Swimming In The Stream

/November 26, 2015

Imagine  what would happen if the car industry became the music industry. Vehicles could be downloaded for free, copied, test driven and replaced at the click of a button. Fewer and fewer people would own cars yet more and more would be driving brand new ones.

Doesn’t make much sense does it?

Welcome to the music industry in the early 21st Century.

One difficult aspect of music production in the here and now, whether you’re an artist or producer, is understanding how to make money from the products you’ve poured your heart and soul into.

Music has always been a highly speculative venture of course, a bit like investing in a pan and shovel and heading for the hills to find gold. But things are changing quickly in terms how consumers access music. It won’t be particularly for the better or worse… but I suspect the effects will be tangible industry-wide. How we react to these changes will be the real test of our adaptability in months and years to come.

THE PROSPECTS OF PROSPECTING

Bands and artist have always been ‘gold prospectors’. The main difference now is that they’re heading for the hills in greater numbers than ever before, hoping against hope to strike it rich. The competition has become immensely fierce.

But now this rivalry is also bringing with it wholesale changes to the way consumers access their preferred music. People are becoming exponentially less interested in owning music and more interested in streaming it at will. The days of CD collections on shelves and immense iTunes libraries on hard-drives seem to be receding fast.

So where does this all lead us? How the hell can anyone make money out of music production if no-one is buying it?

In short, by making fantastic music, embracing the imminent changes and learning how to take advantage of the global marketplace that internet is opening up.

 

ALBUMS, SINGLES & DIGITAL SHOPFRONTS

Depending on how ambitious you are for your music to pay you a decent financial reward, the music you make needs to be produced in a way that is attractive to listeners who are then willing to pay for it.

This doesn’t mean you have to become a total ‘sell-out’, or preoccupied with stylising your music to suit a specific market. You just have to understand a bit more about how the audience you’re appealing to seeks out and purchases their music.

The way I see it, there are far too many bands, solo artists, publicists and managers in this industry with little or no experience of how to promote their wares, and not nearly enough customers willing to pay for the products they offer. It would seem there’s a disconnect between buyers and sellers right now, and it’s not solely about musical taste.

Take, for instance, the traditional album concept. Nowhere is this disconnect more stark than in the way the two parties view this format. Personally I love albums, but without a doubt I’m in the minority these days. If statistics count for anything, current global sales figures highlight one irrefutable fact: that singles are what the vast majority of music consumers purchase. Albums, it seems, mean almost nothing to them.

Meanwhile, most recording artists still view the album as the ultimate pursuit, and for them, success in this form of the game is what matters most. But running in parallel (yet seemingly contrary) with this ambition is their equally important desire to be recognised for the good work they’ve done, and for the music to sell and earn them an income.

But of the literally billions of iTunes downloads and YouTube views, the vast majority are of one song off an album. In many cases, a successful single will be downloaded or viewed hundreds of times more often than every other song on its album release. From a consumer’s point of view, singles rein supreme, and albums are old hat.

So why then are artists so resolutely immune, in the main, to this statistical reality? Launching costly albums into the marketplace at painfully long intervals, and never with enough money to promote more than one or two singles anyway, seems to be a bad plan, at least from a marketing perspective. If consumers want to buy their music one ice-cream at a time, why do musicians – who presumably want to be commercially successful – insist on trying to sell them a whole box?

I fear the ground is shifting out from under these artists without them even realising it. I’d like to think albums still have a strong place in the world of music, but the writing seems to be on the wall for large, costly-to-make, expensive-to-buy 12 song long-players.

When digital downloads took over from CD sales and consumers could hand pick one song from here and another from there, the idea of 12 songs being inexorably glued together as a larger entity went bye bye. It’s perhaps time we understood this fairly obvious fact.

For now at least, regular single releases seem to have far greater impact than albums, as they cause a splash more frequently and keep the interest in your band percolating. They cost less to make, and arguably allow artists to focus their efforts more efficiently. Right now, singles rule and show no sign of relinquishing their crown.

IS OWNERSHIP DEAD?

The other stark reality in 2015 is that the tide is inexorably pulling us into a future where nothing in the world of multimedia entertainment will be owned or valued in the traditional sense.

The idea of ‘ownership’, where you buy a movie or album and sit it on a shelf when it’s not being used, is changing rapidly, though not quite uniformly…

From my own perspective, the recent arrival here at The Mill of the NBN and Netflix has transformed, quite literally overnight, the way we view films and TV.

We’ve gone from being regular purchasers of physical copies of movies and TV shows to video streaming junkies. Whilst we do pay a modest amount for it, we most certainly don’t pay anything like what we would have if we’d purchased these films physically at our local store.

We probably won’t buy another physical copy again now. Our preference for ownership has flipped on a dime and we’re now firm streaming converts.

The same thing is happening in the music industry. More consumers are streaming stuff, and fewer people are paying for physical copies, particularly digital copies. CD album launches that once saw good numbers of CDs sold, now sell far fewer copies unless the artist makes a concerted effort to spruik their sale during the gig, and signs copies at the end of the show. Even then, most people walk out empty handed, or perhaps with a vinyl copy, which indicates to me that if people are going to buy music in 2015, they want it to be cool, novel and/or signed by the artist.

The concept of an album isn’t necessarily dead, but perhaps the writing is on the wall for the CD format. This point was thrown in my face quite starkly the other day when I took a brand new Jeep Cherokee for a test drive, only to discover that, when I tried to put a CD on, there was no CD player!

 

APPLE STREAMING, THE DEATH OF ITUNES?

In the very near future I’ll wager a huge battle for streaming supremacy will take place in the music industry – if it’s not happening already. Apple may win this game, who knows. Perhaps it will be a company that no-one’s heard of yet. Either way, it will happen, and soon. When it does it will have the potential to turn the very notion of music ‘ownership’ into a tangibly antiquated one.

Artists and producers will earn the bulk of their income through streaming, and less from people owning music outright. Digital companies like Bandcamp and YouTube – or their equivalent – will go from strength to strength, and artists will use these convenient digital ‘shopfronts’ to sell their wares globally – music, merchandise, tickets to shows, the lot.

There has never been a more competitive time in the music biz, but nor has global access ever been so convenient.