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 Last.fm initiative that facilitates Last.fm 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 Last.fm 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 http://boomkat.com/ 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