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.

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?

Curated, Part I: Introduction

This post will serve as a brief introduction in a much larger topic that I will cover in a series of posts called Curated. The posts will focus on the difference between curated discovery and real discovery in the music industry. Further posts will follow over the next few weeks, but for today, let’s simply set the stage.

Part I: Introduction

This morning I saw a new “music discovery” site that has taken a detour to try to re-imagine visual discovery. I was intrigued by a couple of things on the site, but as a whole, I don’t really think that the term “music discovery” is the right one to use. Let’s get one thing straight before we continue: curation is not and should not be a substitute for choice.

People need to stop using the phrase “new music discovery” when they really mean finding artists similar to the ones they already know and like. That’s not finding “new music;” it’s tracking based on similarities. This is what services like Spotify, Rdio, SoundCloud, and Pandora do. This is curation.

The term “new music” should (and does in many independent circles) denote music that is not generally known in the mainstream. It’s music that is actually new (created within the past year or two), and comes from an artist without mainstream name recognition. This was what “discovering new music” should be. This is what choice allows us to do.

It’s not about finding the other 10 ’80s bands just like Bon Jovi. It’s about finding that esoteric band from Belgium who released their album in 2010 and sounds like they walked out of 1986 (actually, I did find this band. They were called All I Know and damn could they wail). It’s about choosing to live outside the boundaries set. It’s about cutting down all the red-tape. Music is freedom, and freedom is choice.

There’s nothing wrong with liking what you like; but call it how it is—you’re not really “discovering new music” when you’re relying on an algorithm to make suggestions. Curation is a wonderful thing, but only to an extent. Curation is not wonderful when it becomes a substitute for choice. Relying solely on curation is basically how you end up tracking based on similarities. And that is not the same as “discovering new music.” Don’t be fooled into thinking that it is. Demand more.

And what’s better than curation as opposed to choice? Curation in addition to choice. Things just got very interesting.

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.

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.

The Lie of “Live Won’t Save Music”

The Introduction

Yesterday, I posted my second article inspired by Fred Wilson’s comments to Jason Calacanis during LAUNCH, wherein I focused on his comments about Kickstarter regarding the music and movie industries. The post itself became too long to explain the economics of the paradigm (of the music industry, at least), so I figured it would be better to do so here in a more focused post. So let’s jump in.

The Lie

In the music business, there’s a well-known adage: “Live won’t save music.” This is the argument that many within the established major label machine use to fend off the assertion that free distribution of music would actually help the music industry in the new digital era. The argument is that artists can’t make enough on a live performance to offset losses they would see by distributing their music for free. And in some cases this is true; income from live shows may not be able to offset those losses…for the major label artists, who have huge stage crews, large arena shows, and a long list of people to pay back (not least of which is their record label). 

The Secret

What industry professionals don’t tell you is that live shows are where artists have historically always made most of the money that goes into their pocket. Money from album sales most often gets paid back to the record label and company, whose “signing” of the artist was simply a monetary advance in the first place. In 1993, well-known artist/producer Steve Albini took aim at the expenses squeezed from artists in his essay “The Problem With Music.” Excerpts from the essay clearly detail how the real economics worked behind the scenes.

The Simple Economics

This simple economic reality means two things: 1) That it’s true that major label artists like Beyoncé and Robin Thicke may very well have a hard time making any real money from live shows and will possibly need to continue to rely on the age-old system’s business practices, and 2) That newer, increasingly independent artists can leverage this new business dynamic to their advantage. Whereas their major label peers are essentially tied to the old system (and streams) of revenue, newer artists who are either fully independent, or have contracts with smaller indie labels which afford them more control, don’t need to sell 150,000 albums or fill an arena tour to make a profit. In fact, they will have an easier time of it, precisely because their “stage crew” many times may only consist of a friend from high school watching the merch table.

And this is where Wilson’s comment comes into play, and is exactly right; crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo provide a way for artists (both inside and outside the music sphere) to secure funding for that next tour without being on the hook for ~$400,000 in album distribution and tour expenses.

In fact, there are many artists now exploring the possibilities of free precisely as a way to use their music as a means of marketing to jack up the money they’re able to raise on sites like Kickstarter. By using their music as a “free sample” of their brand, artists are able to explore the dynamic of giving their prospective fans a reason to come out and see them live, buy a shirt, bring a friend—all things that are better for them than the money for one album sale anyway. Music is increasingly being used by these artists as major means of marketing and branding, rather than solely as an end commodity for sale.

You can’t argue with math, and here’s reality: How many times are you compelled to and/or do you buy a song or album? Just once. Why would you buy it again unless you had to? But if you examine the same dynamic with respect to going to a show, or buying a t-shirt, suddenly the answer is “as many times as you want.” It becomes a self-feeding cycle, wherein new possibilities are presented by the power of crowdfunding, and not having to go to a major label for the financing. It boils down to simple arithmetic.

