Thursday, August 27, 2009

Is Sweden ahead of the streaming curve?

By the end of 2009 we might have a better idea of what exactly is going on in the digital world. When we can eventually analyse the accounts of record labels (a task I'll leave to someone more qualified)we might start to understand where the future is - whether it is downloads, physical product or streaming. Until then we have opinion and conjecture.

Published reports/features eminating from Sweden suggest that streaming is starting to take over. This feature from Swedish Wire states clearly that the Swedish arm of Universal is already earning more from Spotify than it is from itunes.

It seems like a bold statement, and others have their doubts. I imagine a few accountants in artist-management offices are very eager to see those account spreadsheets and royalty statements.

Spotify is of Swedish origin and Swedish Wire clearly likes to celebrate Swedish success, some of which may be due to recent Swedish legislation aiming to crack-down on downloaders and file-traders. With the UK Government suggesting similar enthusiasm for a crack-down perhaps the same will happen here - on the day after the legislation came into force Sweden noted a 30 per cent fall in web-traffic. Possibly the file-traders were spending their day trying to find the loop-holes.

As I indicated last week (below), I fear that artists now hold the key to Spotify's future. Its success in the home-market may be an indicator of future trends, or it may just be a red rag to the big bulls in the artist community.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Spot the streaming problem

I have previously noted some of the ongoing difficulties plaguing the music industry with regard to downloads and streaming.

Everyone seems convinced that a subscriber-led streaming service will be the solution to illegal P2P downloading. Others have tried, but Spotify seems to be the industry and consumer favourite at the moment. The Guardian thinks it knows why, repeating a belief that has been circulating for some months - the labels have shares in Spotify

The Guardian seem to be suggesting that the artists will not see this cash, an allegation I'd have to question. If this belief begins to circulate it will lead to an inevitable exodus of artists from Spotify. Bob Dylan has already left the building

If it's all in simple mathematics then the digital problem still exists. I read in this week's edition of Music Week that Spotify in the UK is processing 10 million streams per day, which should result in a sixty thousand pound royalty payment (on standard current terms) to artists/labels every day.

If Spotify is currently getting £82,000 per month in ad revenues and has only 17,000 paying £120 a year for the premium service then there's a significant shortfall. The digital solution is still not an obvious one.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Free is still free, in Radiohead World

Backing up words with action, that's why we still love Radiohead.

The new song is available for download, free of charge:

While you're there you may want to pay for this one:

In memory of Harry Patch, proceeds from which go to the Royal British Legion.

Still Britain's most vital band.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A fair price?

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, or so they say. There are many though who believe that the internet is a free market for both thought and art. It’s been an interesting time for this debate – or at least for anoraks like me who have a vested interest in it. Let’s try to summarise the past few weeks, with appropriate links for you to explore further, should you wish to do so.

The RIAA vs. Tenenbaum

The Record Industry Association Of America (RIAA), the US record label trade body, sued student Joel Tenenbaum for illegally sharing licensed music via a P2P network. The RIAA has been quite active in the last few years in suing individuals whom they have been able to prove were involved in illegal file-sharing – uploading copyright controlled music for the use of others. Few of the cases get to court but Joel Tenenbaum sought the backing of Harvard lawyers to create what may become a landmark legal case.

In other countries the music-industry bodes, like the UK’s BPI, have pursued a different approach to file-sharing by actively targeting sites that provide the means/platform for individuals to ‘share’ rather than targeting individuals. So they’ve gone after Kazaa, Pirate Bay, etc. like (the original) Napster before them. The crux of this thought may be based in PR; they wouldn’t expect to get the sympathy of the media or other individuals by chasing down poverty stricken teenagers or students. The BPI has also made a major (media) case of pursuing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to control their individual users, something the ISPs, in the main, have resisted.

The crux of Tenenbaum’s defence has been that it’s unfair to pick on one individual for something that everyone is doing, and that his case should be subject to a ‘fair-use’ policy. The labels argue that if it’s illegal then it is illegal, end of.

The repercussions will go on, as will file-sharing because (as the next sections show) the World seems to have become skewed with regard to the rights of musicians.

60% don’t think musicians should earn from online music

In a recent survey of 2000 web users, 60% said they didn't think musicians should receive royalties when their music is downloaded online. The survey, conducted by 'network integration specialist' Telindsu, asked 2000 consumers a very specific question. Did they agree with this statement: I think musicians should derive royalties from their albums, singles and music videos that are downloaded online? Three fifths (1200) disagreed.

