I spend a good part of the day doing state-of-the-artists research on the web (aka "surfing"), and ran into the name of Matthew Ebel a couple of times as an example of somebody who has mastered the art of digital career building.
I first heard of Matthew earlier this year when a Twitter friend posted about Matthew's weekly Monday Ustream concert-in-his-basement webcasts. I tuned one in and liked it enough to buy the iTunes version of his CD "Goodbye Planet Earth." When I ran into his name today, I remembered I had that album and listened to it again.
I'd forgotten how much fun — and how well produced — "Planet Earth" is. If you haven't heard Matthew before, it's well worth a listen.
Yesterday, Google and a handful of music and tech types converged in a small auditorium in the basement of the old Capitol Records building in Los Angeles (you know, that cylindrical edifice that supposedly looks like a stack of records on a spindle?) to announce the details of the "Google Music" search service.
It's hard to imagine a more perfectly anachronistic location for such an event: Within a monument to music-as-a-product, yet another announcement heralding the end of that era.
Now speculation is rife re: what it really means. Is this new layer of search results a "game changer"?
The actual service is pretty straightforward, about what you'd expect Google to come up with, and it would appear that Google has chosen its partner services wisely. This video will give you some idea how it all works:
Essentially, what this new search function does is integrate a pop-up music player from either MySpace or Lala.com into Google's search results. That in of itself is probably not a big deal. It's convenient, but that doesn't make it a "game changer." Hell, the game changed ten years ago. Everything now is an incremental improvement toward the inevitable, and this new development certainly qualifies on that score.
The incremental improvement that the Google Music search layer offers is the likelihood that its convenience will get millions more users accustomed to the idea of having "access" to a vast music library instead of "owning" just a tiny subset of that library.
Both MySpace (with its new subsidiary, iLike) and Lala.com are included as the primary providers for the Google service; both provide streaming audio players that pop up in their own window once the results of a music-related search are delivered. There doesn't appear to be any particular logic as to which player comes up, and when asked at the event yesterday Google's spokesman would say only that the results are evenly distributed between the two partners.
Clearly the big winner in this new set up is Lala.com. With this single stroke, Lala suddenly achieves the sort of "household name" status that MySpace enjoys — despite MySpace being a hideous wasteland. Lala, by comparison, is elegant, clean, comprehensive and useful. And it can't hurt that this Google announcement comes on the heels of an alliance with that other Internet-swallowing monster, Facebook.
The big loser is the "30-second clip." Soon enough, any music service that continues to rely on song snippets as an enticement toward purchasing whole song downloads is going to start to wonder where their traffic went. Are you listening, iTunes? Do you see the handwriting on the wall yet, Amazon?
I'm always surprised when I get into a conversation about music (and by default nowadays, that means music the Internet), and discover that whoever I'm talking to has yet to discover the myriad and joyous functions of Lala. "I just changed your life," I tell them, and once they start using it, the reaction is something along the lines of "I should have known about this sooner."
Now everybody who searches for anything related music via Google is going to find out about Lala and begin to use it.
After the formal announcements and presentations by Google, MySpace/iLike and Lala, there was a panel discussion of sorts featuring a couple of artist types (Mos Def, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic) and a couple of label types (Syd Schwartz of EMI, Wendy Nussbaum of UMG, Steve Savoca of indie Domino Records). They all tried to wax meaningfully about what this portends for their businesses. They kept using words like "monetize." Because apparently they still think people are going to keep "buying" songs.
But Bill Nguyen — CEO and Co-founder of Lala — gave away more than he probably intended when he started waiving his iPhone around and bragging about Lala's pending mobile app (which is still in beta).
Asked by somebody in the audience "How do you monetize all this free stuff? Is there an option to buy?" Nguyen whipped out his iPhone and described how having a service like Lala makes "everything I just bought available to me…" What he neglected to say is that what he's "bought" is not the 99c download — but the 10c "web" track (and I will bet that becomes a flat-monthly fee sooner rather than later).
I don't think any of these panelists fully realize that they are jumping into an abyss without a parachute. This may not be the game changer, but the game is certainly changing — again — and this new service could be a big part of the end-game.
