Tidal’s Choppy Waves Keep Rolling

The choppy waves keep on coming for Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal, as today it was hit again with another round of criticism. I myself outlined my thoughts on the Tidal service first in a post when it launched, and then again in a questioning follow-up post earlier this week. This time, though, the critique comes not from disgruntled music streaming fans or competitive services, but from Steve Albini.

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Tidal logo

Tidal logo

For those unfamiliar with Albini, he cut his teeth in the mainstream spotlight producing albums for artists like Pixies and Nirvana, and has become an outspoken critic of many of the streaming services in the last decade. A criticism from Albini can’t be as easily dismissed as it might otherwise be particularly because he has both the industry experience and insider knowledge to call those in the industry on their bullshit.

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Steve Albini; Photo courtesy: Jordi Vidal, 2014

Steve Albini; Photo courtesy: Jordi Vidal, 2014

Albini has been critical of the mainstream music machine even before Kurt Cobain’s death, jumping into the mainstream music business debate in 1993 with his piece entitled The Problem With Music. He’s done the math and lived out many of the results, and so when Albini takes aim at your service, you better realize that other people in the music community will take notice (even if the mainstream isn’t).

In an interview with Vulture.com, Albini used phrases like “little streaming fiefdoms” and the “budget version of Pono” when referring to Tidal. While the latter comment is a critique on the mainstream listener’s ability (or even care) to distinguish between lossless quality and normal mp3 audio quality, the former is almost a little more telling. “Little streaming fiefdoms” is pretty telling in and of itself; it’s dismissive of what Jay Z and company say Tidal is (and purportedly will be), instead asserting that the service is yet another little city-state vying for validation in the greater streaming landscape.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this particular thought process is what it means for the dynamic of the current landscape; as Albini (and others) become increasingly critical of services that act like little principalities, the traditional walled-garden approach to music seems to be under siege. And there are those of us who rejoice in that. The walled-garden concept works well in numerous areas of tech and business—it’s great for security, healthcare, and finance. But it is not good for media, and music specifically.

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Criticisms of Tidal on Buzzfeed the day after its launch

Criticisms of Tidal on Buzzfeed the day after its launch

Music is freedom, and needs to be treated as such. To constrain music to the dynamics of a walled-garden system is to take away so much of the actual discovery and freedom that is associated with it in its purest form (though many would argue that there’s still plenty of “discovery” to be had). Regardless of this fact though, it remains an important fact to note that people of Albini’s caliber are taking aim at people like Jay Z and services like Tidal.

One might even argue that they—whether they intend to or not—are clearing the path for new music services yet to be launched. Only time will tell in that regard. For me though, this does not go unnoticed. Anyone interested in the future of the music industry would do well to keep these criticisms catalogued and fresh in mind. It’s precisely by graphing these grievances that we will begin to see how the future of the music industry will unfold.

Passion Isn’t Exhausting—It’s Invigorating

A couple days ago, I wrote a post about how when things get tough in my line of work, it’s always best to go back to the artists. The artists are where I find my love rekindled again and again, and where I’ve made some of my best friends.

I think, though, that one of the best things I experience in talking to artists every day is the sheer passion that spills through their emails and calls. They are so passionate about their work and the work of their peers that, most days, they can barely contain themselves. Sometimes our conversations consist of us (me and an artist) interrupting each other to ask the other if they’ve heard the latest release from a group we both love.

While some might take this as daunting and exhausting after a certain period of time, the truth is that it never really gets old. It gets old hearing someone blather on about something when their heart really isn’t in it; you can tell. But when someone is so incredibly passionate about something that it jumbles the words falling out of their mouth—that’s not exhausting at all; it’s reinvigorating.

That’s something I would wish on anyone having a discussion in their professional field. That’s what makes this feel like play-time when it really is work. It’s what enables me to send out stacks of emails (does that metaphor make sense?) without losing a bit of my drive for the day. And what’s more, it’s incredibly infectious. This is why I do what I do, and love it every day.

When Things Get Tough, Head Back to the Artists

Some days in this business are hard. Some days are downright frustrating. The music business isn’t exactly known for being easy and fair. At times, the most infuriating thing can be dealing with the very industry that you stepped foot in in the first place. Massive egos, backroom deals, power struggles—these things aren’t relegated only to the field of politics.

But the thing that I learned very early on is that in this crazy, upside down industry, there’s really only one respite: the artists. Of course, that’s my own personal opinion, but I hold to it like gospel. On the hardest days, I always go back to the artists, and remember why I do this. It reminds me of my deep-seated passion for what they do and how they do it, and that I’m exceedingly lucky to be a part of the process.

