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

Diagram of CD layers. :A. A polycarbonate disc...
Image via Wikipedia

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?”


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?

What do you mean, I actually have to do my job?: Why the media industries need to STFU and GBTW.

This post is inspired by the MediaHacks podcast, where Hugh McGuire relayed the story/opinion that Encyclopaedia companies were up in arms over Wikipedia, by claiming that Wikipedia was going to kill the business for Britannica, etc.  Hugh, rightly so, called them out on this being a load of crap.  What it DOES do, however, is force Britannica to up their game and really put some thought into what their core value is (is it books? is it making people look smart to their friends by having encyclopaedia in their house?  Is it as an heirloom? is it actually the information) and adjust their business model accordingly.

Media companies by and large have become complacent and lazy, believing their own hype, and (most importantly) believing that they are the only ones who can affect the market for what they’re selling and how.

This particular combination of traits, combined with a healthy disinterest and sometimes even contempt for their customer base (“look what we made them buy AGAIN”) has lead to panic and frequent legal action when the paradigm has shifted via external means.  For example (and this will be the only time I pick on the music industry specifically):

Home taping is killing music
Home taping is killing music

Similarly, when the VCR was starting to become widely available, then head of the MPAA Jack Valenti gave this testimony before Congress ((via Mark Reeder and Slashdot))

“‘I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.’ Jack Valenti said this in 1982 in testimony to the House of Representatives on why the VCR should be illegal. He also called the VCR an “avalanche” and a “tidal wave”, and said it would make the film industry “bleed and bleed and hemorrhage”.

..and of course by 1999, the $16 billion home video industry represented 55% of studios’ domestic revenues, while box office revenues were 22% ((via Video Software Dealers Association via allbusiness.com))

What we’ve seen time and time again is that every time there’s a disruption, media companies first response is to scream bloody murder, try to “unring the bell” of whatever new disruption has caught them off guard (whether it’s Napster, the Kindle, Twitter, BitTorrent, Bloggers covering political events), send lawyers after them and basically do everything an autistic child does when confronted with change they don’t like..

I’m here to say here and now:  Shut the %^#& up and Get Back To Work.

Each of the examples mentioned above were opportunities for each industry to take a close look at themselves and see what their core value was, identify and address consumer needs, and use 21st (and late 20th) century tools to work both harder AND smarter.   Each sector could’ve reinvented itself in the mold of JetBlue, who defines itself repeatedly as “a customer-service company that happens to fly airplanes” ((via WSJ Classroom)).  Instead what has happened in the last 10 years is basically “We know best.  Trust us.” and a lot of head-in-the-sand nonsense.

What’s sad is that companies lack of willingness to take ideas from outside themselves, inability to adjust in a meaningful way to the flattening of the information/access/publishing/sharing curve, and continued hubris in the face of ever-declining revenues has failed to register at the upper echelons of these companies in any meaningful way, and instead has lead to arguments like the one posed by The Authors Guild in opposition to Kindle 2’s new text-to-speech renderer, which allows Kindle owners to hear a mechanized voice ‘reading’ Kindle-purchased books.

“Bundling e-books and audio books has been discussed for a long time in the industry. It’s a good idea, but it shouldn’t be accomplished by fiat by an e-book distributor,”. “They don’t have the right to read a book out loud,” said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. “That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.” ((via WSJ and eweek.com))

…as if the market for Patrick Stewart reading Dickens would suddenly shrivel and die because a speech algorithm could also pronounce ‘Bob Cratchit’.  As if the publishing industry has done anything to futher the audiobook side of things (free podcasts of the first chapters of classic works and upcoming titles? no.  Including download cards in hardcover editions? no.).  In fact, the only thing book publishers have done in the audio space is to give control over and license all their content to…guess what, a third-party distributor, audible.com!

This all goes back to my original point about companies being LAZY (note that I do not mean that the people within them do not work hard).  The same tired interruption-based campaigns that used to work due to lack of alternate options are retreaded over and over for the same tired variations on products, with encouragement to “think outside the box” …but not too far outside, not if it conflicts with the business model.  Metrics are hard-won and not truly analyzed.  Scapegoating abounds.

