Category - Digest

Why Would Anybody Ever Buy Another Song?

From the Department of No Shit, Sherlock:

Crowded Field

Crowded Field

Derek Thompson points to the elephant in a post at

Citing the increasing saturation of the streaming music market (where any more than one or two services qualifies as saturation), Thompson points to the elephant that has been in the room since… well, since the first Real Audio player made streaming music a reality in… what, 1996?:

…what isn’t there room for in music?

Buying it.

“Young people today don’t buy music anymore,” said Martin Pyykkonen, an analyst at Wedge Partners. The numbers agree.

I suppose my objection here should be something along the lines of “whatchyou mean ‘young people’, Kimosabee?”

Or maybe I should take it as a compliment that somebody thinks 63 can qualify as ‘young’  – particularly since I just bought tickets for a movie tonight at the reduced fare for ‘seniors.’  But I digress…

I have been arguing for years that the ‘unit purchase’ model for music – whether it’s physical products like CDs (or, yes, even the revered, resurrected vinyl…) or virtual units delivered as purchased downloads – has been on the wings of the dodo for years, and that any assertions to the contrary are an exercise in viewing the future through the rear view mirror  (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I sincerely implore you to click the link and find out).

And no, the fact that I’m engaged in a project that is about to release its third physical product at the same time that I’m predicting the demise physical products is not lost on me. I write these things because I think I’m observant, maybe even a tad prescient.   I never said that made me invulnerable to also being a hypocrite.  Such is the nature of living on a cusp. But there I go again, digressing…

As Thompson reports, the handwriting is on the wall, the die is cast, the nails are in the coffin.  Pick your metaphor, but this is we see when we turn the car around and start steering through the windshield:

“…digital music sales fell last year for the first time ever, by 6 percent, as the music business inches closer to an access-over-ownership model. Overall streaming (which includes digital radio) is up 32 percent to 118 billion song streams in 2013. On-demand streaming (e.g. pick and click a song on Spotify) doubled last year.

Meanwhile, we have Tommy Silverman and others at the annual Austin TX Spring Break Clusterfuck known as “SXSW,” (that’s pronounced “ess-ex-ess-doubleyew)  professing to possess the keys to a $100-billion kingdom with a more colorful metaphor of his own:

This enema that we’re going through is making us realize that our business is much bigger than what we thought it could be,” Silverman said. “We’re in the attention business now.”

And the nominees for the 2014 ‘Masters of the Obvious’ award are….

Silverman etal be right, the entirety of the recorded music business  could certainly be much larger than the rapidly-shrinking single-digit-billion-dollar business it has recently been reduced to.

I’ve done this math for you before: A couple of years ago the NPD group estimated that the average music ‘consumer’ spends a paltry FORTY dollars per year on music purchases (that figure is surely even less now).  That expenditure adds a bountiful 30 or 40 new tracks to their record collection every year.  Now persuade those tight-fisted consumers that for only TEN DOLLARS (per month…) they can have the entire history of recorded music – past-present-and-future – at their disposal, and you can effectively triple or even quadruple your aggregate industry top-line.

Of course, that’s assuming they have any money left after paying for their cell phone, cable teevee, broadband internet and Clover brewed coffees at Starbucks (which I am drinking as I write & post this…)

It may not add up to the $100-billion that Silverman is hallucinating, but it could be considerably more than whatever the current figures are.

But whatever the figures might be, we will never realize the full potential of any future business model until we stop trying to drag the old models long with us.  I don’t care if your fancy new “human-powered” streaming music service is called “beats,”   It does no good to beat an internal combustion engine with a buggy whip.

But there’s another message in all of this that I think has been overlooked, and that’s all this emphasis on recorded music.  That’s the biggest buggy whip that we’re dragging along with us, the biggest thing that looms in that rear view mirror.

As long as we’re focused on how to preserve or grow the recorded music business, we’re going to miss the point of what Silverman inartfully calls “this emema” that the industry is going through.