Yesterday was a frustrating day. But that was rectified today; not by any major breakthrough or innovation, but by something as simple as a conversation with the people I love doing business with. A conversation this morning with an artist jump-started my day on a positive note; I could hear his excitement, and that fueled by own drive for the day. Then later in the afternoon, a conversation and interview with another artist I’m excited to work with. What might seem like work to others—scheduling calls, doing interviews, laying out plans—is like an adrenaline shot to me. I love it every day; perhaps that’s the reason I’ve almost turned into a “workaholic.”  But it’s not work for me; every new song I hear, every show I go to, every conversation I have—this is everything I would do on my vacation.

The music industry can be an amazing place. Even more so now that dynamics have shifted to give more power to the everyday singer/songwriter playing that song you like at a bar. We should all take advantage of it. That’s why in my off days, I always remember: when things snafu, just head back to the talent. When things get tough, just head back to the artists.

If You’re an Independent, Kiss SoundCloud Goodbye

The Partnership with Zefr Isn’t the Real Story

News broke today both on The Verge and TechCrunch that SoundCloud is looking to step up its drive towards revenue by signing a deal with Zefr. For those unfamiliar with Zefr, they’re the same partner who works with YouTube to track content and brands. Part of what makes Zefr so helpful to YouTube is that they are able to track media files as well as specific brands like Nike or Coke.

But that’s actually not the story here. The real story is buried deep in the TechCrunch article. Helpful though Zefr may be to and for SoundCloud, they can’t help with the larger problem that SC has created for itself. No, that has to do with the licensing quagmire that SC is increasingly encircling itself with. It goes like this.

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SoundCloud, now a platform for major labels and advertisers

– SoundCloud, now a platform for major labels and advertisers

SoundCloud blew up as an independent-driven engine way before major label music was even a thought. It was the place for the singer/songwriter in his basement, or the newly formed doom metal band, to post their recordings and attempt fan acquisition. It was beloved by independents the world over because it was a free, easy way for them to distribute their material and make a name for themselves. That’s where SC started, but it’s not where they now find themselves.

Legal Problems That Were Never Solved

Of course SoundCloud’s rich environment of remixes and covers led to a legal quagmire that saw them losing material as complaints were brought against them from the original sources for copyright infringement. While Zefr does help specifically with this, it’s effectiely irrelevant, as independents will begin to migrate away from SC amidst a new major label focus anyway. I can imagine it was a major headache for SC as remixes and covers are particularly popular in certain genres of music. Thus began the drive away from remixes and towards “more mature” content. For those who care, this is basically code for major label content.

soundcloud_logo

And thus, instead of solving the more challenging problem (the legalities associated with remixes and covers) SC rather decided to chase the major label route to better compete with services like Spotify and Rdio. (Again, as noted above, partnering with Zefr does help, but will essentially become irrelevant in the bigger picture). In doing this, they basically told their grassroots fanbase (you know, the people who gave them love and support (and traffic) before anyone else) that they didn’t need them anymore.

Rather than spend the few million dollars of their funding figuring out the legalities they were faced with (which probably couldn’t have amounted to more than ~5M), they made the choice to look towards the major label paradigm for music content. Frankly, the partnership with a company like Zefr which helps in the copyright arena may not be too little, but it is too late. Let’s examine how this worked out for them.

Buying Into a Broken Business Model

Back in November of 2014, SoundCloud signed a licensing deal with Warner Music Group (one of The Big Three) to bring onto SC’s platform the music which Warner controlled through itself and its subsidiary labels. My assumption was (is) that SC is looking towards the other two big labels (Universal and Sony) to sign similar deals, and step up to the same level as a service like Spotify. Here’s why that was a bad business decision:

1. A Bad Business Model 

SoundCloud already had a dedicated userbase of independents who used it, without demanding licensing money upfront. To put this in perspective, the deal which SC signed with Warner most likely cost them ~45-50M for a 1-year contract. This means that they paid somewhere in the neighborhood of 50M to license music content from Warner for a year. This in turn means that they will most likely need to renegotiate sometime later this year; those licensing contracts are not static agreements. It also does not account for the royalties which they will need to pay on the backend. So, to recap, multi-million dollar expense on the front-end (which will need to be renegotiated eventually) and multi-million dollar expense on the backend.

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What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

– What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

2. You Can Only Have One Priority #1

Business 101: You can only have one priority #1 in the morning. SC’s priority #1 used to be its independent artists/users. Now it’s not, and it can’t be. How do I know? Because Warner now holds the power in the relationship. In providing SC with major label content, they have eventually shifted the paradigm of SC’s focus from independents to Warner’s major label artists. This means that, eventually, independents will begin to understand that they are no longer the priority, and will migrate elsewhere. That’s not a guess, that’s fact. Look at the migration patterns:

MySpace==>Purevolume==>Facebook==>SoundCloud==>?

