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Some thoughts on the failure of disruptive thinking in online music technology companies
Content is not king and it is not rare. Value will be created around content versus content itself – Rishad Tobaccowala
My talk at SanFran MusicTech on Strategic Brand Partnerships that I referred to here went much better than expected. I say that, as I was initially concerned that my fellow panelists (weirdly, no females) were all from the music industry in some shape or fashion.
It turns out that my concerns were misguided. In the green room before the talk I was intrigued by some of the ideas that were being kicked around. At one point, Bruce Flohr of Red Light Management who manages the Dave Matthews Band, said something along these lines – If the content holders (the bands,) the technology companies and the brands don’t all execute together at the top of their game, then there is a real danger that the brands along with their dollars will step away from the table. What he was getting at was that behind execution (ie the campaign) he and his artists want to see results, metrics, data and value. Flohr gets it. The rest of the panelists – Jason Ross of The Bowery Presents, Steve Rennie of Ren Management and Jason Feinberg of Concord Music all were in agreement.
I know I have a reputation for being too cynical and outspoken about the recorded music industry, but who could blame me if we take a hard look at what’s been happening for about 15 years? What I was hearing in that green room was that some major music industry players had really caught up with what’s the Internet and mobile platforms can offer in the digital music space. They also accept the idea that strategy and research, not just tactics, are the backbone of a successful project or campaign.
Maybe now it’s time for developers and technology companies to play catch up?
I mentioned Luke Willams and his book Disrupt in part 1 of this post. In reading it I’d become attached to the idea of challenging the “idea” of the music industry and ended up asking the conference audience would it matter if recording companies completely disappeared? The idea behind a provocative statement like that is to try and get people who are thinking about the music technology space to think differently. Maybe then we could get beyond the issue that I hear the most – ‘labels charge a lot of money for licensing their content.’ If you are only worrying about how much labels charge for licensing their content you are probably overlooking other issues that may actually be smaller but could be issues that you should be far more concerned about, such as: Who will use our product? Why will they use it? Who are they? Does our product/service actually solve a real problem?
What would a world without record labels look like? Would it be better or worse? And here’s a challenge to thinkers, entrepreneurs, developers and music tech folks who want to deliver the next new, new thing; it’s a result of kicking some ideas around over lunch yesterday with my friend David Ewald – Why would you build a music app for the iPhone that competes with the Safari App? I’ll explain what I mean later in this post.
Which brings me to Why does Pandora exist?
Earlier in the day I had attended a roundtable that was hosted by David Porter of 8Tracks. David had just recently launched an 8Tracks iPhone App and was asking us for tips and suggestions about how to keep his App download numbers up. It was an interesting discussion to sit in yet I was disheartened to hear the litany of assumptions from developers. There were a lot of ideas for sure, but the elephant in the room was the fact that no one mentioned user research (David did mention that there “was pent up demand for an App from his users” but that had a few of us wondering why he had chosen to give the app away for free…) They also hardly mentioned musicians or music fans. It felt like being in a bubble.
So I asked the question – Why does Pandora exist? I want to set the record straight. I am not suggesting that Pandora shouldn’t exist as many people find the service satisfactory, I simply wanted to know from some of the experts in the room what problem has Pandora solved.
After much grumbling and many people professing that they couldn’t live without it, the best that anyone could come up with was “because radio sucks.” – by which they meant terrestrial radio stations on the FM dial, I presume. I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason to create a new version of “radio” online. In other words, was the problem solved? I would argue it wasn’t. The creation of Pandora was very, very expensive – it appears to have raised around $30 million or more in the last decade if I read this Wall St Journal report correctly – and apart from some useful interactive features it’s not really that far removed from the radio listening experience of terrestrial radio stations, especially as, just like terrestrial radio, it has an advertising revenue driven model as part of its business plan. It gives music fans control over what they would like to hear but is it a game-changing product?
What if all those millions of dollars had been used to support KCRW and KEXP and other stations like them? They provide a very good offline/online radio experience. The bigger question is this though – was the creation of Pandora or the future development of more streaming music Apps that rely on advertising for revenue, really the best idea that music technologists have?
