(blogs let others gawk)

September 24, 2010

Using the legal system for cheap press

Filed under: General,Music Rant,Political Rant — Tags: , , , , , — Bryan @ 5:59 am

Some of you may have last year about Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam after his conversion to Islam) throwing out to the press the idea that he might consider suing Coldplay over a suggested infringement of his song Foreigner Suite via their chart topping song Viva La Vida. His song is a 30 year old track that likely nobody under 20 has ever heard of.

I’ve listened to both songs. Ah… yeah. Whatever. Keep dreaming the dream.

Anyways what got me was the transparently lame marketing ploy that this was. Yusuf is a washed up 70’s rock star looking for a fresh 15 minutes of fame in the U.S. while he tours his new album. He did one of those brilliant Prince like moves several years ago when he converted to Islam and changed his name to something nobody can remember or would even associate with his music. Hey I’m all for religious freedom. He seems happy with his life and I could really care less about his personal beliefs. From a marketing stand point this wasn’t the best move unless he was going to ditch his legacy work and start with a clean slate.

But that’s not what he did, so his P.R team has had a nightmare of trying to expose his non-core fans to the brand change with his name so they get as many baby boomers out to his tour dates as possible. They also need to hopefully scratch out a few new fans for his new work in the process (of course he’s been trying to get new fans for years and hasn’t gotten much traction, hence the need to dig up boomers for ticket sales). Yusuf is alot like Jimmy Buffet in this regard. Yawn.

Anyways, his P.R. team has went so far as too play the 9/11 sympathy card in going on about how his name was mistakenly on the DHS terrorist watch list preventing him from flying into the U.S. for several years. That alone got him a day or two of front page news when he flew in to start his tour.

This then got me thinking about how a lot of people sue other people simply for the press coverage. Front page brand exposure is expensive! But front page exposure where the news is talking about your frivolous lawsuit is free. Personally I think the whole practice is unethical and a waste of public resources but there are clearly people out there without ethics or an appreciation for the fact that our court system has real work to do. This activity is the basis of why so many companies quickly pay out on settlements fast before the story can make it into the news cycle.

People! Isn’t there a better way to handle all of this?

July 14, 2010

The industy is dead! Long live the industry! (Won’t someone think of the children!?!)

Since I touched on the subject of media transition touched on briefly in my post about going mobile friendly, I think this is a good chance to highlight some historical hysteria regarding entrenched business models collapsing to be replaced by new ones.

Let’s specifically look at the history of music distribution over the last 100 years.

Going into the 1900’s piano rolls and sheet music were the predominant methods of music distribution. Granted there were also broadsides, but those were considered a medium for the working class and were typically lyric sheets with no music score, commonly notated with statements like ” sung to the tune of -fill in the blank- “.

Even in a time where the average worker earned around $600 a year, 25-60 cents for a copy of sheet music was a premium purchase for many. That said, sheet music was big business and when the phonograph came around, sheet music publishers saw the new medium as a threat and fought tooth and nail to kill the medium. “Oh! We can’t let this happen”, “This will destroy the traditional family gathering in song”, “nobody will learn to play music”, “someone think of the children”, etc…

But, the reality on the ground was that pianos are expensive both to purchase and maintain. On the other hand, phonographs are cheaper to produce, cheaper to maintain, easier to operate and you didn’t have to be able to play music to enjoy them. In the end music producers actually sold more copies of music because they now had a larger audience and the companies that adopted to the new business model profited greatly.

Most sheet music publishers failed to adopt the medium hardly failed to die. Granted some of the fears were well founded, the days of the families gathering around a piano to sing together for leisure were lost (if they truly were all that common to begin with). But sheet music is still produced and sold in most music stores. Granted these days it’s mostly piano and guitar based, but, those are the popular instruments for people learning to play music so it only makes sense.

Let’s roll ahead to the next big jump to radio. When radio hit the scene phonograph publishers went crazy. “Oh! We can’t let this happen”, “People will quit buying music when then can get it for free over the radio”, “This will make it impossible for musicians (sic, publishers) to get paid for their work”, etc…

On the contrary to most concerns, radio actually increased sales for two reasons. People were exposed to a larger variety of music and they like the convenience of listing to a song on-demand so naturally they went out to buy their favorite songs in order to have them available to listen to. Publishers that added value to their product saw even better profits (e.g., B-Sides) among core fans.