So it was most intriguing to hear Steve Savoca of Domino Records talking about the need to "change consumption behavior" — particularly after stating that "50% of our business is digital." Then he went on to praise the new Google service as "instant gratification… a zero friction music experience…"
Which makes me wonder if he's even listening to himself, or if he hears the real consequence of what he's saying. Because if this service takes hold, and if vast numbers of users begin to get comfortable with "access" to — instead of "owning" — music, that 50% of his business is going to shrink by a factor of 10. His dollars are about to become dimes. And then pennies. And then… poof.
Again, from the consumer perspective, this is all great. I'm hearing a lot more music now than I've ever heard. As Google's Marisa Mayer (VP Search Products and User Experience) correctly pointed out, more efficient search "means people find more things in same amount of time."
But the big behavior change that Google Music takes farther down the field (and remember, we're already well inside the 10 yard line…) is the expedience of streaming over downloading. With Lala's player jacked into the search results, a whole new legion of users is going start thinking "hey, for a dime a track, I can listen to TEN TIMES as much music as I can listen to by downloading MP3s…" and then the Dominos of the world are really going to start falling.
The most telling moment of the whole nearly-90-minute press conference came very close to the end, when one of the journalists in attendance asked the panel how the revenue from these transactions is going to be distributed.
Mos Def — who had been sort of mumbling and incoherent earlier in the proceedings — pointed to the 800 pound gorilla in the room: " "they don't want to talk about that," he said, clearly enough for the whole room to erupt in laughter. Nervous, gallows-humor laughter.
You have to give the label conglomerates some kind of credit; by getting on board with something like this, they at least acknowledge that the technology is now their master, and they are doing what they can to adapt (finally). You just have to wonder when they're going realize that the train is going over a cliff.
Enough already. I learned about some bands I've never heard of before at yesterday's press conference. Now I need to go "consume" some more free music…
One of the pivotal debates in this whole "Celestial Jukebox" reality is "what is recorded music worth in an era of infinite access?" The disturbing, if approximately correct answer is "something close to zero."
That's a great price point if you like listening to music – not such a great price point if you happen to be the poor creative shlub who is writing and recording the music.
So here is Techdirt's Michael Masnick explaining the economics of scarcity (physical products) -v- the economics of abundance (digital copies) in an easy to follow "UPS" animation, complete with circles and arrows:
Here’s an album and performer who grabs you from the first bars, from
the first verse. I think I’d heard the name then saw Charles
Alexander’s nod on Facebook to a Lefsetz commentary this morning. As usual, went
straight to Lala to see what the fuss is about. Follow the digital
bread crumbs… I’ve found my “new music fix” for the week.
I suspect we'll be hearing quite a bit about the Google+Lala.com alliance that is supposed to be officially announced sometime today. In the meantime, there are other angles on the Lala story that warrant some attention.
Yesterday Ars Technica offered up a nice recap of how Lala.com reorganized itself over the past several years to stand now at the threshold of game-changing status by virtue of its pending alliance with Google. But a bigger story lies in what is pending for the iPhone.
It appears the cloak of secrecy is being pulled back from the iPhone app that Lala.com has had in beta-testing for a couple of weeks now. And the Associated Press is reporting that the app will be touted as the tool that sends MP3 downloading into the ash-heap of digital music delivery:
"There's no downloading, no links to click on, it's just there," said Lala co-founder Bill Nguyen, who described the concept as the start of "the end of the MP3."
The advantage of having songs in MP3 files is that they can be downloaded and played on a variety of devices and computers. Meanwhile, streaming services pump music directly to a computer or mobile device, but not in a form that the user can store and play any time, even while offline.
Lala's iPhone app aims to get around that downside of streaming while taking advantage of the device's power as a music player (it has an iPod inside it, after all) and undercutting the prices charged on iTunes, where songs generally cost 69 cents to $1.29.
Once users pay 10 cents to have a song streamed from Lala, they can hear the track essentially any time. The songs that a user listens to most often in the app or designates as favorites are automatically loaded in the phone's memory, which is the step that allows them to be heard any time, even out of cell phone range.