The reality is that independent artists are loyal only insofar as they are the priority customer base. Why would they be loyal beyond that? They don’t have major label deals and massive radio play on FM radio to fall back on. And they’re not signed to a powerhouse like Warner or Universal. Which means they don’t need to settle for anything; they’re free to do whatever the hell they want.

3. You Should Never Depend on Anyone Else

SoundCloud has basically tied itself to the major label paradigm, which could cost it. It’s never a good business decision to tie your company’s future to the company structure and revenue of someone else. You should never be dependent on another company’s good fortune for your own upward trajectory. But in signing a deal with Warner, that’s effectively what SoundCloud did.

It goes like this: As the independents begin to see that SC has shifted its focus from their desires and needs to those of Warner’s major label artists, they will begin to look for other options. SoundCloud can’t really do anything about that because they’re now tied to Warner (and searching for deals with Universal and Sony). That means that as the independents begin to trickle out, they can’t market any sort of real campaign to woo them back; Warner wouldn’t let that happen. And if I was Warner, I wouldn’t either. Why would I? I want all the focus on my artists, not some independent artist who might be taking ears away from my stable of talent.

Once the independents start to trickle out to somewhere else, SoundCloud is essentially locked in to the major label paradigm. It will effectively need to renegotiate with Warner (and the others) because their major label content will become its lifeblood. If Warner decides not to renew their contract with SC (which they could do, since they have Spotify, Rdio, Deezer, etc. to fall back on), one could see the music-life sucked out of SC in a heartbeat. With no major label content, SC could become a shell of its former self, begging the independents to come back (which takes years, if it ever happens at all, just look at Purevolume and MySpace).

4. The Big Kicker

Now here’s the big kicker for SoundCloud: they have not yet been able to secure deals with Universal or Sony—only Warner. This means that they are effectively straddling two completely different music industries moving in opposite directions: the major label machine and the independent arena. Precarious though this may be, it’s not a secret. And the independents know it. Artists I’ve spoken to are already looking for more alternatives because they recognize that SC will soon become the same sort un-level playing-field as Spotify or Rdio, where they essentially stand no chance against the Taylor Swift’s and One Direction’s of the world.

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SoundCloud only has a deal with Warner as of now

– SoundCloud only has a deal with Warner as of now

If I’m SoundCloud, I’m driving hard at those Universal and Sony deals because I can’t backup. If I try to, that will send a message to Warner that I’m not really invested in their business model, and since Warner essentially now holds the keys to my content, that could be a major mistake. But if I continue to pursue those deals with the other major labels (which I can pretty much guarantee is what SC will do) I will lose that attractive quality that made me popular among independents to begin with.

Except these aren’t really the thoughts going around in SoundCloud’s head; they already made their decision when they inked that deal with Warner last November.

SoundCloud’s Independent-Focused Days Are Over

The options for SoundCloud as I see them now are really only to double-down on the major label paradigm and business model. They need to out-Spotify Spotify; and that’s going to be very difficult. Rather than sitting pretty as king of the hill with the ever-growing base of independents, they made the decision to move towards the major label content arena.

Does this mean that they are destined for failure? Of course not; they may in fact find a way to play the major label game better than even Spotify or Rdio. That’s entirely a possibility. Really only time will tell if that is what becomes of SC’s new business trajectory.

But it does mean that SoundCloud will play less and less of a significant role in the independent sphere, possibly moving mostly out of it in the next few years. It makes no economic sense for them to stay, now that they are pursuing the major label route. They may host independent material, but the independents will never be their bread and butter again—those days are coming to an end.

Independents aren’t stupid; they go where the best opportunities are for them. They don’t stick around too long where they’re not wanted or cared for. I wouldn’t, not if I was free to do what I wanted. Which begs the question: where will they go next?

Sometimes You Leave on That Tour Bus and Don’t Come Back

This is the nightmare of the music business—the part of my industry I hate knowing about.

I see news from artists all over the world come through my Facebook and Twitter feeds all day long. I see posts about new tours dates, new song releases, new music videos, and sometimes just funky entertaining things. These are the the things that fans love, and that shrink the divide between an artist an the people who love and support them.

And then there are the other kind of posts—the kind you just wish you could forget seeing.

Facebook post from Almost Kings' feed

Facebook post from Almost Kings’ feed

This afternoon I saw one of these posts, and it saddens me that it’s the topic for my post today. But these darker corners of the music business need to be acknowledged, and the people who get caught in them need to be rallied around.