Some more disruptive thoughts: What if someone built a music service that was more expensive to subscribe to than any other service, that gave the music lover an exceptional amount of value in many areas? Why not? In Disrupt, Williams points to the succes of Monocle magazine whose publishers avoided the magazine subscription “pricing cliché”:
..the pricing cliché in the magazine industry is a subscription-sale model, where publishers offer a significant discount for annual subscriptions. Typically, buying a subscription is 50 percent less than buying from a newsstand. Then, along comes a startup lifestyle magazine called Monocle, and instead of the traditional subscription-sale model, it created a subscription-premium model. The disruption? “Buying an annual subscription is 50 percent more than the cost of buying from a newsstand. [Edit] In it’s first year, the magazine’s circulation was already 150,000, and it’s currently sold in more than 50 countries.
It’s not about price, it’s all about the added value to the person buying the product or service.
So back to the idea of not building an iPhone or iPad App that competes with the Safari Apps in those devices? (Or the YouTube and Pandora Apps for that matter..) I ask why anyone would compete with the Safari App because a) it works extremely well, and b) there are many, many websites that provide good music services. Of course using the Safari App requires good reception via G3 or wi-fi but so do streaming music apps. If you, your tech company or startup is considering building an App that provides a music experience for the user there is much to consider. Going back to Williams’ book he suggest you might consider product clichés, interaction clichés and ala Monocle, pricing clichés.
Also there could be questions like these, with a hat tip to David Ewald:
Why are we doing this?
Who will use anything we make?
Why will they use it?
Who are the people that will use it?
Will it be better?
Should we be asking this?
And finally there’s the challenge around content itself. Someone in the audience at the conference mentioned studies that showed young people are watching more music than ever, where “watching” meant YouTube. Young people spend hours on YouTube exploring and digging for music. What if you created an App that helped young people find what they’re looking for on YouTube more easily? Also, more and more young people are creating content rather than consuming it. How will your App rise to that challenge? For e.g., Soundcloud is very popular most likely because it allows users to make and share something..
Some of my students at the University of Oregon where I teach digital strategy, are on a trip to New York this week and one of them, Gaston Figueroa, decided to quickly build this, a site that tracks their Twitter activity, one that works very smoothly in mobile too. Yes, it’s simple, but it was quick and other than the time spent building it (about 3 hours) it was free. I hired him to spend the summer working with us here at North. The idea is to design and build things quickly so we have lots of things to throw away as we try and get to the real deal; the product or service that provides a currently undefined value for our client’s customers.
The future lies in the hands and minds of young people who bring fresh ideas and new thinking to the table. It is not in developing yet another streaming music service, either web-based or App-based. Clearly we should be hiring young people and allowing them to be disruptive. Or at least, music technology companies and startups should go out and research those young people and ask them what they really want.
[Update] I found this music experience worth my time – A Daft Punk mashup visualized.
The future is always rosy, isn’t it? A day or so left until 2011 and the predictions have been darkening my screen like a murder of crows. How I come across them is a matter of context, and I mention context because back in July I was reading an article by Brian Solis called The Hybrid Theory Manifesto: The Future of Marketing, Advertising, and Communications. It’s in three parts! Here’s part one. I don’t consider myself a simple man but, as my mother used to say back in the UK, I could make neither head nor tail of it. It’s ok, I know it’s my own fault.
Brian’s context flattened mine or, probably more to the point, as I don’t consider social media marketing the second coming, perhaps our contexts weren’t aligned.
One of his arguments in part 2 was this – Content Context is King. Context may well be king but I thought that the strikeout through the word content rather neatly summed up the year in digital for me. It was increasingly hard to avoid the pissy discussions about how there had to be an either/or scenario in which one idea just had to outmode the other. And how “new” agencies would be better than “traditional,” and how “digital” was going to wipe the floor with us, and if you worked in a “traditional” agency you looked like zombies with hollowed out eyes and .. you get the picture. It was exhausting.
The most levelheaded response to the digital versus everything else flap that I saw was from W+K’s Iain Tait. Anyone struggling with the white noise around digital vs traditional should watch this and listen carefully.
As Iain points out, we are not post-digital as digital is nowhere near peaking, it’s very much in its infancy. It’s worth noting that the Bauhaus movement came about 500 years after the beginning of the Renaissance – things take time.
So 2011 will be just another year – where we put our collective energy will be important. Here’s some thoughts from a few people I follow on the social web:
Rishad Tobaccowala – On Mobility:
2011 will be the year where the word “mobile “ is replaced by “mobility.” This expanded definition will include mobile phones, tablets and the increasing interconnectedness of devices, which allows for the mobility of content.
Fred Wilson – On mobile economics:
I’ve been saying for a while now that I think mobile economics will trend toward web economics as the mobile web goes mainstream. In other words, the business models that work best on the web will ultimately work best in mobile.The corrolary to that is that the business models that don’t work well on the web will not work well in mobile in the long run. And that includes Tablets.
