The Horns of a Digital Dilemma

Numbers that not even Lady Gaga can compile

A couple of items that appeared over the past few days clearly illustrate the looming challenge that faces anyone who is trying to forge a life as a performing musician in the rapidly arriving era of “cloud” stored music and digital delivery.

First, the Associated Press compiled this piece that examines the potential of subscriptions services from a “consumer’s” (in quotes because I hate that term when it is applied to digital music) perspective (along with a sidebar comparing three competing services):

There’s no more need to own songs before being able to listen to them at your convenience.

No more buying music to download onto computers and mobile devices — and certainly no more stacking CDs on shelves. Virtually the whole world of recorded music is at your fingertips at any time, for a subscription, over the Internet.

Services that make this scenario possible haven’t proven very popular yet. But new price cuts and advances in technology could finally drive the idea to the mainstream.

Well, gee, now, where have we seen that idea before??? Personally, I find it a tad amusing that the “mainstream media” is finally coming around to what has seemed obvious to me for more than a decade: namely, that all of this technology is leading to a time when all our record collections are remotely stored and delivered on demand through digital channels, mobile and stationary.  I guess the idea is finally becoming trendy now that it has been enveloped in easily grasped terminology, i.e. “the cloud” business.

The AP article does a good job of assessing both the upside of a subscription service and some of the reasons why such services have yet to catch on:

Justin Darcy, a 32-year-old sales director at a resort company in San Francisco, says he consumes so much music it would cost him $10,000 a year if he didn’t have a Rhapsody plan. He calls it ”one of the greatest values in consumer goods I’ve ever come across.”

Given the obvious benefit of being able to listen to millions of songs as if they were in your personal stash, why haven’t services like these gotten more use?

Partly because of poor marketing, previously clunky execution and the fact that people are more familiar with compact discs and downloading songs from Apple Inc.’s iTunes music store. People who spend less than $120 a year on music also wouldn’t see the subscription plans as such a great deal.

But the AP article does a rather poor job of exploring the dark underside of this musical Nirvana where $10k of product consumption is suddenly reduced to a $10/mo subscription: namely, what do such economics portend for those who provide the content that the clouds will deliver?

For a frightening hint at the answer into that question, I now direct your attention to the other piece I found over the weekend.  Consider this chart, which calculates the actual  revenue generated by existing “cloud-based” services.  The bottom line appears to be: in order to earn the equivalent of even a minimum wage from Spotify (often cited by music pundits as the best example of a subscription service but still not available in the U.S.), your songs would have to be requested and delivered considerably more than 4-million times every month.  I don’t think even Lady Gaga is posting those kinds of numbers.

And, it’s ironic to read one comment (in the Sullivan post) on this chart by Techdirt’s Dennis Yang:

…it’s very interesting to note that in the new, digital era, artists actually make more off of their album sales in iTunes than they did in the old, physical world. And selling albums digitally through cdbaby, without a label, stands to bring in much, much more money for the artist — and frees them from the headache of distributing a physical product.

…which somehow manages to completely miss the point.  Yes, artists and bands earn more from their product sales if they skip the conventional channels  and go “direct to fan” via iTunes or CDBaby.  But when storage and delivery makes its final, ultimate move to “the cloud,” even those economics are going to evaporate.  How much artists make from “album sales” is going to become largely irrelevant because there aren’t going to be be any more “album sales.”

You think it’s tough now?  Just hold your gonads for a few more years…

Cloud storage eliminates entirely the imperative for listeners (let’s call them that instead of “consumers, OK?), to “own” their own libraries, so all the economics of “distribution” go straight to hell.  Yes, it’s a great deal for “consumers.”  Who can argue with “whatever you want to hear, whenever you want to hear it, wherever you are”?  (Yes, I know there  are lots of people who argue with that premise now.  They say stupid things like “…I have to OWN my music!”  Well, no, you don’t, but don’t get me started…).  But that is going to change.  And when it does, the “value” in delivering recorded music to listeners is going become something approaching zero, as the chart seems to make pretty damn clear.

Yes the last refuge for “album sales” is going to be at gigs — the “souvenir factor,” somebody has called it.  But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests that even that revenue source is starting to dry up.  So how will performing artists sustain their creative enterprise in the era of “cloud” based digital delivery?

As I’m typing, an answer begins to occur to me.   I see better now the future-leaning-logic in my distaste for the word “consumer” where music and arts appreciation is concerned.   That’s a word that derives from the whole product-manufacturing industrial mentality that has lingered into the 21st Century.  It really is time we toss that term onto some ash-heap and burn it.

