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.