The Album You Had to Buy Over and Over Again

It’s worth noting, also, that the established music industry got used to people buying the same album(s) over and over again because they had to. With each subsequent technological change, that Led Zeppelin album you loved so much became obsolete, and thus you needed to shell out more money for something you already had. Buying music on ’45’s became buying the same music again on LP’s, then again on cassettes, again on CD’s, and then again as basic mp3 files (usually off iTunes).

But something happened during that last transformation: music became distilled down to only the information, sans any physical product, and with the power and reach of the internet, distribution costs dropped to zero. Suddenly, the ability to reproduce and distribute music became the cost of 10 minutes of your time, and didn’t even require the kind of distribution networks that record labels had spent decades building, growing and protecting.

And who was it who lost out the most? The demographic that gleaned most of their revenue from physical album unit sales—the major record labels. But the artists now had a new reality in front of them: mass distribution, but without having to indenture themselves to the “physical CD sales-dynamic.” They were (and are) free to make money where they always have: in the live sphere with grass-roots ticket sales and merchandise sales. Thus it becomes clear that the statement “Live won’t save music” is inherently a biased lie. Live won’t save the old music industry, but those within the industry who are adapting to the new terrain are doing just fine exploring the new possibilities before them.

The New Free/Live Dynamic

Those are the people I would place my bets on. They have no stake in the old paradigm, and are happy to push it aside to see what the new free/live dynamic can do for them. This is where the real money in the music industry will be in the next decade. Not grasping with frail fingers at a business model quickly fading away, but exploring with wide-open eyes the opportunities that “free/live” afford both those in the music trenches, and their prospective fans. Don’t be fooled; there’s still a ton of money and opportunity in the music industry. You just need to know where to look.

Why Isn’t the Music Business Fully Crowdfunded?

Last week, I posted an article detailing VC Fred Wilson’s thoughts on investing, in which I drew on a few things he’d stated during his interview with Jason Calacanis at LAUNCH. This time around I want to explore another statement Wilson made during his time on stage which I thought received way too little attention at the time. In fact, I’m quite shocked that more people haven’t really latched onto this sooner.

At one point during the conversation, Wilson mused, “I don’t understand why the music business isn’t fully on Kickstarter,” to which there was some murmuring (I heard sitting in the audience), but no real discussion thereafter of that particular comment. While I was just as interested in the next point that Wilson discussed with Calacanis (the subject of my previous post), I couldn’t (still can’t) get my arms around how something so stark to many people seems to fly under the radar. But before I get too incoherent, let me back up and explain my exasperation.

The wonderful thing about Kickstarter (or any of the other crowdfunding platforms) is the freedom that they give to artists. In the case of the music industry, the freedom I’m referring to is the ability to not have to sign to a major record label in order to have money to finance an album, tour, video, etc. Instead, artists can go directly to their own fanbases and raise the required capital from them, thereby side-stepping the very real consequence of having to sign away some amount of creative control (ever hear of master tapes?) to the major label. As a result of this, artists consequently side-step the dynamic of accruing a similar sort of debt with the label itself. (I will explain the deeper economics at play here in a later post).

The dynamic of crowdfunding has changed the entire paradigm of the music industry. Wilson’s comments struck me so much because of how true they really are. He doesn’t need to be a guitarist in a band to understand that the freedom that services like Kickstarter give content-producing artists is invaluable (clearly the reason he invested in Kickstarter in the first place). His own “I don’t understand why” comment exhibits his understanding of the services that used to be out of reach of artists, which are now readily available thanks to crowdfunding dynamics.

Of course, crowdfunding alone can’t and won’t control an entire vertical like, say, the music industry. It’s one part of a larger mechanism. But it’s nonetheless a shift in the paradigm of music production, distribution and consumption that was previously unavailable. Where crowdfunding really comes into play is when it totally disrupts the age-old adage “live won’t save music” (but that’s an argument for a later post).

Here’s the real point: Fred Wilson is an investor, not a guitarist or aspiring singer. Yet he sees the value of crowdfunding so much (investment interest aside) that he doesn’t understand why any artist would forgo the opportunities presented by these new services. And I’m inclined to agree with him (and I’ve been in the music industry now for years). So here’s the real question: if he gets it, and I get it, don’t you think that all the new artists out there get it too?

It just might be a very short time until the music business is fully (or mostly) crowdfunded.

Navigating Swift Currents

As we come to the end of 2014, things seem quiet in the music-tech arena—at least for now. Yet it wasn’t too long ago that things were blowing up between Spotify and a number of artists over royalty rates and compensation practices. No doubt the most famous of these disputes (this year) was between the streaming service and popstar Taylor Swift. In what has come to be known by some in the tech and music communities as SwiftGate, Taylor Swift abruptly pulled her entire catalogue from Spotify just around the same time that she released her new album 1989. The response was nearly biblical.