Consumers buy products. But clearly, as “atoms become bits”  the value in “products” is steamrolling toward zero.

Therefore, the sustainable future, I believe, is going to depend on altering the relationship between artists and audience.  So long as artists continue to think of their audience as “fans,” those fans will be expected to “consume” their “products.”  And once the Celestial Jukebox is fully realized, they are just not going to do that any more.

So stop thinking of your audience as “fans” and start thinking of them as your “patrons.”  Pretend we’re back in the Renaissance, and everybody in your audience is a Medici — there to fortify their status in the world by patronizing the arts.   Then find tools to empower your “patrons” to build their own circles around their interest in your art.  Build relationships, because, clearly, there ain’t much future in building products.

And then get your power tools out and start hand-cranking.

It’s A Conversation, Not a Monologue

The ever-provocative Bob Lefsetz

A lot of people think Bob Lefsetz is a fatuous blow-hard, and there are times when he confirms those detractors’ derision.  But in the past few days I’ve seen a couple of posts to his blog that I think are very insightful and speak directly to the Big Shift in how culture and entertainment are experienced in the digital era.

For example, writing about Steve Jobs recent appearance to announce the pending arrival of a new iPhone operating system, Lefsetz affirms the basic principle I described in the “Music 3.0” essay that launched this whole enterprise:

Except for a few jokes when he put up fake ads to demonstrate iAd, Jobs was so serious as to establish a divide between himself and his audience.  And this is death in the Internet age, if you’re not willing to come down off your pedestal and ingratiate yourself with the hoi polloi, you’re at risk of ridicule.

That’s precisely the dynamic I saw unfold in the movie “Any Day Now” about the “10 out of Tenn” tours.  The “performers” came down from the stage  to lead the “audience” in a final song.  At that moment, there were no “performers” or “audience.”  There was only the “tribe.”

When fully realized, in the new paradigm, there will be no “stars.”  The best you can hope for is to be the “chief’.”

Word Spreads Quickly…

…when the music is really good….

Last week, Rosanne Drucker finished setting up her website using the “SiteBuilder” feature of ReverbNation (which is a plugin-partnership with Bandzoogle).  From the site, Rosanne offers streaming audio and downloads of her new “Virtual EP” Doin’ Hard Time.

That was like Thursday.  Today (Monday), she’s got her first review of the “virtual release,” in a glowing blog-post by Nelson Gullett, who works as a DJ at WDVX , a listener supported Americana radio station in Knoxville, TN and reports on his musical encounters with his “Fifty Cent Lighter & A Whiskey Buzz” blog.  After describing his serendipitous encounter with Rosanne at a club (“…In Nashville… what are the odds?…”), Nelson writes:

The EP contains seven original tracks co-produced by Rosanne and Mike Loudermilk (John D. Loudermilk’s son), and blends several Americana styles to mostly paint pictures of heartbreak and love gone sour. Three of the four songs on the sampler Rosanne gave me dealt with such topics. The title track makes solid use of Bailey and Ickes to tell a heavily bluegrass flavored tale of a heart trapped behind bars, and “This is Sunday” is a piano ballad that counts the days until a lost lover’s return (he’s not coming). Even the optimistically titled and musically upbeat rockabilly bluegrass tune (featuring Rocker) “Mr. Dream Come True” is about a race horse and not an actual Mr. Right. I’m guessing by the “Aww shoot” thrown in at the end of each chorus that the horse doesn’t even finish in the money.

There’s some validation in this review for Rosanne, who has been working on this project for many months and is suddenly getting positive feedback just as it begins to see the light of day.

This review puts Rosanne in some pretty good company.  Elsewhere on the page… Ellis Paul, Anne McCue, and somebody named Emmylou-somebody.

We all gotta start somewhere…

48 Hours with iPad: It’s Still The Chair, Stupid

The UPS guy said he felt like Santa Claus

(but it’s no Celestial Jukebox.  Read on…)

Today I am an iPad.  Well, actually, Saturday I was an iPad.  And by and large I’d have to say I’m pretty pleased with it.  It does just what I expected it to do – i.e. replace my Kindle and iPhone as info-sources.  It’s a LOT easier to use than the iPhone as a reading device, and it does a LOT more than the Kindle ever could.  And if that was all I had to say about it, that would be enough.