OK, it’s a small sample, and I have no statistical break-down on the age of the participants – a point which would probably influence the results quite radically – but I would hope that we’re all surprised that this many people question a musician's personal right to earn from their music.

It is probably the case that the record labels and copyright industries are doing a poor job at explaining why it is that the very concept of copyright exists in modern society, and the artists themselves have probably not helped.

When sites like Napster first emerged those musicians who came out publicly against them received widespread public disdain. The mainstream media – slavishly following public opinion – echoed these opinions and some artists, wanting to seem ‘down with the kids’, joined in by criticizing their record labels – a point which may have led people to believe that file-sharing is actually OK.

Those were the early days and we’re now in a mature, technologically advanced, marketplace – the arguments need to change and the artists need to stand up for themselves again. It’s a simple message really: ‘if you steal my music, how do you expect me to be able to afford to keep making it?’ Who is going to pay, not Chris Anderson it seems.

Chris Anderson’s long tail and the ‘free’ philosophy

Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of future-techy magazine Wired. He’s what most people would call ‘a player’, a man of influence. One of his key creations was the terminology ‘the long tail’; originally a Wired article and later a book the long tail refers to the economics of the internet age – where the future of business will rely on selling lesser quantities of a greater range of products over a longer period.

His new book seems to argue that the future of business is actually ‘free’. I haven’t had time to read it all but the crux appears to be that if something can be made available digitally then it should also be free. That this information is contained in a book currently retailing for £18.99 might seem a bit ironic but I’d encourage you to obtain a free read (or listen) here.

To be fair to him he’s not essentially saying that people shouldn’t get paid for their work – otherwise he’d have probably wasted his time writing a book - but that there should be different methods of payment and probably different pricing structures. Personally I’d worry about who sets the price and how, in the future, we’re ever going to make money from any artistic endeavours. Do we have to get out our begging bowls, or is it all about the PR?

You gotta PRay to get paid

Spotify launched a clever PR offensive this week. The message was that they’ve developed an app for mobile use of the service but they were concerned that apple might not approve it for use because if you can stream things then why would you buy them from itunes? They were subtly accusing apple of potentially being anti-competitive; a commercial giant abusing its market-dominance? Heaven forbid, who’d have thunk it, perish the thought, etc.

Common consensus is that file-sharing may be a thing of the past if people can stream any music they want, for free. In the UK Spotify is our leading exponent of this – and very good it is too, I’m using it as I write this.

Educated commentators have always been concerned that it’s not a good long-term model and that Spotify can never hope to pay the labels & artists what they will eventually demand for the rights. Most Spotify users currently use the free model which gives you an advert after every four songs, but as every user will know the variety of advertisers and content isn’t vast, suggesting that the Spotify business model is very reliant on people upgrading to the £9.99 per month premium offering.
Notably the suggestion is that the mobile model will only be available to premium, i.e. paying, users and may therefore be the prime route for Spotify to take. If apple were to turn it down then as the key player in the mobile + music market they’d be dealing a serious blow to Spotify’s chances – and potentially the music business as a whole since it’s largely believed that the labels have a share in Spotify. Hence this week’s PR efforts.

Is there a conclusion?

Amusingly there was a banner ad on Spotify as I was using it, for Chris Anderson’s book. The caption was ‘get free for less’. As far as I can tell, free is free – but if no-one gets paid then nothing (of any worth) will get made.
Musicians have some work to do to illustrate the fact that they have to get paid, that people can’t live without money – unless they live with their parents of course.

If we assume that most of the people involved in file-sharing, those who think musicians shouldn’t earn from their online rights are under-25 then we may begin to understand why they do what they do, and think what they think.

Kids don’t understand the costs of living, some of them are barely aware that money doesn’t grow on trees. Through their influential role and hold over children musicians could help us educate them about economics – what things cost and why they should pay for them. Perhaps if they understood that some musicians have to live hand-to-mouth to create their art they’d be less willing to steal from them. Maybe.

The blogger's guide to artist management (part 2)

Having established (below) that I didn’t make a great job of it, you’ll hereafter appreciate that this fact doesn’t prevent me from sharing my opinions on the subject of music artist management. Sounding semi-educated without testing that ability is the role of every commentator, skilled, experienced or otherwise.

So, you want to manage talent? Frankly it’s a tough gig, and probably getting tougher. Breaking a band these days is harder than ever – there are more routes to ‘market’ or to the audience in general, but finding the right one and ‘exploiting’ it successfully is extremely difficult.

