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 ‘Unpop.com’ (though you wouldn’t actually call it that of course – that would be commercial suicide). Unpop.com 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 – ‘Unpop.com’ 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...