Early this morning, a tour bus carrying members from metal bands Khaotika and Wormreich was involved in a serious crash—three people were pronounced dead at the scene, and three more are in critical condition. That’s enough to stop anyone’s heart.

Part of what you learn in the music industry is that the term “family” is redefined. Your family isn’t just your mom and dad at home, or your sister in college. Your family expands to include your bandmates, your touring crew, your fans, and the other artists you meet along the way. So when you hear about something like this, it affects you on a visceral level.

It’s important to remember that this job ins’t without its hazards. We work in an industry that’s waved the banner of alcohol and drugs for decades. But what kills most of all is when you see something like this—just a freak accident that claims the lives of talented people who spent their lives chasing their love of music. Sometimes when you step on that tour bus, you don’t come back. It’s a sobering reality.

Tour Van Crash; Carrying Members of Wormreich and Khaotica

Tour Van Crash; Carrying Members of Wormreich and Khaotika

I’ve known Atlanta band Almost Kings for a long time; it was through their  feed that I saw the posted the article. All I can do as part of their support circle is support them even as they support the family and friends of those who have experienced loss today. That’s all any of us can do. These things do happen, and I hate that it’s something I’ve become somewhat accustomed to seeing. No, it doesn’t always turn out ok. No, not every tour ends in people becoming rockstars.

But we do it anyway—we make our way in this business through all the shit and challenges—because we love music. It’s how we breathe; how we interact with the world. We are all a family in this—keep supporting each other and we might make it to the next show.

My thoughts go out to those who have experienced loss this morning. We’re around for you all. We rally for you.

Lending Artists Millions of Dollars Is a Terrible Idea

The Setup

This morning, Peter Kafka posted an article on a new company seeking to make its name in the evolving music industry: Alignment Artist Capital. The company, according to Kafka’s piece, wants to essentially work as a lending institution for artists who need the money. Except instead of doling out a couple hundred bucks here and there, it will have the resources to lend millions at a time.

money_bags

A Completely Outdated Business Model

This, for anyone who didn’t already think so by this sentence, is a terrible idea. It’s a rehashing of the same dynamic the record labels have had with artists for decades, sans the ownership percentages over artists’ creative material. Kafka is aware of this as well, noting that, “Alignment isn’t the first entity to advance money to artists…lending money to musicians is one of the core functions of music labels.” [1] That’s very true; lending money to musicians is one of the core functions of a music (record) label, and it’s one of the main reasons their obsolete business model is failing them now.

Don’t be discouraged, though. There’s still plenty of money to be made in the music industry. In fact, it’s on an upswing. But not in the major label space, or using any of the traditional business models of those labels. The new upswing is with the independents—that’s where I would lay my chips.

With all the tools now cheaply (or freely) available to budding new artists, the traditional artist/record label model doesn’t apply anymore (something which Kafka notes as well as “harder to justify”). The reality of the situation is that most artists can get the basic things that they need—access to distribution, access to recording equipment and programs, access to merchandising platforms, access to producers/promoters, etc.—without signing away anything. That begs the question of why they would choose to take a monetary loan if they can do most (if not all) of the necessary things themselves.

New Artists Don’t Need Millions (of Dollars)

And there’s something else: funding an artist (band or solo) like a startup is indeed a unique idea—but a misguided one. Artists don’t need millions of dollars out of the gate to be successful in today’s market(s). The sums of money are too large to apply to most of the new artists who might be interested in taking it, precisely because the economics don’t work in their favor; it’s highly unlikely that throwing a million dollars on your fire will create a lasting fanbase for you. Core fanbases are made on the road, sleeping on couches, driving crappy vans, connecting with your real fans—all things that can be done without a multi-million dollar loan on your shoulders.

In the startup world, there’s a delicate balance between taking VC money you know you’ll need to survive (to the next round), and not taking so much that you end up diluting yourself beyond reason. The same principle holds true here: the concept that new artists should take millions at a time is analogous to a startup raising a Series B when they only need a Seed investment of possibly a quarter of that.

Why Incur Debt You Don’t Need?

AAC cofounder James Diener is quoted in the article saying “We’ll give the artist and their entity financing so they can go build a record label.” That’s like giving someone financing so they can go invest in a line of new and improved floppy disks—i.e. obsolete and irrelevant. The fact that this seems to be one of the main drives behind AAC’s plan tells me that they are still mentally tied to the old model of the record label, only now they’ve decided to cut their prospective losses by dealing only with the financial side (and not the creative one).

Based on my years in the independent music arena, I see these sorts of monetary entities as having a very difficult time breaking into the independent spheres—essentially where they need to be in order to really thrive. Buying streaming services, record labels, summer homes—these are things most artists don’t care about and don’t think about. I suppose a few do, but the numbers of those people are well below anything you can build a real solid business model on. The Jay Z’s of the world are astronomically outnumbered by the independents who are on the rise, now with distribution at their fingertips.