What we cannot see so long as we’re driving backwards into the future, surveying the landscape in front of us through the rear view mirror (really, try to get that image in your head…), is that the ‘future of music’ is much less about the recorded music than it is about the way that music lived before it became any kind of product – back when music simply did not exist unless there was somebody in the room playing it for you, which person was often yourself and your friends.

The future of music is not any kind of product, physical or virtual, delivered by truck, download, or stream.  It’s much more… organic, and ‘aural’ than that.  But until we’re a little further removed from the product era, it’s going to be hard for most people to appreciate that prospect.

The idea was never more succinctly put than during a conversation I had with Scott Huler, one of the presenters at last year’s TEDx Nashville.

“I tell my kids,” Scott said, “that music is not something you buy.  It’s something you make.”

I don’t care how many billions Tommy Silverman thinks the ‘music industry’ can be, those children are the future.





The Medium Is The Message #5: HDTV

It’s no coincidence that a better picture renders better stories.

It's a wonder we ever get off the sofa

The future according to HDTV?

Ever since I got my first HDTV – would you believe it’s been more than 10 years? – I’ve been wondering what effect the higher resolution picture would have on the medium itself.  Because, let’s face it, more than a thousand lines of resolution is really a completely different experience from the NTSC standard, the 525-line picture that defined the television picture for its first fifty years.

So if HDTV is effectively a new medium, and the medium is the message, then… what new message is this new medium be delivering?

I think David Carr answered the question in the New York Times over this past weekend:

The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. I am not alone. Even as alternatives proliferate and people cut the cord, they are continuing to spend ever more time in front of the TV without a trace of embarrassment.

In case you don’t get the reference, “the vast wasteland” harkens back to a speech that then-FCC commissioner Newton Minnow delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters way back in 1961:

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

That speech pretty much set the tone for how television was regarded for several decades.  It was always “the vast wasteland,” “the boob tube,” or “the idiot box.”  Nobody of any intellectual standing ever admitted to actually watching TeeVee.

In the past several years though, as Carr articulates, the television universe has become much more vast – but much less of a wasteland.  Oh, sure, we’ve still got the Kardashians (who?)  Nancy Grace and Court TV, American Idol, Survivor and all of their “reality” brethren (because nothing says ‘reality’ more than having being followed around by a camera crew…).  The lowest common denominator will always have a place in American culture, just like trailer parks and tent revivals.

But we’ve also got Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, and more recently the just concluded first season of HBO’s anthology True Detective.

These shows and several others have expanded the narrative capacity of the medium – arguably (I would argue…) because the refined visual capacity of the higher resolution screen  has forced writers, producers, actors and directors them to raise their own game.

In other words, television shows are better today because the medium itself is better.

But it’s not just the screen (and the theatrical, surround-sound audio) that is changing the game. It’s the mode of delivery as well.

I’ve had a DVR (TiVo) for longer than I’ve had HDTV, and that device probably changed my viewing habits even more than HDTV did.  Before TiVo, I’d always time-shifted the series I wanted to watch with a VCR, but TiVo changed the whole experience, making it much easier to record, store, and play back entire seasons of multiple shows.  And fast-forward through the commercials…

Now, add to TiVo: Netflix, AppleTV, Hulu, HBO GO and an array of other services that are delivered mostly through the Internet; then add YouTube and Apple Airplay or Google Chromecast that give you the ability to flip just about any ‘content’ from any networked device onto you high-def flat panel display – and it’s a wonder we ever get off the sofa.


The Failure of Inattention

Monday was a “snow day” in Nashville and Middle Tennessee.  

2014_08_1024x1024Freezing rain had settled in the night before and made the roads pretty much impassable by the time of the morning rush hour, so Monday was canceled city-wide.

Ann and I threw some logs on the fire and settled in to watch about 6 episodes of the new HBO drama True Detective, with Woody Harrelson and newly-minted Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey as diametrically opposed Louisiana homicide investigators.

