I found this story in the NY Times fascinating - Columbia music has brought in Rick Rubin, who is well known in the industry as a top talent spotter (not that I knew this) - and they expect him to reinvigorate their business. These are the two things that popped out at me: first, some information from a focus group they ran:
"The Big Red focus groups were both depressing and informative, and they confirmed what I -- and Rick -- already knew," DiDia told me afterward. "The kids all said that a) no one listens to the radio anymore, b) they mostly steal music, but they don't consider it stealing, and c) they get most of their music from iTunes on their iPod. They told us that MySpace is over, it's just not cool anymore; Facebook is still cool, but that might not last much longer; and the biggest thing in their life is word of mouth. That's how they hear about music, bands, everything."
This is where the labels have been adamant about DRM, which has only torqued off their audience more. The thing is, DRM is ineffective, and all it manages to do is make life difficult for those of us who don't troll the net for free downloads. It doesn't get in the way of the people who do that trolling at all. That's where the RIAA lawsuits come in, I suppose - but that's just an ongoing PR nightmare - making yourself look like the bully beating people up for their lunch money is not endearing. Which takes me to the second thing that popped out at me:
Seemingly overnight, the entire industry is collapsing. Sales figures on top-selling CDs are about 30 percent lower than they were a year ago, and the usual remedies aren't available. Since radio is no longer a place to push a single, record companies have turned to television and movies. "High School Musical," which originated with a Disney Channel television show, was the top-selling album of 2006, and not only has "American Idol," with its 30-million-plus audience, created best-selling singers like Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry, but an appearance on the show can also boost sales.
This is where the future for music is - cross promotion. There's even a personal example for me here. I like the show "The 4400", and I really like the theme song, "A Place in Time". Can I actually buy the song? Well, not on iTunes. I can't find it anywhere else online, either - other than a YouTube video (oddly enough, attached to "24" video).
So it looks like my only option to get the song would be to do something illegal (which is why I don't have the song in my collection yet, incidentally). This is exactly why the labels are losing business - they make it incredibly hard for me to buy music at the point when I want to buy it. I don't want to buy the soundtrack from the show, and I don't necessarily want an entire album from the artist - I just want the song. Gosh forbid they should let me buy it.
So what do people with fewer scruples do? They just grab the song, of course, from some Torrent (etc) online. The RIAA then screams about piracy, never considering the fact that they've made it very hard for people to get the music they want in the way that they want it.
The good news is, it sounds like Columbia now realizes that they have a problem. Unfortunately, they aren't so clear about realistic solutions:
"Until very recently," Rubin told me over lunch at Hugo's, a health-conscious restaurant in Hollywood, "there were a handful of channels in the music business that the gatekeepers controlled. They were radio, Tower Records, MTV, certain mainstream press like Rolling Stone. That's how people found out about new things. Every record company in the industry was built to work that model. There was a time when if you had something that wasn't so good, through muscle and lack of other choices, you could push that not very good product through those channels. And that's how the music business functioned for 50 years. Well, the world has changed. And the industry has not."
Further on, Rubin goes further, noting that the current business model the labels use is dead (something that's been obvious for a very long time, IMHO). The problem is, Rubin hasn't quite caught up - listen to the model he thinks would work:
To combat the devastating impact of file sharing, he, like others in the music business (Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine at Universal, for instance), says that the future of the industry is a subscription model, much like paid cable on a television set. "You would subscribe to music," Rubin explained, as he settled on the velvet couch in his library. "You'd pay, say, $19.95 a month, and the music will come anywhere you'd like. In this new world, there will be a virtual library that will be accessible from your car, from your cellphone, from your computer, from your television. Anywhere. The iPod will be obsolete, but there would be a Walkman-like device you could plug into speakers at home. You'll say, 'Today I want to listen to ... Simon and Garfunkel,' and there they are. The service can have demos, bootlegs, concerts, whatever context the artist wants to put out. And once that model is put into place, the industry will grow 10 times the size it is now."
Good luck with that. The iPod model is already entrenched, and I simply don't see people going to a model where their music lives elsewhere. Do I really want a device that has to connect to the net when I'm out jogging? An always on network connection on a small, battery driven device won't give you a heck of a lot of run time - my mobile phone doesn't have nearly the battery life that I'd like it to have, for instance. Not to mention the other reality of this plan: the record companies would DRM it to death, under the banner of "protecting" the artists.
Along the lines of "protecting" the artists, the other bright idea tossed out in this article is that the artists should start sharing some of their tour money (on t-shirt sales, etc) with the labels. There's an idea - and I suspect it will go over like a brick. The artists are already getting screwed by the labels - why would they take this?
One more thing nails my "fossil" take on Rubin's approach - in discussing Paul Potts, who first made it on Britain's version of "American Idol" (which I believe pre-dates "American Idol"):
The clip was from a British show called "Britain's Got Talent," a version of "American Idol." Despite its popularity, Rubin has never seen "American Idol," and he had never heard of Simon Cowell, who is a judge on both programs.
If you're in the music business, and you haven't seen that program, you're simply not paying attention. It would be like being a software development person and claiming to have never seen Eclipse: regardless of your opinion of Eclipse, it matters in software development. Likewise, regardless of what you think of "American Idol", it matters in the music business.
iTunes, radio, tv