The future is a difficult territory to map. A manager needs to be aware of trends and understand the elements which will favour his or her act best. Some of this can be gleaned from looking at history and the career path of similar acts. This will be despite the fact that your act might like to think that they’re one of a kind.

In the past the aspiration of every artist was relatively simple, they all wanted to get a record contract, a deal with a label, in order to get their music released into the world. Success could be measured by the size of your contract, how many labels were fighting over you and what the winning company were prepared to put behind you.

People can now sit in their bedrooms and get music into worldwide circulation, getting people to notice and appreciate it is a different matter though. Getting people to pay for it is harder still.

The amusing, or distressing, thing is that after all the hype about ‘freeconomics’ and the ability of artists to create their own social networks thru and with their fans, this has still not resulted in bands having the ability to create their own break-through to global success. The latter element still seems to revolve around finding a large company to manufacture, distribute and effectively market your music. No-one has yet managed to do it solely; no-one can do it without help.

So, what are the roles of the manager? Part advisor, counsellor, life-coach, solicitor, publicist, entrepreneur, accountant and music business expert – combine some or all of those elements and you may be successful.

Everyone talks about the only money for artists now being in live performances, but in order to gain an audience you have to have created a name for yourself – and this is the element which remains the most difficult. A good manager has to know how to ‘cut-through’ and to make an act ‘stand-out’

A good manager acts as a conduit between the artist and the world at large, allowing his charges to create and vent their artistic temperament whilst he effectively ‘sells’ it. Some acts are capable of doing both but they are something of a rarity. If I were to list the key attributes a manager needs it might go something like this:

• An unstinting belief in his/her artist(s) tempered by a good sense of commercial reality.
• Deep pockets.
• An existing or recent link to a semi-successful act.
• A knowledge of the market – generally and specific to their act.
• Common sense.

Sounds relatively simple, but rarely is. The most difficult part might actually be in managing the expectations of the people you’re working with. It goes without saying that most acts have to possess incredible self-belief, a problem which finds most managers jettisoned – even when they may be on the verge of success. The roadside is littered with managers who found themselves surplus to requirements as a band signed to some label or other – simply because the label knew someone who ‘could do a better job for them’. Artists are frequently blinded by the promise of success; you can never expect the same loyalty that you may waste on them.

Given that it’s such hard and frequently unrewarding work, why does anyone take it on? Inspiration and belief is everything – occasionally you come across an act who you wholeheartedly believe needs to be heard by many more people. When this moment comes you’re possessed by a compulsion to do something. Whether you work in the music business or just love music these moments are like revelations, epiphanies – when you’ve had one you can do nothing but your best to make it work. That being the case I can only wish you luck.

The bluffer's guide to artist management (part 1)

I once thought I'd be a great band manager. Lacking in any real musical ability but having a deep love of music it seemed the obvious choice, a potential career path to run alongside my existing music journalism (which, frankly, has never paid). Then I tried it.

It was the mid to late 80's; the specific point in time has become slightly blurred by the passing of even more time. I was friendly with a number of bands in the general Birmingham area by virtue of hanging around in the wrong places, writing for local media, broadcasting for the BBC (locally) and promoting the odd gig on a random basis.

I had knowledge of music, media, marketing and publicity. I still have some of these skills, partly amplified by time and experience. Consequently I was invited by my friends in a band we should call Red Shoes (because that's their name) to help manage them.

Music managers of the time fell into three possible categories -

Close friends of the band who didn't mind cold-calling to get gigs and helping them to hump the gear around.

People with too much spare cash (but often not enough) who wanted to be in the music business, or to at least say they were.

Ex-musicians or recording studio workers, or people with existing 'successful' bands looking to expand their 'stable'.

None of the above was a reliable formula for success, but there seemed to be a glut of talent around and most of it went un-noticed. Sadly Birmingham was not considered 'cool' in music industry terms, certainly not on a level with Manchester or even Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield or Cardiff - all towns/cities that have been deemed to have a 'scene' at any point in the last thirty years.

Although the whole Stourbridge scene blew up in the period where I could've conceivably said 'I was there' and I knew a few bands that went on to great success there were a great many more that disappeared without trace. Were it not for recent developments you may have been able to say the same of Red Shoes.

That Red Shoes were accomplished musicians was a given, they wrote great songs and performed them well. The interplay between main vocalist Carolyn and guitarist/co-vocalist Mark was the core of the band and each was the perfect accompaniment to the other, personally and musically.