Khoi Vinh – On David Hockney’s iPad paintings:
First, they imply an endorsement of the touch devices like the iPad as a tool for making art by a big (huge) name artist whose fame was forged in the pre-digital world. That credential matters to some people, because it demonstrates, however weakly, that this new and unfamiliar device is not just a passing fad.
Russell Davies - On Post-digital:
I had lunch with Iain the other day and he was telling me how annoyed he was by the term ‘Post Digital’. Or perhaps, more specifically, by how some people are using it. And, I must admit, I’ve been getting more and more embarrased by it myself. Now, coining or promulgating a bit of jargon gives you no proprietary rights over it, I know that. It’ll end up meaning whatever people want it to mean. But, just for the record, this is some of what I meant and what I didn’t.
Engadget – On Skype video calling for iPhone:
Skype’s official iOS client has finally sprouted the ability to make video calls, allowing iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and fourth-generation iPod touch users to share real-time video amongst each other and users of Skype’s Windows, Mac, and Linux clients along with the ASUS Videophone
I’ve spent nearly my entire career working in agencies – an experience that I found dissatisfying enough that it drove me first to create this blog – largely devoted to critiquing agencies, and then to starting my own agency to address many of the very points Peter is making. But the thing is, when I read Peter’s post, I found myself going to my keyboard not to support him, but to call him a jerk.
As you’ll note those extracts, although including discussions around digital marketing, are mainly about mobile. I used them because clearly we are going to keep seeing a huge uptick in what Rishad T terms Mobility. Digital thinkers will keep pushing boundaries but the mobile platforms are where the action will be, as Fred Wilson suggests. Yet, as the Virgin Magazine on the iPad disaster shows, developers and media companies have a long way to go in understanding some of the platforms.
Oh, and “traditional” agencies will survive.
I know you really want to know what the biggest trend in 2011 will be right? Well here’s Charlotte Hatherley. Happy New Year!
From one of my favorite thinkers – Rishad Tobaccowala
Insight brings humanity and people into the innovation equation. Since much innovation is eventually consumed by people, it is critical to understand peoples unstated needs by watching, listening and learning from their behavior. After all, the best innovation solves a problem, finds a better way of doing something or brings tangibility to an unspoken gap.
Fresh is a better word than new. New, really is about time and the calendar and not about a way of thinking. Fresh implies something different from the status quo. It is about a never seen or never thought about approach. Today, we see so many of the same images, and find so many of the same things all over the world, that we really wake up when we see or come across something fresh. So fresh that it fits no cliché and often requires its own language.
Connections is a about the process where the human mind takes the same letters of the alphabet but puts them together in a unique way to create something that is far more compelling than the parts that went before. All the components for innovation existed. The magic was in the connecting.
Read the rest of this post here.
First published December 2009.
Towards a New Music Business Model And The New Thinking That Is Required.
“The future does not fit in the containers of the past.” – Rishad Tobaccowala
“..we are now in an era where spectatorial culture is giving way to participatory culture”. Henry Jenkins director, Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT.
I give thanks once again to Brian Zisk and his incredibly motivated crew for inviting me to speak at the upcoming SanFranMusicTech event on December 7th in San Francisco, and later at the SXSW Conference in Austin in March 2010. Brian is one of the organizers of SanFranMusicTech and is moderating the panel that I will be on at SXSW. [If you've never attended SanFranMusicTech I would encourage you to do so. It's a wonderful, energetic mix of entrepreneurs, tech experts, musicians and thought leaders in the digital space. In other words it's not just for musicians or techies...] The panel discussions will revolve around the premise of how, or if, musicians are using the tools available to them on the Social Web.
I have written this essay as a prelude to the upcoming panels, both to outline my views on the subject in advance, and also as a way to organize my thoughts and past essays into one place. The debate surrounding online music distribution still evokes passion from critics and supporters alike, the most vocal being musicians who believe that I am working to make music free online and therefore deny them income from CD sales. Nothing could be further from the truth, I simply argue that musicians need to monetize everything around their musical output and stop dreaming that CD sales will one day return to previous levels; where the 2009 equation means 100k is the new 1mm, 10k is the new 100k etc. I should point out for the record that I am focusing almost exclusively on non-mainstream, independent musicians. [Although there is no reason at all that mainstream, commercial artists shouldn't be doing the same thing.]