I wrote last week that artists are becoming savvier business people, and I can see them steering clear of these sorts of institutions at all costs. They understand that injecting millions of dollars into their brand image doesn’t buy them fans—that’s a belief propagated by the major label industry. Rather, they know it has to be done by way of live shows, personal attention, and appreciation of core fans; all things which can be done on their own, and without incurring debt (remember my article on crowdfunding?). I suppose there will be some customers of course, but I don’t see this ever catching fire in the independent industry. And that’s the next growth phase of music.

So why would artists incur massive debt if they do’t have to??

I wouldn’t.

Would you?

 

Notes


[1] Notice here that Kafka used the term “music labels.” I have a friend who used to work for Warner Music who explained this phenomenon to me. The reason that the term “music” has replaced the word “record” is because the major labels have become so bloated with an obsolete business model, they need to start making money off of revenue streams that they traditionally never touched: live ticket sales and merchandise sales. Traditionally, their main revenue streams were from record (or CD) sales, hence the term “record label.” Yet in the wake of the massive disruption of their business model, they have taken to calling themselves “music labels” in order to explain their practice of now taking money from revenue streams traditionally left for the artists.

Tidal Is Really Just a Ripple in a Larger Ocean

The Basic Background

Yesterday, Jay Z and company relaunched Tidal, the new music streaming company that they’re convinced is “the future of music.” After a $50+M purchase of Tidal (in the form of Aspiro) last year, Jay Z has been bending our ears with how the rerelease of the new service will be the best thing ever for artists, revolutionize the music industry, provide the best listening experience…blah, blah, blah. Only it likely won’t do any of those things.

Not the First Anything

In order to understand why Tidal likely won’t make good on any of the things Jay Z and his companions have promised, one needs to understand how the music industry works. First, let’s get something out of the way that’s been bugging me since I heard it during the launch party last night: “Tidal is the first ever artist-owned music service.”

No it’s not. NoiseTrade has been around since 2006, and was founded by singer/songwriter (that means artist) Derek Webb. So already it’s clear that the Tidal team needs to do a better job of researching their claims before making them.

No, It’s Really Not “Artist-Owned”

Next, the phrase “artist-owned service” is nice and poetic, but it’s frankly wholly untrue in this respect. Let’s examine the laundry list of artists now attached to the Tidal moniker and company:

  • Jay Z – Signed to Roc Nation (which he owns, and which had distribution deals with Sony Music (2009-2013) and Universal Music (2013-present)
  • Rihanna – Signed to Roc Nation (see above)
  • Beyoncé – Signed to Columbia (which is owned by Sony Music)
  • Alicia Keys – Signed to RCA (which is owned by Universal Music Group)
  • Daft Punk – Signed to Columbia (which is owned by Sony Music)
  • Madonna – Signed to Interscope (which is owned by Universal Music Group)
  • Kanye West – Signed to Def Jam (which is owned by Universal Music Group)

I could go on, but you get the point. This is not the “first ever artist-owned music service.” Frankly, it’s not really even “artist-owned;” it’s “label-owned by extension.” Let’s call it how it is, and pretending that these major label artists are independent operators is to fabricate an ideal (but false) reality. While it looks as if these artists belong to a whole slew of different labels, as my previous post on major label monopolies shows, this is a misleading thought process as they are more or less all owned by the Big Three. If anyone thinks that any of these artists will have the power to do things outside the interests of the three major record labels, they’re dreaming.

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The Big Three Major Labels and Their Subjects

The Big Three Major Labels and Their Subjects

Basically the Same Layout

Next, let’s talk about why the business model of Tidal is fanciful and unrealistic. TechCrunch reported earlier some details demonstrating that Tidal’s layout and functionality are basically a ripoff of Spotify’s layout. From what I’ve heard, Tidal basically copped Spotify’s layout, changed the colors, and added a few tweaks—but it’s not really all that different.

Married to An Obsolete Business Model

In terms of business model, what seems to make Tidal the most different is its decision not to offer a free tier (as Spotify and most other music services do). Rather, they will offer a high-quality lossless music experience for $20/month, and a downgraded, “premium” lower quality experience for the same $10/month that Spotify and other services charge (which, by the way, is an obsolete business model anyway). Jay Z and others at Tidal are banking on the hope that the rabid music fans out there will want to pay more money for higher quality music, in addition to more exclusive content on the Tidal service first.  While some music fans may in fact do this, it’s not a scalable hope because those fans are not the majority of music listeners.

