I find this topic fascinating, as it is at the crux of any argument regarding where the music industry is headed. Please be aware that in the below rant, I am largely discussing the masses’ interaction with pop music, i.e music that finds itself towards the top of the sales charts.
I’ll start with the current state of affairs we find ourselves in. Those young scamps in playgrounds with the world at their fingertips, often referred to as the first generation of ‘Digital Natives,’ will not think twice about sending a picture message to a friend for 40p, or buying a T-shirt for £1 in virtual worlds so that their avatar can look cool. They would however, be hesitant to spend 79p on a track on iTunes. It appears that they do not value music as previous generations did, as they seem willing to invest less money in it. However, they interact with it for more hours a day than their parents did, they talk about it more than anything else and are obsessed with sharing it. One way of tracking these conversations is using that trumped up ‘look at me I’m cool’ Twittery thing that is all the rage these days, where #musicmonday was the most used hashtag in 2009, beating discussions about the Iran Election, Swine Flu, and Michael Jackson. As I write this, the current top topic is #nowplaying, another music based hashtag.
So how did we get here? Since the 1960′s, western consumers across many markets have been pushed to a state of hyper-consumption – “Don’t repair or dwell on your older products, the new ones are so cheap just replace them as soon as you can (almost) afford it”. In the UK music industry this reached a peak with Britpop, the first decade defining musical fad to be a complete rehash of a previous cultural peak. Labels realised that it was easier and cheaper to promote and sell an album by a brand new artist, than it was to convince fans to stick with an established act. This was definitely not a new sales approach, but the degree to which it worked was startling even to those in control. BBC Radio 1 began their campaign to play more ‘New Music’, a style of broadcasting they are still obsessed by today. Though originally a refreshing idea, soon we were being told that what we liked 6 months ago was shit, and that something far better had come along for us to invest in if we could afford to keep up (which I DEFINITELY couldn’t). By the late 90′s, singles were used to ‘upsell’ albums, which at the time had a Recommended Retail Price of £16.99 and contained little more than 3 singles and 9 filler tracks (warning – broad assumption!). B-Sides were now being spread across multiple formats costing £4 each, and so not surprisingly the once cherished single began to die. All this was frickin’ awesome for the labels, as the consumer had no choice of how to consume their product, and were shelling out £16 for the 3 songs they liked. Lots of people got very rich, and had a great time. I just got angry.
Of course we all know what happens next ….. the labels lost control of their distribution. The birth of Napster, p2p filesharing, and other untraceable and forgotten forms of piracy for non-computer geeks (burning CD’s, swapping hard drives, bluetoothing tracks from one mobile to another) meant that the public could finally afford to consume the amount of music they’d been told to consume over the past decade, and the record labels started to hemorrhage cash. Hyper-consumption was finally possible regardless of how much money we had. It was gloriously satisfying, and for a music fan that first visit to Napster was as exciting and memorable as the first time I heard ‘Kid A’. Now, we didn’t have to buy the full album to get the three songs we wanted, we just downloaded them on their own. We could try albums before we bought them. We could get our friends into the music we loved, putting an end to the days of going to see your favourite band on your own. Yet simultaneously, labels began to criminalize and fight the demand they had spent so much time and money encouraging. And they’re still doing it now.
After spending the last decade suing their customers and defending the use of DRM (software that prevents files being shared), they are now lobbying government to pass laws that will force ISP’s to threaten users with disconnection from the web if they are caught file sharing. 3 warnings, then BAM, no more porn for you. However, there is no point telling people not to do something if you offer them no alternative. Labels have helped to launch some fantastic services recently, particularly the streaming sites Pandora and Spotify. Though they are still to offer an alternative to file sharing, and THAT is the important problem. Why? Because after receiving the first threat of disconnection from their ISP, many users will be alarmed enough to change their habits. If they are determined enough they will simply find ways to not be caught, as there will always be a way to file share anonymously (just google ‘darknet’ or ‘hiding ip address’ to see how). If they are not determined and have no legal alternative, they will simply spend their time pursuing another interest. Such as Curling, or egg carving perhaps?
I wholeheartedly agree with lobbying government to sort out our out-dated laws, though I do also believe that for consumers such as myself, file sharing does enable and encourage me to spend more money on music. However, that is not the case for everyone, and as a whole illegal file-sharing is wrong, immoral, and if left unchecked will mean there is less financial support for those artists who are capable of producing music that can change your life, if given the chance. Personally speaking, I have now been waiting 10 years, TEN YEARS, for a service that generates the excitement of Napster and gives me what I want. The one service that would go a long way to satisfying my needs and beating piracy is a model of continuous consumption, an ‘all you can eat’ package akin to what the recently launched Sky Songs was supposed to be, and what Virgin Media claim they will be offering soon. The plan is/was to launch a service that comes bundled with your TV, phone and broadband, and that would offer unlimited music to stream and to download. In April, Virgin announced that they would launch the service before the end of the year, though this of course hasn’t happened.
Labels are also working on short ‘messages’ that will be viewable on all legal download sites, which highlight music’s importance throughout history and promote the idea that it should be valued. I have seen early versions of these and they do look very impressive, but when current stars such as Susan Boyle or N-Dubz probably won’t be around by the time I finish this rant, is there really any point trying to convince people that this music has longevity and value? We all know it doesn’t, but there’s no need to be ashamed of it, the disposability of pop music is part of it’s charm. Is Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Release Me’ more memorable than ‘Penny Lane?’ Of course not, but we all know it was the former song that got to #1 over the latter. If labels don’t match their marketing tactics with their forms of distribution soon, they will be in real trouble. Indie labels have the opportunity to prosper, as they market releases less aggressively and over a long period of time, meaning consumers are not spun confusing messages and are more likely to invest in deluxe products, as demonstrated by the fact that sales of vinyl doubled in 2008 and continue to rise.
Labels have switched from an industry of rights holders who profit from exploiting these rights, to becoming a service industry monetizing the act of distributing their content. The first rule of the service industry is that the customer is always right, and the sooner labels start placing the customers needs at the heart of every business decision, the better. It’s a common saying that the major record labels make their millions by selling to the people that only buy 4 CD’s a year, approximately £40 in total per year. Taken as a family of four, this would be £160 per year. It’s difficult to prove this, but there’s no denying that these individuals do make up a large proportion of pop sales. If Virgin were to launch a smooth, seamless ’all you can eat’ service at £15 per month, with added paid services built around that (such as streaming to mobiles and sales of physical products, bonus content and merchandise), surely that basic revenue of £180 per year per household is enough to build an industry on, and would be attractive enough for those consumers to embrace?
As time goes on, I have less faith that this service will launch with the premium package of ‘all you can eat’ available. Yet this is the service that can allow people to follow the marketing messages they are being spun. So, major labels, I PLEAD with you, spend less money and effort (and believe me it’s been a LOT) on lobbying government and more on getting a great service up and running that the people want. Once it’s there, THEN get the laws changed. Stop claiming that deluxe £100 box sets for throwaway pop music will save the day, and realise that you do not make music to obsess over. Build a service that allows fans to constantly and rapidly consume and dispose of your music, it’s what you’ve conditioned them to do. Make the service intuitive, smooth, and a pleasure to use so that consumers want to use it, making it easier to sell products around it.
Do what the service industry has been doing since the dawn of time, it’s really not that difficult. Give the customer what they want.