It Has Been Almost Fifteen Years
It has been more than a decade since I was last fully immersed in the recorded music business [and then only peripherally as GM of eMusic.com,] and I have long held out hope that musicians would ditch the old media model, both the business and the manufacturing sides, and fully embrace the huge possibilities that the unfettered social web allows them – asymmetrical distribution as opposed to old media distribution silos, two-way communication with music fans as opposed to old media PR, and marketing tactics and an unparalleled universal sandbox in which to experiment.
I am still waiting. Unfortunately my patience is now wearing thin. And my impatience is no longer with the record labels, it’s with the musicians. Despite all the data and untold amounts of writing about the decline in music sales, mainly the fall off of CD sales, musicians appear to be sitting on their hands. The reason I am no longer impatient with record labels is because their business model is transparent – they exist to make money from musicians. On the other hand, musicians are [or ought to be] immersed in their art; no one guarantees a living from the arts, but talk to the average musician about internet music distribution and you will often hear the same refrain – “downloading and file-sharing is killing music and denying me a living..” [BTW, that is not the best argument in the for and against wars of online music distribution; in the USA musicians conveniently forget that MTV and commercial radio is built on the back of musicians and those companies don't pay royalties for that privilege. You can include MySpace in there too.]
I have long argued that musicians need to drop the notion of making money from CD sales through record labels and concentrate on making money from the experiential awareness that surrounds their brand; a brand they own, no one else. The downside to this for musicians is that they need to get organized and work hard, or arrange for what I call the “fifth Beatle” to help with online communications, selling merchandise etc. Consider this from Russell Davies
Creating music is only the first step to creating something valuable and timeless. For instance, David Byrne played a building. Music released as part of an event is the future – Radiohead’s release of In Rainbows was the first step toward the album release as event, if it’s an album at all.. How it’s done is also important. The container has changed forever. Remember what Rishad Tobaccowala has to say to advertising agencies trying to embrace the social web – “The future does not fit in the containers of the past.” It is no different for bands. The organizing principle of recorded music is now in the hands of musicians, not technologists, not record labels. Consider this or perhaps release your music like this.
As I have written before: “Control has moved from the few to the millions of many. If dull labels and dull bands keep offering dull, flat, non-experiential product – e.g. a CD, they will go the way of the Dodo. Consider what Cirque Du Soleil provides as an experience compared to Barnum and Bailey’s circus. Or Burning Man compared to your average music festival.”
Valuable and Timeless – Some Examples
So who is working at the edges of independent rock music for instance? Below are but a few examples of musicians currently providing what I feel is valuable and timeless work; I consider valuable and timeless as ‘worth spending time in the present with,’ as time is our one truly finite resource; art does not necessarily exist to entertain us, it should fill our time with wonder.
From left to right: Karin Dreijer Andersson as Fever Ray, Radiohead‘s 52 minute long ‘Scotch Mist,’ Dirty Projectors Stillness Is The Move video, Sunn 0))) live as reviewed by Sasha Frere-Jones, Patti Smith, back in the 70′s performing Horses on British TV and DJ Spooky performing on Earth Day in Washington, DC. [I know I'm walking on thin ice here as music taste, as with one's taste in art, is highly subjective, but...] Click on the images to link to content.
Online Music Businesses Cannibalize Each Other’s Model
As we approach 2010 we can now look back at the decade we are leaving behind and arguably acknowledge that only Apple, with its iTunes software and well designed and ergonomic hardware, was able to move the needle when it came to monetizing the MP3 download – this I know from just a cursory look at my Warner Music royalty statements. The one-stop iTunes package, coupled with the affinity that consumers feel when engaging with the Apple brand, simplified the downloading of music for millions of people. Those with more technical knowledge continue to use torrents to access music and film downloads.
Subscription services such as Rhapsody and EMusic continue to survive, but judging by their subscriber numbers, they have only created niche businesses supported by a minority of music fans. Recently News Corporation has signaled its willingness to enter the fray and two founders of Skype will soon launch Rdio, yet another subscription model. These two are following in the footsteps of iLike, LaLa, Spotify, Google Music and now MOG. Clearly the music access space is becoming crowded which only leaves consumers with paltry options, all based around similar offerings. None of this bodes well for the future of music, or for musicians, if we consider that income from these services has come nowhere near the level that it was from CD sales a decade ago. And by the way, I do not align myself with those that say the Internet is killing music. On the contrary, I argue that the major record labels and the RIAA, through their relentless lawsuits campaign, destroyed the trust and goodwill that music fans felt when interacting with music brands [musicians, artists, bands,] and by doing that they pushed music into being a good, a mere commodity. We need new thinking….