Harrelson’s character is Detective Marty Hart, who, midway through the series shares this indispensable observation about the “detective’s curse.”

“The solution my whole life was right under my nose … And I was watching everything else … my true failure was inattention.”

Given my propensity for oddball associations (see blog tagline above), I immediately thought of that observation when I read this guest post in Billboard this morning about YouTube -v- The Music Industry:

During a MIDEM panel this year, YouTube vp content Tom Pickett said the company had paid more than $1 billion to music rights holders during the past several years. Well, that’s sweet. Hey, you know who else has done that? Spotify. The difference: Spotify did it with a fraction of YouTube’s audience.

In other words, while musicians and songwriters are are complaining about the paltry payouts from Spotify, Pandora, etc…. Well, you get my point.  Hopefully.

Katy Perry At The Oscars

No, you didn’t see her on the actual telecast – unless you were at our house….

katy_yesterdayAs we do every year, Ann and I had a few friends over to our house to watch the Oscars telecast this past Sunday night.  Oddly, the highlight of the evening was not actually part of the show that we sat through for more than 4 hours (including the whole ridiculous “who are you wearing” red-carpet pre-show….).

No, rather, the highlight came via YouTube AppleTV and Airplay, the feature that lets you watch whatever is on your iPhone on your big TeeVee.

About two-thirds through the Oscar marathon, we were all scratching our heads after Pink’s performance of “Over the Rainbow.”  Excuse me but, ummm, “somewhere” is one word.  Why the big breath between “some” and “where”?  Yes, the woman has got some impressive pipes, and I’m familiar with the concept of Creative Phrasing, but this wasn’t that.

After Pink was done chopping up the word some…where, some… body in the room asked if any of us had seen Katy Perry’s performance of “Yesterday” during the 50th-Anniversary of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan tribute show that aired last month.

Why, yes, we had, and it was gratifying to learn that Ann and I were not the only ones who were genuinely impressed with that one performance.  With a bit of further discussion, a consensus quickly formed among us that that particular performance was the surprise highlight of a show that was pretty much filled with highlights – they were, after all, all Beatles songs…

Fortuitously, we’d reached a bit of an impasse in the evening’s programming.  We were watching the Oscarcast via our TiVo; Having started the playback about 30 minutes late, we could skip through all the commercials.  But just about the time Pink was done grinding Judy Garland’s rainbow into breathy little bits, the TiVo recording caught up to real time.  There was no buffer left for commercial skipping.

So, for the benefit of the few people in the room who hadn’t seen the Beatles thing, I pulled out my iPhone, went to YouTube, searched for “katy perry yesterday” and found a recording of her performance from that night; Then I  flipped the signal from the iPhone to the AppleTV to the flat panel HDTV via Airplay (Lefsetz just discovered this feature recently; we’ve been using it for a couple of years).

And so it came to pass that a living room full of boomers watched and listened to a contemporary cheesecake pop star deliver a song that we’ve been hearing since it was new –  with a measure of heart and soul that we probably haven’t heard in that song… well, since it was new.  And mind you, “Yesterday” may be the most covered, and most broadcast, song of all time. I think that song along has made Paul McCartney a billionaire.  So we’ve all heard it at least a million times.

But this delivery of this old chestnut was remarkable and noteworthy, even for a living room full of tired old baby boomers.

This was a very different Katy Perry from the one we’ve seen before, in magazines or on the Grammy show.  She wasn’t prancing around the stage with fireworks blasting from her boobs.  Quite the contrary, she wore some kind of billowing, flowered robe that looked like something that you could tuck a circus under.  And then she just stood there – and knocked the fucking song out of the park.

So here, for the benefit of anybody who might have missed it, is Katy Perry’s performance of “Yesterday” from the “Grammy Salutes The Beatles” show that was broadcast on the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb 9, 1964.  Do yourself a favor and listen to it on some real speakers….