Also, note that I said “more exclusive content on the Tidal service first“—which means it will definitely be available on other services too, just maybe a week or two later. And why not? Do you really think that the major labels who work with these artists are going to forego any revenue stream, just to keep Tidal more exclusive than the rest?? I don’t.

Tidal logo

 Tidal logo

So basically Tidal is going to offer the same major label music that is available everywhere else (including on non-music centered services like YouTube), but they’re going to nix the free tier (where most of Spotify’s conversions come from anyway) altogether and double the going rate for a monthly subscription. All the while, they will be aiming their service at a more niche market while providing non-niche music. Here’s my reality based on my experience in the music industry: high-fi, low-fi, it really doesn’t matter if your business model is outdated and your marketing strategy is insufficient for an overcrowded market. But yeah, this will definitely end well.

An Unscalable Model and Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

Let’s move on, and I can’t believe no one has really focused in on this, especially those within the tech community (though it was mentioned a bit in the TechCrunch report): Jay Z has enticed these other major label names into becoming a part of this service not by offering them money up front, but by actually giving them equity percentages of the company. As reports that the equity numbers hover somewhere around 3%, this is an admirable shot by Jay Z. He’s trying to tie those artists’ respective loyalties to Tidal by making the service’s benefits their benefits. If Tidal does well and goes up in value, so do their stakes.

There are only two problems with this: 1) it’s not scalable, and 2) too many cooks in the kitchen. In an industry (tech startups) where founders are always told to limit the number of cofounders (the “too many cooks in the kitchen” nightmare”), Jay Z has amazingly disregarded the whole thought process and it seems no one has really noticed. What’s more, conducting company decisions in a “town hall” style is going to spell disaster for Tidal; you just can’t run a company like that. There needs to be one captain at the helm of a ship; any more and the ship will capsize. Also, keep in mind many of these artists don’t even work well with others in the studio—now they’re all going to run a company together? Right.

So to recap: unscalable business model and too many cooks in the kitchen.

More Dedicated to the Needs of Which Artists?

While I admire the desire by Jay Z and others to create a service that is more dedicated to “the needs and rights of artists,” let’s also be clear which artists those people are. They are not the artists the world-over who are coming up and trying to find their fanbases; they are the artists who already have legions of fans all over the world. We’re not talking about the girl from Minnesota who wants to be an R&B singer, or the punk band from Toronto who want to find their core fanbase. We are talking about (mostly) pop, rap, hip-hop, R&B, pop-rock, and other well-known stars who want to extend their control beyond their music to dip their toes in the music-tech industry.

I’m only critical because these are exactly the kinds of artists who really don’t need help right now. They have enough money, and even if they hop from label to label, their fans will follow. They have already found their fanbases and core listeners. It doesn’t matter which label or service they’re on, those fans will still find them and listen to their new albums and go see them on tour. So basically this is yet another rehashing of the same major label music that we’re already drowning in anyway. And while I’m a fan of some of these artists myself, I nonetheless am critical of what appears to be another desperate money grab. As the following screenshots demonstrate, though Jay Z and others may not see it that way, the point is that most of their fans will ( and do):

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Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 1

Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 1

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.12.36 PM

Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 2

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.12.56 PM

Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 3

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.13.12 PM

Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 4

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.13.28 PM

Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 5

If these artists really wanted to distance themselves from the major labels and the current music business dynamic, they would look for ways to explore other paradigms, rather than look for ways to make an obsolete system work.

In the End

In the end, I commend these artists for taking a step into a new arena, but I question their motives and the realities surrounding Tidal as a company. Personally, I think Jay Z way overpaid for Aspiro, and is seeking to build a service that really only artists (and that is to say a select kind of artist) will really appreciate and use. I don’t think that Tidal sets itself apart enough to really take over the demographics targeted by either Spotify, Apple Beats, or even SoundCloud. I think it’s a lot of bluster, but without any real solid business prospects. Only time will tell, but I think that Tidal is going to have a very tough time right out of the gate. We’ll see if Tidal is part of a rising tide, or simply another ankle-slapper service.

Artists Are Not “Bad Business People”

Two Differing Opinions

“Artists are not good business people; they need to be told what’s good for them.” Those were the exact words that came out of his mouth. And I disagreed with every single one of them.

But let’s back up. Last summer, I was having a conversation with an entrepreneurial peer of mine about the current state of the music industry, and possible avenues forward. He’d had some success with a small company working with a few venues, and with some other music industry professionals (who, as shall he, remain nameless). By all accounts, I thought my peer would have a positive outlook on the future of the music industry as he, like me, had experienced numerous problems that could be solved. And yet, his outlook was dreary at best; and at worst, insulting.

