Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Classical Music marketing

I love Greg Sandow’s blog on the future of Classical Music.

Classical Music has its own unique set of problems within the many problems of the music industry as a whole. But unlike many pundits, I don’t believe the illness is terminal and Greg Sandow seems to be one of the few people giving intelligent thought as to potential cures.

He has some interesting thoughts on the traditional audiences and their attitudes to the Artist and Repertoir choices made by classical recording labels, which I’m not qualified to comment on, but I think there are also some obvious (and easily remedied) marketing issues that I am.

Classical Music enthusiasts complain about dwindling sales but the ability of classical recordings to reach new audiences is being held back by the same people who want the genre to remain elitist and won’t accept change for fear of ‘dumbing down’ or not doing things the way they have always been done.

The idea that Classical Music requires some sort of specialist, trained ear to really appreciate is pure nonsense and there is no reason why it should be marketed in the apartheid way that is currently is. Rock magazines talk about Reggae. Jazz magazines talk about Hip Hop. Most real music fans have a very catholic range of likes. What makes Classical Music people think they are so special?

I know plenty of people with tastes for long, challenging, instrumental, beat-less pieces of music. They listen to classical music if it is on labels like ECM or Rune Gramafon and promoted via blogs and websites that carry other styles of music that they also like. In fact I know a lot of people who obsessively seek out this kind of thing. They wouldn't think twice about buying a collection of string quartets or an album of orchestral music if it was presented to them in this way.

But they won't know about it if it’s only reviewed in Classical Music publications and they won't buy it if it has a picture of a violinist in an evening dress on the cover.

I’ve never understood why the design surrounding Classical recordings is always so fusty. It’s as if the audience should be reminded that the music is centuries old and god forbid they confuse it with something that has any relevance to contemporary life.

People involved in producing, performing and marketing Classical Music should pull their heads out of the sand and start seeing themselves in the context of a wider culture. There’s a great opportunity for someone to start a Classical label that is sophisticated, thoughtful and even just a little bit cool. Anyone game?

Monday, June 21, 2010


I hadn’t heard this story before I read it on Tom Peters’ blog recently:

A man approached J.P. Morgan, held up an envelope, and said, 'Sir, in my hand I hold a guaranteed formula for success, which I will gladly sell you for $25,000.'
‘Sir,' J.P. Morgan replied, 'I do not know what is in the envelope; however, if you show it to me, and I like it, I give you my word as a gentleman that I will pay you what you ask.'
The man agreed to the terms, and handed over the envelope. J.P. Morgan opened it, and extracted a single sheet of paper. He gave it one look, a mere glance, then handed the piece of paper back to the gent. And paid him the agreed-upon $25,000.
The contents of the note:
1. Every morning, write a list of the things that need to be done that day.
2. Do them.

This made me smile because I have a near-religious belief in list-making.

I live and die by writing things on a list and my brain really doesn’t function well without one. My (largely unscientific) theory is this – trying to remember things clogs up your head. If you’re carrying a lot of stuff around in your short term memory, it’s harder to devote clear space to problem-solving and ideas. I never memorise phone numbers and if you ask me what I’m doing for the next week, day or even hour I can’t tell you without consulting my list. Once I open that notebook, however, it’s all their. Every last detail.

My listing is not an empty exercise. If it goes on the list it absolutely gets done. Equally, if it’s not on the list, it almost certainly does not.

I used to keep separate lists for different parts of my life – shopping lists, lists of things that need doing around the house, work lists subdivided by client, project etc. These days it all goes on one list. They are all things that have to get done one way or another and it helps me make more efficient use of my time if I’m considering them all equally. It’s not unusual for me to have a list that will contain big life-changing decisions along side items like collect dry-cleaning and buy shampoo.

I have a deeply embedded work ethic but I’m not a workaholic. What the list does is allow me to deal with procrastination and actually get through some stuff. But at the same time it allows me to set expectations and not become overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks. It’s a great feeling to look at a list with a lot of black lines through it. A colleague of mine once called it ‘The Joy of the Strike-through’ and I knew exactly what she meant. It makes me feel that no day as been wasted if something on the list gets crossed off.