They slightly defied classification, something I should've played more on - albeit that this was a time when the best way to sell something was to compare it to something else. Right now we'd have termed it alt. folk/Americana but I don't think I'd even heard the term Americana at that time.

It was a period in time where r.e.m. were about to become mainstream but the vogue was for scuzzy indie guitars, shoegazing or electro-pop, Red Shoes weren't easily pigeon-holed and most labels didn't really know what they'd do with them. Perhaps my failings were in not being able to elucidate this for them - this is how it's going to work, and this is how you should sell it.

I probably lacked the self-confidence or self-belief to do this effectively. The one A&R man I did convince of their talents similarly lacked the budget and confidence to make it work, though he spent some time trying. He eventually quit the music business to become a missionary in Africa. I genuinely hope I wasn't in any way responsible for this.

This could easily have become another music business sob-story. Inexperienced manager wrecks hopes of genuinely talented band. For a long time it looked that it might go that way. I had made the mistake of combining friendship and business, things that rarely prove compatible, and when mixed neither usually survive. But........

Earlier this month Red Shoes released their debut album, Ring Around The Land. A masterful piece of work, completed with talented collaborators who understood and appreciated their art. You could say that it's at least 20 years too late, but there's no such thing as perfect timing - fortunately for them great music is timeless.

The full story, written by someone who can write and has a better understanding of music than me, is here. It is worth your time, this is a classic of the 'good will out', and true talent will overcome all adversity - but only as long as you stick at it.

Part two - the proper guide to band management is above.

Another qualified album review

The Red Shoes guide to Freeconomics is here, tells you a little of what you need to know about breaking through today, it was always about relationships:

pop is dead?

From the millions of words expelled into the stratosphere following Michael Jackson's death, one phrase rings truest: we may never see his like again. Take that in any way you chose, my point is that the king of pop may never be deposed - pop careers no longer have that longevity, new artists do not have the potential to sell the same quantity of music, artists are not allowed to develop that way. The king is dead, etc.

It's a problem that the music industry needs to address but seems unable to do so; we just do not appear to be creating mega-stars with cross-over potential and lasting appeal. There were many factors that contributed to Jackson's success but a combination of talent and timing was the primary one.

To this you can possibly add persistence. You may not have realised it but his major breakthrough album, Off The Wall in 1979, was his fifth solo release. It also followed a four year gap since his last album. The four initial solo albums were characterised by their lack of major singles - approx one per album - and 73's 'Music & Me' could justifiably have been called a flop.

Compare Robbie Williams' fortunes on his first solo release - he was in the similar situation of having been in a popular band, but the unfamiliar one of almost being dropped when his album looked like flopping. He was saved by the single, Angels, picking up heavy airplay but it was touch-and-go. Had he been dropped at that time he'd probably never have recorded another album and would've currently been back touring with Take That. It's open to opinion as to whether this would've been the best thing for everyone.

Current artists do not enjoy that level of backing from their labels, whatever the size of your deal it would normally be expected that one flop = dropped. Having taken a battering over many years labels cannot afford to fund risky prospects anymore, nor have they been keen to do so for some time.

This is not to attack record companies per se; accountants and bean counters have taken over most industries and we're all looking for the fastest-fix to financial constraints. There's no such thing as easy-money but can you really blame the labels for trying to guarantee success with short-term measures? It's all about protecting the investment.

The other problem is the market itself and the route to reach it. When Michael Jackson finally bloomed into pop mega-stardom in the 80's he was aided by the fact that there were fewer media outlets and they were powerful. The audience was concentrated on a smaller number of radio stations, magazines, newspapers and TV stations, meaning that a key record release could reach a maximum audience with substantially less effort than required now.

He also had the timely and simultaneous rise of MTV to exploit and the only way to really own the songs was to buy the albums. Will the planets ever align in the same way again? Who could potentially attain the same level of stardom, will any other pop star be known in every small town in every country of the world?

I know of no such artist, all the genres are so carefully segmented now that there are few edges to be blurred. Usher might be a very famous RnB act, Eminem might be a very famous Hip Hop act, Beyonce might be a hugely successful soul/RnB act, and they may all have crossover hits but none are ever likely to be a global phenomenon.

Another remnant of a bygone age? Talent and timing were everything, and the rest is 'history'.

slack blogging

I know. I've been slack. I'm about to post a few entries that originally featured on my weekly newspaper-site blog or here to be precise.

They are random thoughts on the state of the music industry, collected here to keep them in a sort of rational order, or possibly an irrational order. This will allow me to add appropriate links and shorter thoughts in the coming weeks.

That's the theory anyway.