A rant about the music business, and other tone-deaf industries.

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First off, this may be a little different in tone than my usual posts.  It is repurposed from a music industry mailing list I’m on (I spent a decade in the music biz.. for more on that, find out about me).

Some context:  The rant came about in a thread discussing the “revelation” from the NY Times that the DOJ is looking into how Apple treats the record labels when it comes to exclusives, implying that there may be some unfair business practices, especially in regard to their continued veiled threats about pulling their promotional support if labels give exclusives to competitor Amazon’s MP3 store.  While I was never on the receiving end of these kinds of conversations, I can say for a fact that it definitely is in keeping with the tone of conversations that happen between the iTunes store staff and major labels.

Apple has a 90% market share of all digital music sold, and 25% of all music sold is sold through the iTunes store.  This is a staggering number for a single entity, and they have made no bones about using their sway to get their way.  Long ago, the major labels decided that instead of spreading exclusives around to seed a balanced marketplace, they were going to bet everything on iTunes each time, since ‘that’s where people are buying music’.  This forest-for-the-trees strategy led them to where they are today, with a full quarter of their potential earnings from their main source of income being controlled by a group of not that many Apple employees, a company that treats music as a loss leader to sell iPhones.

Anyway, someone on that list posted a response to the article basically calling people to task for the common refrain of “its hard to compete with free”, and wondering why the industry seems to have accepted this as the context for the conversation, ending with this line:

“When is the industry going to GET OFF THE GODDAMN MAT and stop complaining and start telling people what to buy again and how to buy it?”

To be fair, the tone of his post was pretty ranty, and I do not mean to pick on him specifically, but here’s my response.

This is the worst advice. The industry as a whole (especially the majors) has zero space at the table of “What music should i buy” right now. It’s questionable whether they ever did, really (beyond the “hey, we control all the ways you could possibly consume music, so for all you know, what Z100 plays is the only music that exists”)

There are SO MANY ways for people to discover new music right now. INFINITE ways. DJ mixes, last.fm, pandora, having a friend give you a hard drive worth of music in college, free showcases, tv commercials, Abercrombie and frakkin Fitch…i could go on (so could all of you)

What happened this last decade (post-napster) is that majors (and many indies, don’t fool yourself) happily traded Credibility and Authority for short-term Staying Afloat. THEY SUED THEIR FREAKIN CUSTOMERS. Imagine any other industry doing that? Imagine Toyota suing Hertz? Imagine Heinz suing you if you took an extra squirt of ketchup at mcdonalds?

The amount of short-sightedness, tone-deafness and general disdain for their customer base was and is IMHO unprecedented. But what else to expect from an industry formed around egocentric reality-challenged cokehead creatives gorging on high $ that consumers were forced to pay due to lack of any other distribution. Of course, now its run by conservative, boring, unininterested-in-the-art-of-music lawyers whose only job is to squeeze as much revenue from the existing models as possible so the SVP of Rock Promotion Northeast region can keep their
freaking job.

This isn’t a collapse of the industry. This is the deflation of a ridiculously overvalued commercial enterprise to a new equilibrium based on music fandom, not plastic disc consumption. This is what the industry SHOULD have been making in revenue all along if they weren’t allowed to charge $25 for a Britney CD.

More people listen to more music in more ways than in any time in history. The response could be “well, how can we make that a great experience, and provide additional value to the experience that only we know how to do, in order to encourage people to spend money on our products”. It could be “The internet has made music the lifeblood of more people throughout the world than ever before. What can we do to keep that flowing, to enrich people’s lives with the back story and the history and our depth of expertise and archives and resources”

Instead it’s When is the industry going to GET OFF THE GODDAMN MAT and stop complaining and start telling people what to buy again and how to buy it?”

Really?

As a music fan who has spent tens of thousands of dollars on vinyl, cassettes, CDs, tickets with a 50% service charge, $25 t-shirts, and who also has a considerable collection of music i did not pay for? As someone who LOVES music with my heart and soul and would LOVE to have an industry dedicated to helping me find my new favorite album, to giving me the stories behind the music and the people involved, to sharing in the excitement I have when I first hear a song that will end up rating high in my pantheon of life moments? As someone who worked in the industry for a decade, trying to fight boneheaded decision after boneheaded decision and getting only blank stares and scorn in response?