Discovering, encouraging and empowering an audience is hard work.  The tools for doing this are just beginning to realize themselves.  Now is the time for bold experimentation, not for complaining when the old ways of gaining an audience cease to be effective.  Seth Godin priced the eBook for his “Tribes” book at 99 cents, and now it’s the most downloaded eBook in the history of eBooks.  This isn’t rocket science.

It’s unfortunate that so many skilled, forward-thinking people have been laid off due to the inability of industries to change course.

So, I say unto thee:  Shut The F$%^ Up and Get Back To Work .  Hire a person, heck hire a team of people who can implement a system to figure out what the scary people out there (you know, the people that pay your salaries with their disposable income) expect from you, what they want, what would make them happy.  Listen to the results.  Change the course of your industry’s future.  Your whole reason for existing is to make customers happy.  Your whole reason for existing is to make customers happy. And it’s really not that hard!  If you have lots of VPs who sit around in meetings, fire some of them.  Take the money from their salaries and hire smart people who know how to mine the internet world for actionable information.  Start from the very beginning, see what pisses people off about your company, and fix it.  See what people like about what you do, expand upon it. Time is running out.

You say people are stealing your content, that new technologies will ruin your business, that they must be stopped or DRMed or lobbied against or sued or region-locked or put in jail (seriously?).  I say “figure out a way to listen and get relevant again” or, more succinctly… STFU and GBTW.

Streaming Music Services :: iTunes as XHTML + CSS :: HTML

Rhapsody and other streaming services have always had a bit of a hurdle to overcome. The majority of the market owns iPods, and a slew of bad marketing in the beginning leading to the typical response of “Well, I don’t want to rent music, I want to own it!” What they have not effectively communicated is that what you’re paying for isn’t the ability to rent music, it’s access to the cloud of several million songs with no barrier to experience any of them. I could technically listen to 30 full days worth of music for the same $10 that would get me ONE album on iTunes. Trying to sell this idea to iTunes users used to the STORE paradigm ( (e.g. go somewhere, pick your music, pay for it, listen) vs SERVICE paradigm (pay up front to get access) when it comes to consuming music has been quite a challenge, and Apple certainly isn’t going to make it easier (that is, until the inevitable iTunes Music Rental Model).

I started this blog post with the intention of writing about why Rhapsody and Napster have had a hard time breaking through into the iTunes-dominated marketplace, but about halfway through a point dawned on me that maybe even the ppl at those companies haven’t thought about.

Streaming services are the “functionality” side to music blogs “content” side.

iTunes has been successful because their interface is built around editorial picks, and generally stuff that will direct you to a particular album/video/movie/podcast/etc.Streaming services have never been particularly strong in this area, mostly as a function of the lack of a barrier to “just play anything”. Drawing focus to particular items in their available catalog is counter to the whole point of the experience.

However, there are places online that are very strong in drawing focus at particular items within their enormous catalog: Music Blogs. There are thousands of people who are interested enough in music and what’s going on to dedicate significant time and resources toward filtering content for other people.

If Rhapsody were to position itself as “the music blogger’s best friend” or “no post is complete without a RhapLink”, or something about “the flipside of the coin”, I think their overall listenership/usage would go up.

There are two particular tribes that should be pointed toward streaming services:

  1. Music geeks with a wide-ranging knowledge of different genres and know what they want to listen to at any one point but don’t want to lug their collection around with them
  2. People interested in learning about music from external sources (blogs, last.fm, hypemachine, friends, etc) and then reaping the rewards

As a P.S. One of the big frustrations for streaming service users is the inability for Last.Fm to track their listens. Listening to a song over Rhapsody ends up not ‘counting’ as much as from CD or a file. It turns out theres a quick and free DLL plugin called ScrobRhapsody that will connect your Rhapsody client to your Last.Fm software

For an interesting alternate take on this, check out what Bob Leftsetz had to say about Rhapsody needing to pitch itself as a luxury item.

A guide to creating your first album.

1. go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Random
the first wikipedia article you get is the name of your band

2. go to random quotes: http://www.quotationspage.com/random.php3
the last four words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your
first album.

3. go to flickr’s “explore the last seven days”
third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

From Vicki at Planetary Group