Wednesday, 1 May 2013

HMV is Dead, long-live HMV!

On 'Everything Goes to Hell' from his misanthropic masterpiece, Blood Money, Tom Waits growls:

There are a few things I never could believe
A woman when she weeps
A merchant when he swears
A thief who says he'll pay
A lawyer when he cares
A snake when he is sleeping
A drunkard when he prays
I don't believe you go to heaven when you're good

Waits could well have added, 'a musician who claims indifference to money' (maybe he just couldn't make it rhyme). Bankers are often maligned as the most avaricious of people, but in my experience few people are as money-grubbing as self-proclaimed musicians. There's good reason for this - if you work in financial services, there's a simple equation that, more often than not, accounts for success: intellect + ambition + hard work = big payola. There might not be as much of it going around as there was before the financial crisis, but there's still plenty of money to be made. As such, the average City dweller may not be sweet, careful or kind, but they're not falling over one another, knives at the ready, as they scramble for change. But from the distinct lack of comradeship and camaraderie on the gigging toilet circuit (of which I have direct experience) to the self-aggrandising and self-obsessed excesses of performers atop the scrapheap (about whom I've read a lot of books), musicians are unsurpassed when it comes to the pursuit of fame and fortune at the expense of all else.

The Chimera
In The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson characterises the axiom that the profligate use of credit to generate wealth in the United States is funded by China's consumption of American debt as 'Chimerica', recalling the mythical hybrid of a lion, snake and goat. In a different fable, a musician might be part rat, vulture, magpie and scorpion - the kind of creature that picks through debris for shiny things and repays kindness and trust with a sting simply because it doesn't know how to behave any differently. Desperate hustling's in its blood. Put another way, talent + ambition + hard work don't necessarily equal fame and fortune in a music industry that's been decimated by the threat of 'free'. It's fiercely competitive, the barriers to entry are low, there are innumerable substitute products and buyer power (or, increasingly, consumer power, because they're not necessarily buying) is very high. But it never used to be this way.

Before the internet, the map preceded the territory

In the '90s, when the good times were still rolling, anti-commercialism was the order of the day for the workaday musician; if you weren't in the mainstream, you bemoaned a record industry that valued profits more than they valued artists, and when (if) you made it to the mainstream you pursed your lips and shut up about it. The music-buying public liked it when musicians talked this way because, as much as we believed that music had value, we also resented paying far over-and-above the material value of the paper and plastic from which the music delivery device (to borrow a term from the tobacco industry) was chiefly constructed. It seems crazier than ever that a CD used to retail for £15 in the mid '90s (£25 in today's money), but when we couldn't imagine an alternative, we accepted it as the price of being a music lover. In a sense, we protested too much about over-commercialisation because we were loathe to admit that we were held so tightly in its sway.

Just good friends
At the time, the high barriers to entry and bargaining power of suppliers meant that profits primarily went to the organisations that distributed music. This was convenient for the consumer, because it meant we could go on conceiving of musicians as demi-gods whose enlightenment meant they were unconcerned with the material concerns of mere mortals, and direct our ire about the high price of CDs and affiliated merchandise towards the bean counters who kept the industry ticking over. The reality wasn't quite so black and white. At the height of his domination of pop music, Michael Jackson personally approved every cheque that MJJ Productions wrote, and acknowledged every cheque that came in. The world knew him as a creative genius, but few knew that MJ was also an astute, and oftentimes ruthless businessman whose investments helped sustain his uncontrollable spending in the years when he'd long-stopped producing music. MJ's friendship with Paul McCartney, which produced three massive hits in 'Girlfriend', 'Say Say Say' and 'The Girl is Mine', was severed when Jackson bought the Beatles back-catalogue and refused, despite numerous attempts by McCartney, to negotiate a deal that would give McCartney a more favourable return on songs he'd written. This was all before the internet, when it was possible to keep the facts quiet in the interests of the perpetuation of a myth.

