Two Ideas for a Bigger, Better Music Industry

We have come a long way in the music industry since the first faltering attempts to sell music online in the mid 1990s. A couple of personal anecdotes (names withheld to protect the guilty) from those years illustrate just how much music industry attitudes have changed. A top UK band manager raged in one meeting, ‘get [my band] off the internet’. A top record label CEO told a company conference, ‘we think the internet will prove to be like CB radio’. 10 4 good buddy!

Behaving badly and getting away with it

Public perceptions of the music industry have changed too, and continue to evolve. What made it attractive as a career to a certain kind of person before the millennium, is perhaps best summed up by this misappropriation and misquotation of Hunter S Thompson:

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.

That the original was about TV, not music, and that the twist was added, just serves to demonstrate the sense that success in music was about behaving badly and getting away with it. The potency and validity of that idea seems to have been draining away fast in the 21st century. One of the most enlightening studies of the music industry’s war on internet piracy came not from an economist, but a professor of marketing, Markus Giesler, who looked at how attitudes changed over a period, casting the undoubted disruption almost as an argument between lovers. The title, ‘Conflict and Compromise’, tells us a lot about modern commerce, and music is no exception.

There is too much in Giesler’s paper that is too good, but I shall pull out a quote from his conclusion:

consumer heroism also plays a formative role in directing the historical process of market evolution

Yes, consumers are heroes, and are neither passively compliant, nor victims of whatever tricks the music industry might want to play on them. Consumers do not exist merely to solve our cashflow problems.

So here are two big ideas, that between them will do much to improve music for all of us who value it beyond its ability to convert clicks into cash.

1 we must be guided by a model of the kind of consumer we hope to engage.

In music I would say that our ideal consumer is knowledgeable, about music and artists, and about culture with all its facets, and able to connect between music and other forms of art and craft. Our music consumer is interested in the world too, and what music can do to bring comfort, joy, freedom, ideas, into the many dark places as well as our comfortable developed societies. They are not the super rich. It would be absurd to ask that 99% of the world should be paying for music; but what about pricing within reach of 66%, as a start? And finally, the ideal music consumer is ethical in approach and habit, always choosing the fair and sustainable over a short term buzz with dubious provenance.

2 we must remove the risk for our partners who innovate and invest to carry our music into the world.

We should license our partners long term, so they can plan to improve the consumer experience through many iterations. We should be willing to trade some short term benefit for long term stability, so that music licensing risk is never again mentioned in statutory stock market filings. Within the music industry we should collaborate to present our partners with a complete set of copyrights, and a complete set of information about the music. We should take perhaps a seven year, rather than a one or two year view. Our ideal partner is one who will over many years invest to support music with their networks and their infrastructure, and return revenue so that we can reward the creators and investors and regenerate our industry.

Growing up in public

We are having a debate now in the music industry about transparency, about data, about interdependence and its risks for us, and for how we can continue to work together. That some of this debate is leaking into our collective conversation with consumers seems to me to carry its own risks. Do artists want to be more transparent about their own business? Or do they only want the rest of the industry to be more transparent to them? Should we be lifting the kimono fully on the small group of writers and producers that dominate chart pop? Does the music consumer have a right to know whether the string section got paid?

If we continue to go into this debate as though we are unaware we are being observed and judged by our ideal consumers, we will be in danger of perpetuating the perception that we are an underserving industry, that each of us is simply out to get what we can no matter whom we swindle in the process. But if we can get over ourselves and concentrate on being fit to serve our ideal consumers and our ideal partners, a bigger and better music industry awaits us.

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