When we began discussing what possibilities there were to build tools to better enable artists to make informed business decisions, his response was terse, arrogant and negative: “Artists are not good business people; they need to be told what’s good for them.”

It’s All About Access to Knowledge

Immediately I knew our opinions on the evolving music industry would differ from then on. First, no, it’s not a true statement to say that artists are “bad business people” anymore than one could make the insinuation about construction workers, for example. In an industry where so much of the business has traditionally been done by a major label or other third party, artists are just now realizing that they have access to the tools to simply learn about how to be good business people, and many are taking advantage of the opportunity. No one would expect someone who’s never had access to a certain type of education to understand the intricacies of said education.

It comes down to simple access to tools and means of learning, traditionally things that have been outside the reach of most artists—after all, educating artists on the inner working of the music business never was in the best interest of the major labels. So if this is the case, why then would one criticize artists for not having knowledge of business dynamics when they have traditionally been denied such knowledge and experience in favor of a more “savvy” entity (a management firm or label, for example)?

Who Actually Knows “What’s best”?

Second, the statement that someone needs be told “what’s best” for them is beyond arrogant: it’s plain insulting. Many of the evolving concepts of business strategy that are popping up in the music industry nowadays I find are coming from the artists themselves. These are the people who are looking to new vehicles of distribution like the internet and new business models such as free or freemium as viable ways to push their careers forward. And from what I can tell, they’re getting pretty damn good at it. I find the things I learn that should have been so obvious to me many times come from discussion with artists themselves, opening my eyes to a reality I may not have previously considered or understood.

So if artists are continually researching and discovering new methods of business strategy to effectively compete in the new digital era, why is there still this pervasive view that they “need to be told what’s best for them?” Perhaps it’s just a difference of worldview, as with between my peer and myself. Whereas he appeared to see the world through a lens that was dismissive—and even bitter—I see possibilities abounding for how the industry can change with the technology available to give artists more power over their own careers. It’s arguable the in the end, the only opinions that matter are those of the artists, as they are the ones producing the material that so many other people are trying to find ways to monetize.

My Bet

Whatever the next big thing will be (and it’s anyone’s guess in this sort of fickle content market), what I don’t doubt is that artists will begin to step out from behind their guitars and amps to shape their own futures (much like programmers are being encouraged to step out from behind their keyboards and aspire to roles in management). I wouldn’t be so quick to underestimate the artists out there. In fact, just the opposite: they know what they want, and now they’re beginning to see how to successfully get it. For me, my bet’s on the artists 

 

Thanks to Mom and Dad for reading early drafts of this.

(Almost) Every Rock Poster, Sticker, Reference, and List in “School of Rock”

School of Rock promotional poster

School of Rock promotional poster

School of Rock (2003) is one of my favorite music movies, and was on my previously published list of 30 Music Movies You Need to See Right Now. It contains a staggering amount of references to well-known rock bands through the decades. But it also contains a surprising amount of small nods to lesser known artists—the kind you would only catch if you already loved those bands. So I did my best to catalogue what we have going on in the movie. Most of the references have some pretty interesting explanations, and the stickers that show up throughout the film span now only the decades, but numerous genres as well.

As it’s called the School of Rock, I only put time into doing my best to catalogue the rock artists and references, though during the “backboard scene,” labels like “R&B,” “Blues,” and “Hip-Hop” are clearly visible. I highly recommend checking out some (all) of these artists. I might be slightly obsessive, but I just like to think of myself as a music addict ;D I wanted to include as many pictures as I could, but since there are so many, I had to choose just a few. I left out album covers since those are easily recognizable, but grabbed a few screenshots of the awesome blackboard tree and a bunch of the stickers. Enjoy!

Posters:

Poster Collage

Posters from Dewey’s room; clockwise: Sex Pistols, The Who, Ramones

 

Stickers:

sticker collage

Stickers from Dewey’s room and public telephone; clockwise: (First panel) AC/DC, Lunachicks, Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, White Zombie, Voivod, Red Hot Cili Peppers, L.A. Guns; (Second panel) Ratt, Fugazi, Cannibal Corpse, The Chemical Brothers; (Third panel) Godflesh, M.O.D.