Many lament the death of a beautiful business model. At its most profitable, it let kids chart the territory before it swooped in to capitalise on the latest fashion, sound or scene. The blueprint for packaging a product was the same each time, even as the time, place, sound and/or look changed. Get In The Van, Henry Rollins' diarised account of life on the road with Black Flag, documents a bygone era, when riot police stormed gigs for fear that misfit children might be incited to overthrow law and order, and when a predatory music business regularly co-opted and made safe a raw and pure teen spirit. It was a time when people believed that music could change the world - for better and for worse. Ironically, the eventual cultural revolution wasn't musical but commercial.

Why isn't Taylor Swift on Spotify?

Today, when you read the music press, it's remarkable how so many articles - from interviews with musicians, to reviews of concerts and new records, to editorials - contextualise the content in economic terms. In and of itself, this isn't strange; when time's are tight, money's always an issue. What I find remarkable is how comfortable everyone is with the economics of it all overshadowing the music. It's as though the decimation of the music industry has liberated everyone to come clean about the real motives behind playing music. These motives are, I suspect, varied - from the desire to be part of a high-performing and creative team, to the need for attention and adulation, to the drive to be entrepreneurial and acquisitive.

Of course, it could also be that, now that control has been wrested away from the record companies, the lines of demarcation that separated artist from corporate suit have been blurred. Musicians today have been forced to focus on business as much as on the music, because a single, mapped out road to success no longer exists. Perhaps Michael Jackson was a pioneer rather than an outlier; the pinnacle of creative and business genius to which all of us unwashed pop music hustlers aspire. One thing is clear: the future history of the music industry is being written, and rewritten, as we speak (or as I write).

When file-sharing first reared its disruptive head in the late 1990s, Lars Ulrich and Metallica were vilified by music consumers and critics alike for suing Napster and their own fans for 'lost sales'. At the time, a cartoon lampooning Metallica caricatured James Hetfield as a slow-witted ogre and Lars as a calculating, shrieking harpy, intent on killing not just the party but the partygoers as well. In defence of Napster, indie bands proclaimed that the internet would level the playing field, bringing about the death of tired, old music dinosaurs and allowing bands that actually cared about their music to reach new audiences and prosper. Ten years on, it didn't quite work out that way. Ulrich can crow now about how proud he is that Metallica led the charge against file-sharing (and crow he does), and those listening simply nod sagely. There's either something in the water, or the indie rockers just gave in and drank the Kool Aid.

Ogre James and Harpy Lars badmouth Napster

In 2013, music streaming is the new file-sharing, and my New Year's resolution was to stop wasting money on buying CDs I used once (to burn the files to my hard drive), containing music I often didn't think was worth the money I'd paid for it. I declared that from here-on-in I would no longer own new music, and would simply rent it. I signed up for Spotify Premium at £10 a month, and felt immediately pleased that for £120 a year I could listen to as much of whatever I liked, without having to 'um' and 'ah' about whether I should or shouldn't buy something, or wait for a CD to arrive in the post, or regret wasting my money on a disappointing record. Then I discovered that I couldn't quite listen to anything I wanted. The genesis of this blog was when I googled 'why isn't Taylor Swift on Spotify?' and discovered that her record label, Big Machine, had decided to withhold her new album, Red, from streaming websites. Claiming, rather disingenuously, to be a small record label that couldn't afford to give away music, Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta felt that they'd lose potential earnings because low-priced streaming 'sales' would replace real sales of the album via download and in stores. Four months in to my music-renting sojourn I gave in and bought Red on CD in Sainsbury's for £7.99 (it was worth every penny).