Now that Saturday’s “iPad nerdgasm” has passed, and everybody who wants one finally has one, the Interwebs are rife with reviews and commentary.  There’s really no need for me to go on at any more length than those who have already chimed in about the basic upsides and downsides of what is, truly, a new category of device.  If you want a comprehensive overview of the whole experience, you can do no better than Jason Snell’s rundown over at MacWold.com.

The new "default position" for using a "computer"

When the iPad was first announced, I anticipated its arrival with a blog post entitled “It’s The Chair, Stupid” — in which I surmised that the breakthrough implied by this new device was not in its hardware, nor its software, but in the way it would be used:  by sitting in a chair, as Steve Jobs is doing in the photo that accompanies this and the prior post.

I am somewhat familiar with this posture. I  had a tablet computer before this one, for about two years from 2005 to 2007 (the year I gave up on PCs and switched entirely to the Mac platform, one of the single best decisions I have ever made).  That model had a swivel screen that flopped back over the keyboard so that you could hold it like a book or write on it with a stylus.  It sorta worked, but was just not very convenient.  It was still too big, and while reading on it was semi-satisfactory, I invariably had to flip the screen back around and use the keyboard in order to do anything with it.  That early-iteration Tablet PC went the way of eBay when I got my first MacBook in the summer of 2007.

The iPad is an infinitely superior expression of the tablet concept.  Once it arrived on Saturday I put my laptop away and everything I needed to do online I could do with the new device.  The keyboard is not outstanding, but it’s adequate.  I was, for example, able to make a reservation from a hotel’s website with little difficulty.  I read all my e-mails and replied to those that I needed to.  And when I sat back Sunday afternoon for my coffee with Frank and Maureen, the whole experience — navigating around the browser, navigating pages with my finger, shrinking and enlarging with a pinch — was a revelation.  It was, in a word… “fun.”

Is the iPad a “game changer”?  Opinions vary. I think it makes a difference in how I can do things, whether that qualifies as a game changer or not is entirely debatable.  But I think the key insight is gleaned from this observation in Jason Snell’s MacWorld piece:

There’s just something about surfing the Web using Safari on the iPad. It feels different, somehow. Apple’s marketing pitch says “it’s like holding the Internet in your hands,” and while that’s a little bit cheesy, it’s not far off. There’s just something different about holding that Web page in your hands, rather than seeing it on a desktop or laptop PC, or on a tiny iPhone screen. Tapping on links doesn’t feel the same as clicking on them with a mouse. It’s a good feeling.

My point, exactly.  Nice to see that somebody who actually gets paid to say such things agrees with me.

Back in the day, you would sit in your comfy chair with a book, a magazine, or a newspaper — and that was it.  You had a single source at your disposal.  The breakthrough that the iPad represents is: now you sit like you would have with a book, magazine, or newspaper, and you have the whole fucking world at your disposal.  Yes, you had that with your laptop, but that’s still a “lean forward” experience, dominated by the presence of the keyboard; and yes, you have that with an iPhone, but absorbing content from a 2-inch screen can get pretty tedious after not very long.

So yes, boys and girls, this is something different, and something new.  And I like it.  A lot.

That said, I hasten to add:  the iPad in its current incarnation does absolutely nothing to advance the realization of the Celestial Jukebox.   You can’t use Lala.com with it because all the players in Lala are based on Flash and the iPad famously (infamously?) does not support Flash.  You have to assume that is going to change, hopefully sooner rather than later, now that Apple owns Lala.com.  But there is no evidence of that acquisition in the iTunes that comes with the iPad.

I cannot even access the music library on my desktop computer from iTunes on the iPad (as I can with iTunes on my MacBook using the “home sharing” feature). So until I start loading my 16GB with locally-stored music, the iPad is really not much of a music player at all. I don’t think it will even play Pandora (also Flash-based.  Maybe Apple should acquire Pandora, too — before Google does…).

And the absence of any kind of third-party app multi-tasking likewise continues to be an impediment for using the iPad as a “jukebox.”  Until multitasking is available, there is no way to use a program like Rogue Amoeba’s “Airfoil” to flip the audio signal from the iPad to your stereo (it does work well with Bluetooth headphones, but that’s not how I typically listen to music).

But I think all that is going to change with time.  Apple is typically slow to unveil all of the potential of a new device.  I mean, how long did it take them to integrate “copy/paste” into the iPhone?  I think that’s what’s going to happen here.  I don’t know when — nobody does — but I fully expect that sometime later this year there will be an entirely new version of iTunes that supports storing your music “in the cloud.”  And already there is rampant speculation that the next iteration of the iPhone OS will enable some form of third-party app multi-tasking.  If/when those things happen, the functionality of the iPad will also improve by a full order of magnitude.