Then over then next 60 years not much changed aside from improvements in recording and distribution. Granted there were fights over the introduction of cassette tapes and fears that people would just copy music instead of buying it. The same thing happened with CD based music. But don’t forget it’s always been a steady lowering of the bar of the cost of entry into the world of listening to music contrasted against the publishers desires to maximize profits from that same music. Also, people on the whole will more often than not pay for something when they feel it is being sold at a value they perceive as fair. Don’t believe me? Ask Trent Reznor (of the band Nine Inch Nail) or for another example in a different entertainment industry, ask the video game publisher Stardock. Both have spoken out at length about the success of this business model to their sales.

Since the who knows how long the common perception (supported by much anecdotal evidence and statements from artists) is that artists get paid little if nothing for their work when they publish music through a publisher and that publishers takes all of the profit from sales. The big money for the artists more often than not is in concerts and live performances and endorsements. A popular song will generate larger ticket sales and everyone wins (hopefully). This situation set the scale for next big crisis for publishers. The Internet combined with the modern computer.

In the mid-to-late 90’s the barrier of cost related to copying and sharing music finally broke down and anyone with a computer and internet connection suddenly found a plethora of methods to acquire music to listen for free (sometimes pirated, sometimes not) that weren’t available before. And the net result? Sales increased! What’s that? That doesn’t make any sense. The music publishers told us that people stealing music was loosing them money. Wrong. People downloading music was gaining them customers. The money they were supposedly loosing was based on estimates of “if every single downloaded song on the Internet had instead been purchased we would have profited this much”.

… publishers used the same logic with radio by the way.

The reality was that people who used to be pigeonholed to a particular music style suddenly had a inexpensive way to explore new music that they might not have been willing to pay for (on the risk that they might not like it). When they discovered a new artists or new genre they enjoyed, they then frequently went down to the record store to find more of that music to purchase. You had punk rockers buy classical music and country lovers buying speed metal.

But the industry could only focus on the “lost sales” not factoring in that these weren’t really lost sales. Anecdotal evidence from the time indicates that were more like samples. To compare, yes, we know there is always going to be the guy who lives off samples at the grocery store for dinner, but most people actually buy their food and the samples are good because they primarily encourage regular customers to try things they never tried before. The guy living off of them is a cost of business.

I always said at the time that music companies should have jumped on this immediately and put their entire catalogs online at 56kbps bit-rate (radio quality), with an easy click to purchase the higher quality version priced as a convenience item. They would have made a killing, but instead they decided to fight their customers (and still do). Effectively deciding to sue anyone who eats a square of cheese at the deli counter without buying the whole wedge.

When asked years later why they pursued this course of action, one executive answered that they were so scared of the changes happening and knew that they didn’t have a clue about what was going on that they feared everyone was out to rob them and that even the consultants couldn’t be trusted. So they fell back on the only tool they could trust, their lawyers.

Sadly this fight is still playing out even to this day but in the last year some significant changes have happened that probably mark the end for some of the large publishers in this space. The barrier of entry for recording equipment has vanished and a lot of bands, frustrated with publishers and finding greater profitability by simply going solo on the Internet is increasing. When you strip away all of the fluff YouTube is now the largest publisher of music on the Internet at this time. So large that other publishers now effectively turn their content over to them just to get exposure for their artists.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Business is always evolving and those that learn and adopt quickly are well positioned to profit from their observation skills. Others are destined to dig in their heels and ultimately become a footnote to history.

….some references that helped in the creation of this article are listed below.

  • Media-Morphosis: How the Internet Will Devour, Transform, or Destroy Your Favorite Medium: http://www.internetevolution.com/document.asp?doc_id=171555&
  • http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc1/WagesandWorkingConditions.html
  • http://www.bls.gov/opub/cwc/cm20030124ar03p1.htm
  • Perspective: Radio/photograph was going to destroy print: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/murphy.html
  • Sheetmusic and broadsides…: http://popmusic.mtsu.edu/dbtw-wpd/textbase/broad/broadside_ex.htm and http://www.phonobooks.com/BirthRec.htm
  • http://cultureandcommunication.org/deadmedia/index.php/The_Victrola
  • Radio was going to destroy the records: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_radio#Legal_issues_with_radio (although the Internet distributed music has revolutionized the way records are sold, it still hasn’t destroyed them)

March 14, 2009

What’s the next big music scene?