It's not just big-names who decry streaming for hurting their bottom line. Read here an impassioned polemic by Jana Hunter of Lower Dens, an obscure indie rock band from Baltimore. Hunter writes in her blog post: 'Music shouldn’t be free. It shouldn’t even be cheap. If you consume all the music you want all the time, compulsively, sweatily, you end up having a cheap relationship to the music you do listen to.' It's an interesting point that's been made in a few different places: music has become commoditised. The argument for and against streaming is about scale. Advocates claim that, as the popularity of streaming grows, so too will earnings, as more and more consumers listen to more and more songs; naysayers counter that there are a lot of lost earnings to forego before the streaming business model proves itself by achieving that much-needed scale, and that it's a bit of a risk to bet the ranch when you've already lost the lifesavings. But when everyone's making decent-sounding records in their bedrooms and releasing them on Spotify and iTunes and wherever else, what was once a premium product becomes of little more value than a handful of coffee beans, picked straight from the bush, simply because there's so much of it. And so, to make it profitable you've got to shift a ton of the stuff.

Paradigm shift, from ownership to consumption

Achieving scale won't be easy, and it puts the ball firmly back in the court of those organisations who already have enormous customer bases. Enter Microsoft, who've launched XBox Music, pre-loaded with 30 million songs to all Microsoft products, including Windows 8, in a bid to make the as-yet unprofitable Spotify obsolete. While we can't know yet whether XBox Music will wipe out Spotify and/or become the dominant music streaming platform, what we might assume is that the commoditisation of music is likely to continue, relatively unabated. This goes hand-in-hand with two significant trends in consumer retail: the move from ownership to simply consumption and, as such, the increasing importance of experiences over tangible products.

These two trends are a direct result of the growing dominance and sophistication of the digital economy, which has made ownership of things like CDs redundant. Ownership implies responsibility, opportunity cost in that you could've chosen to own something else instead of the thing you ultimately chose to own, and the tricky issue of where to put things once you own them. Consumption without things is more convenient, ephemeral and frivolous, and involves far less opportunity cost. Paradoxically, the commoditisation of music comes as a result of music being set apart from a physical product. Setting music free from its earthly body, however, allows it to function more fluidly as a complement to other things, both commercial and cultural. We might now accept that music can't change the world (for better or for worse), but it sure as hell can help sell other things.

But here's an interesting thing: even as physical sales of music continue to decline, revenues from live music are increasing. Today, we are all content producers who show and tell, make and share, our real world experiences online via the social web. Our usage of the social web, measured in 'eyeballs' (the number of users for a service multiplied by the number of times each user uses its website) creates value, which allows the owners of online social services to sell advertising. For many, many people, the music experience is a catalyst for and a source of the production of user-created content that fuels the value of the social web - in the form of photos from gigs, and videos of friends drunkenly singing karaoke, and quotes from songs. Perhaps then, organisations like Microsoft, Google and Facebook, who earn advertising dollars as a direct result of the number of users they have, should be paying for the music its users consume - as a cost of sales, customer retention and new customer acquisition? Could the music biz become a predominantly business-to-business, rather than business-to-consumer, industry?

In a sense, we've come full circle. When humans first began recording music it was only available to listeners on the radio; like today, it came and it went, in the air. But ever since we were given the opportunity to own music, the monetary value we place upon it has been intrinsically linked to the unit in which it was encapsulated - vinyl, tape, CD. Now we're back where we began, with a history of music ownership behind us, and we realise we don't know how to value, and so how to price, the music (the intangible) without its physical delivery device (the tangible). I, for one, believe that when we nostalgically lament the decline and disappearance of the bricks-and-mortar record store, we're more concerned with the loss of the social experience of shopping than the devaluation of recorded music. When Spotify disappears, we may lament its demise with memories of that kid-in-a-candy-shop feeling when, for the first time in history, we were amazed that all the music we could possibly consume was available to us for our pure listening pleasure, and our pure listening pleasure alone.
Maybe we'll say, 'remember when we used to actually listen to music?' And the musicians will say, 'who ever heard of such a silly idea?' as the product endorsement money rolls in.

'Scenes from the future of on-demand marketing' lifted from this McKinsey article

If I sound cynical, it's because nobody buys Scandinavia's music. In the interests of attracting some of that product endorsement money, you can download for free our latest offering, 'HMV is Dead!'.

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