In the meantime, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got.  I expect to start canceling magazine subscriptions any day now…

A Short History of… My Family

This has absolutely nothing to do with music, culture, politics, or technology.  It is a short video that my “little sister” has compiled from family photographs and a memoir that my mother wrote in the years before she died (2002).  I share it here because… well, because I can:

Marshall McLuhan Lives!

Is it Saturday yet?

I thought Marshall McLuhan had been dead for nearly 30 years, but apparently the geniuses at WIRED have stashed his brain on a shelf somewhere and retrieve his observations about the potential impact of the iPad:

The iPad is the beginning of this end. The thin, single pane of glass that comprises the interface is just a window onto the world, an edgeless frame. Essentially, there is no interface, any more than a person’s fingertips are an interface. The long story of humanism — by which I mean the emergence of individual consciousness as a byproduct of our language and literature — comes to an end when we return, futuristically, to doing everything by hand.

We no longer hear the voices of the past, because we have our fingers in our ears.

I suspect the iPad edition of WIRED will be one of the first apps I add to mine come Saturday.  And if there’s a “Mashall McLuhan” app, you can bet I’ll be scoring that one, too.

iPad: T-Minus 48 And Counting – New Uses for a New Gizmo

Open the iPad-bay door, Hal.

Anybody who knows me knows that I’ve been quite looking forward to the arrival of my Apple iPad when a UPS truck pulls up in front of the house sometime this coming Saturday.

I’ve been really frustrated with most of the pre-arrival analysis — those tech pundocrats who dismiss the new gizmo as “just an over sized iTouch or iPhone.” (In case you’ve missed it, Dave Pogue in the NYTimes does a nice job this morning of critiquing all the reasons why the iPad is/is not an iTouch.)

My own expectation is that this is one case where the new gizmo will eventually prove to be anything but “just another….” something that already exists.  No, this is new, and it’s going to change things in ways we can hardly imagine.

Maybe the best example to look back on is the iPod itself.  No, not because the iPad is “just a big iPod,” but because of the way the arrival of the iPod heralded the arrival of new ways of doing things.  Think “podcasting” – a form of expression that did not exist, nor was hardly imagined, when the iPod was first introduced.

"The past went that-a-way."

When the iPod first showed up, it could easily have been dismissed as “just another MP3 player,” the Diamond Rio with a hard drive, a few thousand tunes in your pocket instead of a a few dozen.  Big whoop.  But humans too often see the future through a rear-view mirror (“rump-bumping into the future,” McLuhan called it…) and new technologies are always perceived at first as a variation of an existing technology – until new uses are found for the new technologies.  Podcasting is a perfect and recent example of how that works.  Before the iPod, there was no such thing as podcasting.  Now it is entire communications system, a part of operations far and wide, covering an infinite number of topics, and an indispensable way of accessing all kinds of information.  I use my podcasts now to listen to everything from American history to music business tips.

I suspect the same thing is going to happen when the iPad shows up.  Its resemblance to and roots in existing technologies aside, there is an aspect of this gizmo that is entirely new, and people are going to find new ways of using it that have yet to be imagined.

Well, OK, not entirely yet to be imagined.  For example, Jackson Miller of Nashville imagines the iPad as a personal “dashboard” that gives him access to the many facets of his life from a single device:

Jaxn ponders the iPad

Over the past few weeks something interesting has happened. Most of my daily routine for checking data has moved to my iPhone. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but much of it takes place before I even get out of bed in the morning. The main problem with this method is that the screen is a little too small.

If only I could have something like my phone with a bigger screen.

You know, like the iPad.

I know exactly what Jackson means.  In the past couple of months, the iPhone has also become the center of my media use, too.  Particularly since I found the Google Reader app and started “aggregating” all my sources of text-based content into that single interface.

I also have a Kindle, and shortly after I started using it last year I discontinued my subscription to the paper editions of the Wall Street Journal and the Tennessean. I rarely read actual newspapers any more. But the Kindle is a very limited device — you really can’t do anything with but read stuff, and these days, information use is as much about sharing as it is about absorbing.  You can’t really do that with the Kindle.    So, like Jackson says, the day starts now with the iPhone.  But it’s a little confining to start my day with a cup of coffee and staring into a screen the size of an index card.  Enter the iPad.