That last provision sounds like something of a hybrid, and is not unlike what is already being attributed to the iPhone app for Spotify. That capability at least allows for the possibility that you're not always going to have access to decent wireless broadband (as I did not over the past five days in the West Carolina mountains; not even downtown Asheville, NC had decent 3G service. What's up with that??).
But based on my own experience, I don't think what Mr. Nguyen suggests is an exaggeration at all. Lala.com — especially once it gets on the iPhone — is a potential game changer, because it has the potential to get users accustomed to the idea that they don't need to "own" the music they want to listen to.
This is all great for us as end-users, but I still want to know what is going to happen to the already crumbling economics of the music business when "a dime a track" becomes the norm.
If getting on board with paid-for downloads was the light at the end of digital music tunnel, then Lala.com's dime-a-track model on the iPhone is the locomotive behind the light.
Oh, Garth Brooks is just gonna have a heart palpitating seizure when he starts getting wind of this news.
You really do have to give Garth Brooks some kind of credit — for putting his head so deep in the analog sand that his digital ass is just ripe for a swift kicking.
It’s not ironic enough that — after sitting on the sidelines for most of this millennium — he’s now following in the tracks of trail-blazers like Elvis and Liberace and taking his act to Las Vegas. No, not only that, but now that Garth Van Winkle has awakened, he actually seems to think that the past ten years haven’t happened:
“What I find myself doing with these record label heads is they’re going, ‘Hey, we’re doing great!’ And the truth is, they’re doing great with what they’ve got to work with. But the truth is, they’re making one-twentieth of what they should be making. The people that are running Taylor Swift‘s place? Those people, even though they’re the most successful, I betcha in the ’90s, they would’ve made 10 times more — without piracy and without having to sell everything at 99 cents. If that young lady, if for every single she sold, she sold an album, those people could have money for artist development again and for taking chances.”
Marshal McLuhan knew all about that kind of logic. He called it “seeing the future through a rear-view mirror.” Something about moving backward, “rump bumping into the future…”
Garth Brooks has the reputation of being a pretty smart guy, but you do have to wonder if spending the past ten years at home with his children hasn’t somehow possessed him of the delusion that toothpaste can go back into the tube.
And now, here he is, putting his Stetson back on and getting back on his virtual high horse to take on the 99c download — just as that whole model itself stands on the threshold of obsolescence.
I sure wish I could be around to see the expression on Garth’s face when he finds out that what used to be a dollar is now… a dime.
What I think is even more interesting, from the standpoint of a
meta-marketer, is the way this further positions Google as the champion
of user experience. Structured semantic search results are going to
continue to emerge, and they will put relevant answers in the path of the searcher, not just options for a possible destination.
If your business has historically provided stock quotes, then you
already experienced this when Google (and other engines) put stock
quotes at the top of search results for a ticker symbol.
If you’re a music content provider, you’re about to experience this.
If your business hasn’t been affected yet, it probably will soon.
Spotify is big in the UK — where, I guess, you can actually get it. So it’s not surprising that a British source would make unflattering comments about not only the pending new “Google Music” service, but Lala.com as well:
Hyped overnight as a Google ‘Music Service’, what we see instead is set to be the most underwhelming launch in a long history of label-backed music flops. It’s barely a ‘service’ – merely a sorry widget that yokes a DRM-crippled version of LaLa’s already unpopular streaming offering with unsold Adwords inventory.
Instead of a text ad, a search for a music related keyword will show a widget. This allows you to listen to the song, according to Business Week – but only once. After that you pay to hear the stream at 10c a play. (You can also buy the song.)
Don’t all rush at once.
Ah, apparently they haven’t done their research there. You don’t pay “10c a play” to hear the song again. With lala.com you pay 10c for the track and then you can listen to it as much as you want, forever and for always.
Now granted, that’s not quite as encompassing a model as a flat monthly fee for all your ears can eat, but it certainly makes a buck go farther than shelling out 99c to download the track when the fact is all we really want to do is LISTEN to it.