Filed under: General,Music Rant,Perspective — Tags: , , , , — Bryan @ 10:14 am

I have a rather extensive music collection that I’ve built up over the years. In the 80’s I was one of those guys out scouring the stores looking for obscure 12″ remix’s from the Art of Noise or buying German imports of Tangerine Dream on CDs since they hadn’t been released in the U.S. yet. I was always willing to buy new music sight unseen based anything from trivial things like album cover art to information on who contributed to the release (I checked out a number of albums solely because Jeff Lynn or Trevor Horn produced them) or even the consistancy/quality of other releases distributed by the label (ZTT, Mute, etc…)

In short, I’m a fan of just about every kind of music except most Pop-Country (singing about the dead dog, cheating wife, broken pick-up truck, ugh!) and some elements of Jazz Fusion (songs that make me tense?!? That’s a whole article in and of itself).

So anyways, every decade or so it seems various forms of music bubble up into the mainstream consciousness. In the 60’s you had lounge acts and what we now consider classic rock bands, 70’s folk music disco and punk, 80’s metal and dance, 90’s techno, grunge and rap… and all through this good old rock and roll and R&B. I’m not saying these various styles started in the decades listed above, but they clearly had popularity peaks and visible evolutions of their forms during their peaks. This is from a U.S. perspective of course.

One of the things that added to the mix in my opinion was commercial marketing and limitations on exposure due to the cost barrier to both consume and create in the medium. Let me explain. Up until the late 80’s only place you could hear new music was through the local radio station. This limited you’re exposure to diverse music forms (both old and new) to pretty much what the local radio station was promoting or had a preference to play (the station format). In fact, even up through the 80’s your best bet to hear something new and innovative was to hunt down a college radio station where DJs were mingling the music from their hometowns and had rare restrictions on experimenting (short of not violating local obscenity laws… and even then…). This dynamic also caused these stations to get lots of music submissions from artists trying to break into the industry since there was a greater chance of airplay there.

The first big hit to this dynamic came through cable television and ultimately channels like MTV which suddenly allowed someone to hear music that they would have never heard outside the local college circuit. For instance in the early 80’s the USA network would run a show overnight called Night Flight that would feature music videos from bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Bauhaus, etc… In my opinion that this and other programming like it helped drive awareness of the early generations of electronic artists that, in part, helped seed the Techno/Industrial scene of the 90’s. In fact one of the most culturally significant bands for both Rap and Electronic forms music might have never been heard if not for MTV. That would be The Art of Noise.

The next big evolution came in the 90’s with new distribution methods. Instead of trading tapes, you used the Internet to trade. This not only changed the scale of things by giving the average user an easier way to share and consume but also eliminated the last big boundary of physical geography. One of the interesting things that was observed during the peak of Napster in the 90’s was that when people suddenly had the world of music to explore not only were sales increasing (contrary to the music execs yelling “fire”), but people were buying music outside of the typical genres they would normally have lived within because experimentation had no tangible cost aside from the time involved in downloading and listening to the song. Ease of use and no financial penalty encouraged experimentation.

Now, coming into the end of the first decade accessibility has now created a level space where any given listener can be exposed to any style or genre of music from any era. Games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have introduced teenagers to both 30 year old dinosaur bands and underground fringe groups alike and it’s all new. In fact the only true new revolutionary sounds that I’ve been hearing have been out of the mashup communities who are re-purposing a century of music into a new art form. You can see examples of this from early pioneers of the style such asĀ  the Evolution Control Committee, to the Bootie sessions or most recently the Kutiman’s ThruYOU mini video series that I mentioned in my last post. Granted these are natural extensions of the DJ remix scene from the last 20 years.

Of course you would have to say that the very dynamic nature of the mashup scene which relies on unlicensed music is a train wreck waiting to happen and I suppose my own gut feeling that a commercialized mashup scene would be the death of it only reinforces my notion that this may be the next evolution point of music. As with any music form that faces a potential break out there is always the concern that constraints introduced by the marketing side of the house will limit creativity, but the reality is that frequently, limitations are what drive true creativity (look at British censorship via the BBC in the 70’s).

This is all very cool, but is this the next big thing? If not what?