Jackson’s notion of a portable dashboard is promising, and gives me some idea how I’ll be setting up my iPad when it comes out of the box. But perhaps the most intriguing anticipation of “new uses” that I’ve encountered so far comes from Nicholas Negroponte, in a side bar to this month’s iPad feature in WIRED. Instead of a rear-view mirror, Negroponte is looking through the windshield when he observes of tablet devices in general:

The unsung advantage of current ebooks is being able to use them in bed. Paper books have pages that can neither disappear nor reappear. Instead, we have to turn them, which is pretty stupid and not at all easy when you’re lying on your side.

So why tablets? A short answer: one-handedness.

And it’s not just for bed. Would you have ever imagined how many people walk around looking at one hand? Texting is replacing talking, and thumbs are replacing lips. Laptops, meanwhile, are not mobile. They are nomadic. You have to sit down to use one and do battle for a connection. Standing with a laptop is entirely unsatisfactory.

Tablets are therefore the new frontier. They are the new book, the new newspaper, the new magazine, the new TV screen, and potentially the new laptop.

That’s the sort of assessment that can only come from somebody who recognizes new technology when it arrives understands fundamentally that new technologies portend new and unforeseen uses.

So I’m quite looking forward to the arrival of my iPad on Saturday.  I fully expect to be greeted my a mortally flawed device, a “first iteration” filled with “can’t wait for the next version” shortcomings.  I wonder how many times I will exclaim “well, that’s stupid…” when I encounter some ill-envisioned function (like the absence of Flash).

But what I’m really looking forward to is the discovery of something new, something as yet unimagined, in the way information finds its way into my cerebral cortex. I also think it’s gonna be fun.

So who wants to meet me at Fido and play with The New Gizmo on Saturday?

Cable TeeVee, Meet Music

It’s often been said that what’s been happening in the music biz for the past 1o (15?) years is the “canary in the coal mine” for other media businesses.  Already we’re seeing the challenges facing print media, as their business moves online and they try to figure out howthehell to monetize “free.”

Television and film have been (somewhat) immune from those changes, if only because the much larger data requirements of visual information requires much more bandwidth than has been available… until now:

Cable TV was always a bad model for the consumer because, in a sense, you’re paying twice. When you watch The Daily Show, for example, you pay the cable company to bring Comedy Central’s programming into your home. But you also contribute to Comedy Central’s bottom line by watching its ads. However, the Internet allows you to connect directly to Comedy Central without the cable company go-between. You only pay once — either with your eyeballs on ComedyCentral.com, or with your wallet on iTunes….

It’s not hard to foresee a day when Americans come home and, using an Internet TV system that would probably look a lot like your DVR menu, queue up the latest situation comedy or key in to a live news broadcast.

So it’s probably a good thing that companies like Comcast had the good sense some years ago to start offering “high-speed internet” through their coaxial pipes, because pretty soon, that’s going to be their entire business.

How Do You Earn A Quarter Million A Year as a “Folk” Singer?

And the answer, happily, is NOT “Start with a half million…”

Ellis Paul, the $250k/yr Man

Or so we learn from a recent article Music Think Tank.  Cyber PR Maven Ariel Hyatt talked with Rachael Kllen from Black Wolf Management, the company that manages Ellis Paul, in which the operative exchange is:

AH: If possible (I know you may not want to share this information), can you share the amount of money you have grossed in the last 12 months, broken down by months correlating with market, and promotional, and touring efforts? Don’t mind sharing I think it’s valuable to musicians.

RK/ EP: Ariel we are happy to share this information, Ellis thinks this is valuable to other musicians. But the breakdown I would need a little more time to breakdown

Gross is $270,000 (his expenses are very high so he nets less than half of that)

AH: How many die hard fans, fans that will buy everything and anything from you, would you imagine that you have?

RK/ EP: 2500

Now, let’s do the math.  Let’s round that $270k gross to $250k (yep, that’s a quarter million!), and divide that by those 2500 “true fans” and what do you get?  An active fan base that, apparently, spends on average $100/yr to listen to, see, enjoy, and otherwise support Ellis Paul.

Now, granted, that 2,500 “true fans” surely does not represent the entire fan base, nor does the “math” imply that those 2,500 “true fans” all sent one hundred of their hard-earned dollars into Ellis Paul’s coffers.

What it DOES say that if you DO have 2,500 true fans, and if you have a support system that communicates and “manages” that fan base, then, at the very least, you have the foundation on which you can earn a six-figure income as a traveling troubadour.

The key word in that last paragraph — in case you missed it — was “manages.”  I think that accounts for why performers like David Wilcox or Ellis Paul enjoy the living that they do.  Because they’re not trying to “do it all” themselves.