All I saw for weeks on end was a back-and-forth exchange of words, accusations, arguments, and media coverage between Swift and Spotify. Even the service’s CEO Daniel Ek took time to release a public statement responding to Swift’s qualms with the service. This was definitely a story with legs—it just didn’t seem to die down.

Yet what struck me the most were not the statements made by either side, or even the statistics each used to bolster their respective cases. I was more focused on the amazingly divided response that Swift’s actions and statements generated from her fans. Personally, I’m ambivalent—I enjoy some of Swift’s music, though not all, and would not call myself either a major fan or a hater. When Swift wrote her op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, though, there were immediately a couple of things I didn’t agree with. Perhaps the most presumptuous statement I thought, though, was:

“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

This statement, though most likely made with the best of intentions, comes across to many within the music community as narrow-minded and out of touch. First, I readily agree with Swift that music is indeed art; art is subjective and highly personal to each person who experiences it. But art is not inherently rare. Nor should it be. This is an outdated concept that smacks more of a stuffy art-history academic than a modern musician. Art as a commodity, or even simply as a means of expression, should derive value from its inherent existence and experience; economic value is secondary to the very nature of what art is. In stating that art requires qualities of rarity and economic value in order to be valuable as art, Swift thus demonstrates a misunderstanding of what art functions as at its core. The concept of music as free is a notion that I will tackle in a later post (probably more than one), but what I will say with regard to Swift’s analysis is to point out how narrow its definition is. There are a great many artists who distribute their music for free, either online or as free giveaways at shows. By insinuating that these artists are devaluing their own art by making the decision to freely distribute, Swift does two things: 1) she demonstrates a worldview that is essentially narrow in its scope, and 2) she effectively succeeds in insulting these artists, more or less stating that they’re not smart enough to “know better.” It’s been a while since I performed as an artist in my own right, but even I still take offense to the above insinuations. Am I really to believe that Swift never played a pass-the-hat acoustic set at a Starbucks or diner somewhere when she was just starting out? [1]

But back to the response to Swift’s sparring with Spotify. If the goal was to generate a media response, then such a goal was certainly achieved. The responses from Swift’s fans in the general music community were far more diverse than even I would have thought. They ranged from those championing her decision and statements to those swearing they will never buy another Swift album from here on out (of course, the latter of those is hardly a statistic that can be confirmed at present). Yet what I focused on through this whole maelstrom of attention and biting back-and-forth comments was the way it could very conceivably (and most likely did) affect Swift’s fans on a psychological and emotional level.

Music, as stated, is emotional and highly personal. There’s a certain identification that one feels when one identifies with a particular artist, song or album. The psychology of wearing a shirt with an artist’s moniker on it effectively marks one as flying a flag for that artist—they become an extension of oneself—an extension of us. We use an artist’s music as a way to expand our sense of expression to the world. That makes our identification with that music highly volatile. Snap decisions like Swift’s have the opportunity to aggressively backfire (depending on one’s point of view, I suppose). Thus I question the long-term effect of Swift’s actions and statements. Yes, the immediate effect was fantastic for her: sales of her new album 1989 blew through the roof upon it’s release on Oct. 27, 2014. It opened at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold over 1 million copies. But I can’t help but focus on the gripes of those fans who felt personally betrayed by Swift’s removal of her catalogue from and subsequent sparring with Spotify. Are those fans going to go see her on tour? Buy a shirt? Tell their friends about her new album? Probably not. The way I see it, Swift has effectively traded long-term benefits for short-term gains. One thing I know about music and artist-loyalty is that it can be a fickle beast. The possible (probable?) effect of dividing her fanbase I think will constitute a major challenge for Swift to overcome in the future. She will have to spend time, energy, patience (and most likely money) trying to reconnect with those fans she might have alienated or even lost.

While it’s possible that the short-term gains may have been worth it to Swift and crew, I think the next currents will prove more difficult to navigate in the coming months. I think Swift has a lot of work ahead of her, and a lot of damage-control to partake in (ironically, not unlike the damage-control that Metallica faced in the wake of the whole Napster controversy). [2] I suppose only time will tell. We’ll reassess in the new year.

 

Thanks to Alyssa Shaffer, Charles Jo, Mom, and Dad for reading drafts of this. (And to Paul Graham for reminding me that thanks are as much in order for assistance as much as publication of the final product).

 

Notes

[1] Within the music community, the term “pass-the-hat” most readily refers to a (usually) acoustic set where no cover charge is required, and the artist relies mostly on the generosity of the audience to throw a few dollars in a hat or the guitar case to show their appreciation for and enjoyment of the performance.

[2] As many may remember, when Metallica waded into the thick of the Napster controversy in 2000 (most visibly driven by drummer Lars Ulrich), their rabid fanbase subsequently split into those who supported Metallica’s decision and those who vehemently opposed it. The alienation of a portion of their fanbase proved a challenge that took Metallica a number of years to surmount (and arguably one they are still surmounting). It affected both their sales of merchandise/tickets and their reputation within the music community.