I realise all of this makes me sound a bit uptight but it’s actually quite the opposite. I’m not a naturally well organised person and I thrive in chaos. My mind tends to romp between multiple problems and the list is what allows me to be spontaneous and flexible while still getting through the grunt work.

Those of you who are already listers will be nodding your heads at all this. Those of you who find the idea repugnant or have tried lists and found them ineffective, might just need some tips on what makes a good list.

Everyone, of course, has their own style but this is what works for me.

– It must be hand written. This allows me to amend, annotate, underline for emphasis and create all sorts of lines and arrows which connect certain items to each other in significant ways. And of course that wonderful strike-through which I find so much more satisfying than the delete button.

– It must be with you at all times. Scraps of paper and post-it notes stuck everywhere just beg to be lost or forgotten. I use a Moleskin notebook because I like it as an object and therefore am happy to keep it about my person.

– It must contain everything you have to get done, no matter how small and or unlikely to be forgotten. A common barrier to getting stuff done is other, non-scheduled stuff getting in the way. Often small things in aggregate take up a lot of time and you can be left wondering where the day went.

– It must be adaptive. If your plan for the day changes, change the list so you take the time to consider the consequences of moving some stuff into another day.

– Everything on the list must get done. Don’t write down stuff that you have no intention of doing or think maybe you might get around to. If you allow yourself to skip over some items on the list then you’ll start skipping over many. Remember it’s a discipline.

It’s rare for me to be evangelical but I do believe everyone should practice good list-making because I think everyone should take responsibility for their own effectiveness. I’ve encountered too many people who spend more time telling you how incredibly busy they are than they spend actually doing something about it. And that’s just annoying.

1. Put it on a list
2. Do it
3. Strike-through
4. Feel the joy

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Music – the value of listening

My husband bought some second hand LPs on Brick Lane Market recently and one of them contained this inner sleeve which carries a CBS label advertisement enticingly titled ‘Here’s how records give you more of what you want.’

Reading the copy it seems it was written around the time of cassettes entering the market and the ad was designed to ward off this new threat to LP sales. It highlights virtues such as ‘convenient and easy to handle’, claiming you can ‘go anywhere with them.’

It’s easy to scoff at the lack of vision here but consider also, the alleged incident in which a Sony Records executive stood up in front of a music industry conference circa 2002 and, in answer to a query about whether Sony were developing new digital formats for music which would be more convenient to consumers, held up a CD and angrily declared, ‘We’ve already invented the best format for recorded music. It’s THIS!’

What both these examples illustrate, as well as short-sightedness, is how geared the music industry is toward selling the physical object rather than the content.

My first job on arriving in London in my early 20s was on the customer service desk at the front of Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus. Among the many weird and delightful queries we used to get, were regular complaints about the price of records, usually accompanied with the remark ‘A CD costs less than £1. So how come, you’re selling them for £14.99?’. Even consumers were forgetting that they were paying for the music on the CD and not just the CD itself.

Perhaps both consumers and the industry alike have always believed recorded music should be free and that what we pay for is the method of delivery. Looking back at the history of record marketing, we see that record labels have staked everything on an individual physical product sold to each member of the audience as being the way music will always be paid for.

This makes sense when you consider that record labels only came into existence when it became possible to record and press vinyl. Before recording and the affordable distribution of these recordings, no ‘recording industry’.

Recorded music is not going to disappear anytime soon. What is changing is the way in which it will be distributed and listened to. And how that distribution and listening, as well as the recording that makes it possible, will be paid for.

In a New York Times interview in 2002, David Bowie, said this: “Copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years time… [music] will become like running water or electricity.” There are many reasons to love David Bowie. His ability to predict the future is just one of them.

