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 Hiorthøy.

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.

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