Albums:

References:

  • Jimi Hendrix – (when Dewey is trying to sell his guitar)
  • Led Zeppelin – (when Dewey references bands that rock!)
  • Black Sabbath – (when Dewey references bands that rock!)
  • AC/DC – (when Dewey references bands that rock!)
  • Motörhead – (when Dewey references bands that rock!)
  • Spice Girls – (Dewey refers to Katie as “Posh Spice” when assigning band positions)
  • Blondie – (Dewey refers to blonde girl Marta as Blondie when assigning band positions)
  • Neil Peart (Rush – drummer) – (Dewey refers to Peart when handing Freddie the album 2112)
  • The White Stripes/Meg White – (Freddie refers to White when discussing “great chick drummers”)
  • Glam rock/metal – (Billy refers to glam fashion when making the band’s costumes)
  • Kurt Cobain (Nirvana – vocalist/guitarist) – (Dewey calls Zack Kurt Cobain when asking to hear the song he wrote)
  • “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” by AC/DC – (lyrics recited by Dewey in his speech to class the night before the Battle of the Bands performance
  • AC/DC – (No Vacancy bassist’s shirt during Battle of the Bands)
  • Angus Young (AC/DC – lead guitarist) – (Dewey’s schoolboy uniform during the final Battle of the Bands performance is a direct reference to the schoolboy uniform Young is famous for wearing onstage; his burgundy Gibson SG model guitar is also the same model as Young plays)
  • Sex Pistols – (referenced by Freddie when he notes “Sex Pistols never won anything” after the Battle of the Bands show)
  • Ramones – (Zack wears a Ramones shirt during the credits scene)
  • Green Day – (Freddie wears a Warning shirt during the credits scene)
  • “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” by Pink Floyd (lyrics referenced on video/DVD release cover)
  • “Cum on Feel the Noize” by Quiet Riot (covering Slade) (lyrics referenced on video/DVD release cover)

Video:

Video collage; clockwise: Pete Townshend (The Who), Angus Young (AC/DC), Jimi Hendrix

Video collage; clockwise: Pete Townshend (The Who), Angus Young (AC/DC), Jimi Hendrix

Slideshow:

Slideshow of artists; clockwise: Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), The Clash

Slideshow of artists; clockwise: Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), The Clash

Riffs Played by Students:

  • “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath (played by Zack on guitar)
  • “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple (played by Zack on guitar)
  • “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC (played by Zack on guitar)
  • “Tough Me” by The Doors (played by Lawrence on keyboard)

Blackboard:

 

Collage of artists and music movements, part 1

Collage of artists and music movements, part 1

Collage of artists and music movements, part 2

Collage of artists and music movements, part 2

Soundtrack (songs from well-known artists, not songs only in the movie):

  • “Substitute” by The Who
  • “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
  • “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin (this track is surprising since Led Zeppelin is famous for never letting any of their songs appear in film or on television)
  • “Set You Free” by The Black Keys
  • “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks
  • “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” by Ramones
  • “Growing on Me” by The Darkness
  • “Ballrooms of Mars” by T. Rex
  • “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll) by AC/DC – (played by students at the end of the movie as the credits start)

Featured Songs Not on Soundtrack (songs from well-known artists, not songs only in the movie):

Four Music Industry Posts Refocused

This week I threw a lot of notions and facts about the music industry out there, so I thought I would take a moment today to help refocus on them. Rather than write another post and add to the pile of important things to understand, I thought it better to simply restructure this past week’s posts in an easier, more digestible way of reading them. Here’s a short list for a few posts that went up this week, with a short description of each.

1. Two Stories of Sexism in the Music Industry – Two stories of my own experience that illustrate the sexism and gender inequality in the music industry that needs to be rooted out and eliminated. As with the tech industry, the music business has refocused and taken aim at gender discrimination, but these two short examples prove how things need to be better.

The sexism problem that needs to be solved

The sexism problem that needs to be solved

2. The Lie of “Live Won’t Save Music” – The wonderful adage of “Live won’t save music”—and why it’s a flat-out lie. The dynamics of the “live” factor in the music business (including the economic realities), and why “Live won’t save music” only applies to those artists and music professionals still grasping at the old, obsolete business model. An examination on how people need to restructure their thoughts on the music business if they want to be able to create a new, more lucrative business model.

3. Why Isn’t the Music Business Fully Crowdfunded? – Inspired by some things which I heard VC Fred Wilson postulate during the LAUNCH festival earlier this month. Discussions of the freedom that crowdfunding has allowed artists, and why it’s contributing to a trend towards staying independent. More than that, though, an examination of how artists can leverage the dynamic of crowdfunding for a better return in their own pockets.

4. Tell Me Again How There’s No Monopoly in the Music Industry – A simple chart that shows the incredibly monopolistic spiderweb of the major record labels and their subjects. With SONY in blue, Universal Music Group in green, and Warner Music Group in red, it’s not hard to see how three CEO’s (of these respective companies) essentially control all the music in the mainstream. If that’s not a monopoly, I really don’t know what is.

(Click for larger preview) 

The Big Three Major Labels and Their Subjects

The Big Three Major Labels and Their Subjects

New articles coming next week. There’s a lot more in the music industry to uncover, and definitely a lot more than needs to be changed.