U2's recent arty collaboration with Anton Corbin to Conor Oberst’s superb recent touring film.

Despite being in the eye of the hurricane, the pop song itself hasn't changed, although the singles format has actually benefited. Meanwhile albums seem to have remained intact, my own theory (statistically unproven) being that albums have both shortened and improved as a ‘natural response’ to current market pressures. With ever more music products growing around the core song & album formats, two things need to happen to affect a notable shift in the commercial fortunes of music:

1. High-end physical product will need to become more standard rather than ‘special edition’. This will extend the physical life-cycle for music across all demographic groups that value physical product, be it CD, vinyl or USB. This would take investment on the industry’s behalf but will pay-off over the long-term. Besides, standard CDs are just not good enough for modern day consumers.
2. More & more peripheral content – film, video, apps etc. should be packaged & offered commercially as product, not purely in the name of promotion – after all, what exactly is being promoted these days except an ever-reducing sales yield for the standard CD?

There has been an ongoing debate in the convergence era as to what is King, content or distribution. To my mind it is clear, content wins, distribution is just access to content. People will always want music content and will pay for the privilege, but music the product has to change and improve with the times. Consumers appreciate that more than anything.


mulligan_mark said...

My colleague David Card would argue that neither content nor distribution are king, rather it is the audience that is king, and always has been.

Keith Jopling said...

Hello Mark
That's a bit semantic in my view - especially in a cultural industry where the content comes from a creative source and can't always be moulded to meet every convenience. But hey, David Card is the man, so I'd love to hear more about his well-judged theories.