Fuck off and die already.

I’d be interested in hearing what those of you who don’t have any experience in the music biz have to say.  Does this jibe with your understanding of how it has worked?  What say you, as a customer?

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  • Sam M

    Dude, you really ought to have a “Contact Me” link on every one of your pages. Love your POV and your articulation of it. I’m wondering how I start a dialogue with you about my music project to see if there isn’t some synergy between your knowledge-skill-experience set and our value proposition to the music industry. You have my email address. Peace.

    • Hey Sam-

      There are lots of ways to connect with me here now :) Thanks!

  • Sam M

    Dude, you really ought to have a “Contact Me” link on every one of your pages. Love your POV and your articulation of it. I’m wondering how I start a dialogue with you about my music project to see if there isn’t some synergy between your knowledge-skill-experience set and our value proposition to the music industry. You have my email address. Peace.

    • Hey Sam-

      There are lots of ways to connect with me here now :) Thanks!

  • Wow. This is a succinct and eloquent rendition of the song I sing every night to the kids who complain that everyone attending their shows doesn’t want to buy the album, because they’ve already downloaded it for free.

    Katie hits it on the head – make a product that stands in any medium; don’t make a product for a medium.

    Such a great blog. Subscribing now.

  • Wow. This is a succinct and eloquent rendition of the song I sing every night to the kids who complain that everyone attending their shows doesn’t want to buy the album, because they’ve already downloaded it for free.

    Katie hits it on the head – make a product that stands in any medium; don’t make a product for a medium.

    Such a great blog. Subscribing now.

  • BRAVO. Seriously, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Stop focusing on the MEDIUM and instead focus on the PRODUCT. The product is the music and the brand. The medium is the CD, the vinyl record, the cassette tape. The industry got caught up for far too long basing their entire business model on a medium, instead of the actual product they were selling.

    I’ll refrain from ranting, but wow – I agree.

    -Katie

  • BRAVO. Seriously, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Stop focusing on the MEDIUM and instead focus on the PRODUCT. The product is the music and the brand. The medium is the CD, the vinyl record, the cassette tape. The industry got caught up for far too long basing their entire business model on a medium, instead of the actual product they were selling.

    I’ll refrain from ranting, but wow – I agree.

    -Katie

  • It sounds like Apple is playing a very old-industry style of game with it’s advantage in a new-industry market and they deserve to be reined in by the government (90% market share of downloaded music is for all intents and purposes a monopoly). However, going back to the bad old days of buying discs in cardboard and plastic isn’t the answer.

    I think you’re right, Jeremy, for content creators the mission is all about building relationships with fans. If the traditional record labels can help artists in that mission, they’ll have a future (look at what Jack White is doing with his record label, Third Man Records). If they can’t, they’ll die.

    But they are going to die kicking and screaming, clawing after every penny within their reach, rightfully theirs or not. And government, comprised as usual by the corrupt and unimaginative, will at times enable them in their crooked demise.

    I would like to see us move to a much more fluid and open, almost creative-commons approach to copyright. But that’s dreaming…

  • It sounds like Apple is playing a very old-industry style of game with it’s advantage in a new-industry market and they deserve to be reined in by the government (90% market share of downloaded music is for all intents and purposes a monopoly). However, going back to the bad old days of buying discs in cardboard and plastic isn’t the answer.

    I think you’re right, Jeremy, for content creators the mission is all about building relationships with fans. If the traditional record labels can help artists in that mission, they’ll have a future (look at what Jack White is doing with his record label, Third Man Records). If they can’t, they’ll die.

    But they are going to die kicking and screaming, clawing after every penny within their reach, rightfully theirs or not. And government, comprised as usual by the corrupt and unimaginative, will at times enable them in their crooked demise.

    I would like to see us move to a much more fluid and open, almost creative-commons approach to copyright. But that’s dreaming…