Thursday, 9 December 2010

Innovation Papers #2: When will we learn to enjoy our music again?

When I recently pitched up to a publishing meeting in London – hosted by the MPA - to talk about ‘the future of music formats’, I had made a few notes about what music is and what it means to us. I was looking for those deeper insights if you will – an inspiration.

There was much discussion at the meeting about new models – with analysis and comment nicely covering the spectrum we’ve become familiar with – from ad-funded unlimited models to various cloud subscriptions – and talk of apps being the new album, etc.
As ever with these things my view is to look at it from the consumer’s point of view. In recent work on industry innovation (the previously mentioned Innovation Panel) we established the idea of a ‘digital music journey’ – which each and every digital music fan experiences. The journey begins with Discovery – how you find out about a band. It continues with Access – how you first get to hear the track or album. Further – it becomes about Acquisition needs – how you chose to keep or not to keep, pay or not to pay – etc.
So far, so simple. Then it gets much more interesting though. The next part of the journey is Management – how you manage your digital music library. For most consumers this is now the pressing issue – it’s not easy is it? Is all your music digitised? Where? In what file format and to what level of quality? Do you even know? In recent survey work, the industry is finding library management issues are increasingly important to consumers – including storing, arranging, moving, sharing, finding etc. It’s easy to think this is all solved by ‘the cloud’ – to some extent it is. But music fans still like ownership, still like permanence and still like to buy one at a time rather than subscribe.
The Management segment of the journey is really quite critical to all experienced digital music fans, but for me, the final segment of the journey is the most interesting. Enjoyment.
When I added this to the journey diagrams and graphics – everyone – without exception asked “what do you mean by Enjoyment”. I can quip here – that these days by the time we – the digital music fans – have spent endless hours Googling music, browsing on, reading tweets about this or that new artist – snacking on tracks on Spotify and We7 – downloading free music from a million and one sources legal, illegal or ambiguous (there is such a thing – blogs for example) – how much are we really, honestly enjoying listening to our music?
I really mean it. For me this is bound up in the perception of music’s actual monetary value.
Music is in many ways the ideal content for digital – but it has one really big problem. For music to be at its most enjoyable it makes its own journey in each of us – from the new to the familiar. In some ways digital has enabled the journey, but in others it is getting in the way.
By way of example, think about your favourite records – your absolute Desert Island Discs – be they albums or songs. You’ve undoubtedly listened to these records countless times. You may actually have disliked some of them when you first heard them. In my own view, in what’s been a vintage year for music this year – the records I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones I’ve become the most familiar with. That, for me, takes at least three plays. If a record gets beyond three it can become endless from there – hence The National’s ‘High Violet’ has easily become my most played album this year – and my favourite.
I have found that digital discovery can make this process – of growing into a record – quite tricky. I’ll use Spotify to ‘preview’ a record (or I might stream it on a blog or download it from a legal free source, which seem to be abundant now). If I’m in ‘hunting’ mode this is less a preview and more a ‘gutting’ session in the way I often do with business books – just rip into it and hope to get a thin slice insight into whether I will eventually like it. This works, up to a point. But it could well be denying me the surprises, the revelations and the growers. I’ll sometimes choose to buy based on this initial instinct – an investment of sorts. But I find I pass on so much of what I sample.
I originally passed on Animal Collective's 'Merriweather' on this basis until I belatedly bought the album just recently. Really, the previewing of records doesn’t work in favour of any of those records that are in any way challenging or require some effort on the part of me, the listener.
I don’t think I would have gotten into The National's ‘High Violet’ through streaming. So ironically, despite the incredible value streaming represents as a music fan – in Access terms – it may have denied me the Enjoyment of a record I can now hardly put a monetary value on – ‘High Violet’ is virtually priceless to me – it’s the gift that keeps giving.
If this is too abstract a concept, let me put a bit more hard flesh on it. There’s a more direct way to improving the Enjoyment part of the journey for digital music fans and we are only just at the beginning in market development terms. If we put aside payment models and formats and think instead about the various ‘layers’ by which music is delivered to fans – there is obvious room for improvement in each and every layer. If we think about digital music in layers – then I suggest for music those layers are as follows:
Layer 1: The Music
Layer 2: The Data (as in metadata)
Layer 3: The User Interface (the presentation of the music to the user, including the recommendation engine)
Layer 4: The Social Layer (user-to-user)
On each and every layer, there is huge room for improvement in the current ways we get music to fans. Just a few suggestions for example:
Layer 1: More complete libraries, higher quality audio files, more live recordings etc.
Layer 2: Amazing metadata: song composer, the ‘story of the song’, track commentaries & liner notes, more simply: song visual data
Layer 3: Personalised home pages, shareable or switchable ‘music channels’, alternative ways to navigate music menus and libraries
Layer 4: Let’s leave this to Facebook, Twitter et al. But shareable playlists and social programming have plenty of room to develop beyond the current open API frameworks
There are new developments in every layer that are worth watching. In Layer 1 – high-end audio equipment makers like Linn now offer lossless 24-bit, FLAC or WAV downloads. I personally was never too convinced of the argument that song quality no longer matters in the age of MP3 files. I think more & more fans are realising it does matter, especially as we want to shift the music to household devices and in-car, where quality matters more than on headphones.
In Layer 2, new players like Decibel are working towards the ‘amazing metadata’ goal, where the marrying of content with context will make a notable difference the user experience – in terms of both library management and arrangement and they way we access information as & when we listen.
In Layer 3, we have brilliant new examples of music presentation, like Awedetorium – the iPad app developed by the team at the Sixty One – an indie brand yes – but with universal functionality in presenting quality over quantity, helping us to manage serendipity and avoid the blinding of choice that comes with searching from a menu of 11m+ songs. In music discovery terms, German research project GlobalMusic2One looks fascinating too and I hope it will bear fruit commercially at some point.
In Layer 4 you can bet that the social network geeks are working on the next mind-blowingly compelling way we can connect to music, through each other, using music. I’ll leave that in their capable hands and remain here to be convinced – I’ll use it if it works for me and helps me with Enjoyment more than with discovery or access.
So for me – in thinking about the future possibilities for music services, we need to begin to think beyond ‘models’ and ‘formats’ and get to the real drivers of why people love their music and what they want from it. Thinking in layers aids this process.

Juggernaut will be back for an essential end of 2010 music review and then for anyone travelling to MIDEM in the New Year I’ll see you there – especially anyone attending my Academy sessions on Tuesday 25th January 2011.

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