I don’t believe that copyright will disappear (although even now lawyers are frantically penning new definitions of it) but I do believe this idea of music ‘in the cloud’ is a likely winner as the dominant means of distribution and consumption in the coming years.

Developing and testing of this model is already well under way by businesses such as Spotify and Last FM among others. It’s too early to predict who will be the first to get the model right but who ever does will likely win big.

As these online music-serving businesses improve, consumers will benefit from increased convenience and choice. It won’t stop some people from illicitly exchanging digital music files but it will reduce the incentive to do so if all the music they want is available for a relatively cheap subscription fee.

Recording artists will also benefit as the ‘long tail’ effect makes it easier for them to distribute their music and build an audience. There are still negotiations to be made over renumeration – if the fees paid to artists continue to be similar to what they currently collect for broadcast and public plays, it will be a tough way to make a living for all but the very, very popular – but however the pot ends up being divided it's unlikely to be worse than the deal they get with traditional recording contracts.

The biggest effect will be felt by the major labels who will see nothing like the revenue they have enjoyed from CD sales over the past three decades. Not to mention the huge investments in pressing plants that they will have to write off. As I’ve said before, I don’t particularly care about whether the old companies survive. I’m more interested in how new ones adapt and, of course, how musicians and other professionals continue to earn a living. To avoid digressing too much, I’m going to devote a separate post to my vision of life after major labels and here, return to life after ‘physical product’.

As consumers, we will gain more choice and convenience, but what will we miss?

A recent survey conducted by UKMusic on 14-24 year olds found that ownership is still important. For the most part, teenagers are using downloads and file-sharing as a way to research which artists they really want to spend their limited income on. This is pretty much the same way that we used mix-tapes when I was a teenager.

So kids will be accessing their favourite music when and wherever they want in exchange for either listening to ads or a small monthly subscription, (probably less than their monthly mobile phone bill or in some cases, included in it). But they will still want to own something to make them feel part of the tribe and announce their status as a true fan. This will most likely be merchandise – t-shirts, badges posters, as well as, I imagine, increasingly clever added-value ideas such as access to member-only content or exclusive events. All of which will give artists new ways to make money.

For people like me (we are a small but ardent minority, who I believe will be well represented among readers of this blog), what we will miss most will be the sleeves – the wonderful examples of graphic design and photography that traditionally grace the booklets and covers of LPs and CDs. And the sleeve notes (I am an unashamed, cover-to-cover reader of liner notes. Right down to who played additional high-hats on track three and all the personal thank yous. Sad but true.)

But we must be careful not to let nostalgia make us biased. I was a child of the CD era. I clearly remember people bemoaning the demise of the 12” LP sleeve as the being death to great record sleeve design. But some of my favourite graphic design of all time has been made for CD covers and booklets. Think of the work of Ben Drury, Julian House or Kim Hiorth√ły.

While I admit that the iTunes thumbnail is not an inspiring canvas, I'm confident that designers and musicians will continue to work together and come up with new ways to express the visual culture of music.

I was delighted recently by this idea – selling a beautifully designed sleeve note booklet to accompany an MP3 download. I would be perfectly happy to disband my sizable CD collection in favour of a harddrive full of music and a library of small, beautifully designed booklets.

Sadly another loss may be the record store. A recent visit to Amoeba Music in LA reminded me of the pure pleasure of ‘flipping through the racks’. But equal to this is the new joy of being able to mention a track you haven’t heard for years over dinner on Friday night and immediately find it online to listen to.

In the last ten years the way in which we acquire and listen to music has gone through significant changes. My prediction is that in the coming years it will change completely. There will always be value in recorded music but how that value is extracted and distributed is in for an almighty reshuffle. Major labels will not survive in their current form (in a forthcoming post, I will tell you my reasons for believing this) but for consumers, artists and anyone wanting to start an independent record label, it is an exciting time.

I wonder if the disappearance of the physical formats, rather than devaluing music, will put consumers closer to artists and refocus our attention on the value of the real product – the simple joy of listening to music.