Tag - subscription service

We Can Gather, and We Can Sing

The "6 Chair Pickin' Party"

The “6 Chair Pickin’ Party”

Three things happened yesterday which, if I can adequately weave the path through them, attest to the current state of music, address the current debate on the subject and,  ultimately, gently, point a way into the future…

FIRST:  I had a moment on that antiquated old medium called “radio.”

As I was getting out of the shower yesterday morning and making the bed, I turned on WPLN (Nashville’s NPR affiliate) and heard a promo bumper for “On Point,” the program out of Boston that follows “Morning Edition.” I heard the show’s host, Tom Ashbrook, announce that he would be discussing the streaming music royalties debate that has taken on new strength in the past week since some guy in a band called “Radiohead” (irony abounds) announced  that he was pulling his music from Spotify and other streaming services, on the pretext that “it doesn’t pay new artists enough…”  or some such nonsense.

As soon as the show came on the air and they announced the call-in number, I dialed in.  Wonder of wonders, I was quick enough to get a ring instead of a busy signal (this might have been the second or third time I tried to call that program, parts of which I hear almost every morning).  A producer picked up the line a few moments later.  I told him what I had in mind to say and he said, “OK, if Tom takes the call, say ‘Hi Tom…’. Don’t say “good morning” because the show is rebroadcast at different times during the day…”

Commence heart pounding.

Then I went about making breakfast, and sat down to eat it, while listening to the discussion on my telephone headset.  And then in between a bite of eggs and grapes I hear, “Paul from Nashville, you’re on the air…”

Gulp.

I then proceeded to verbally fall off my breakfast barstool.  You can hear the whole embarrassing episode here, but since this is digital retrospect, I will repeat it more precisely as I would have said it if my heart had been pumping at something closer to a normal rate:

1) When this guy Tom Yorke says that he’s pulling his stuff off of Spotify because it doesn’t pay new artists enough, that is an “altruistic red herring.”  He’s really not concerned about new artists so much as he is about the apparent decline of revenue inherent in the shift from unit sales (i.e. 99c per download regardless of how many times you listen to a track) to fractions-of-a-penny payments per stream per listener (where you only get paid by how much a song is listened to – and then, not very much).

This professed concern for “new artists” strikes me as  a smokescreen, and actually contrary to what new artists need.  As I did manage to point out on the air, I’m much more likely to become interested in a new artist if I can actually hear their music, which is a lot harder to do if their music is not on a service like Spotify.

Actually, I really don’t know Radiohead all that well… maybe I should go listen to some of their music on Spoti….oh, wait…

2) Behind the smokescreen of his concern for “new artists,” I think that what Mr. Yorke and his ilk are really professing is that the industrial-age model of selling music in discrete units – that bear a high price because of their relative scarcity – should some how be preserved in the digital era – when the quantity of ‘content’ that is now available approaches infinity.  Well, get a clue buddy.  Buy a vowel.  You cannot drag the old model into the new reality.  Let go of the nuts, silly monkey, and you can at least keep your hand…

Anyway, that’s what I meant to say; Instead I made some clunky allusion to buggy whips.  I’m pretty sure the cliche police will be knocking on my door any minute now…

3) If these jokers really want to make an issue of something that is unfair in the music biz, they should join the crusade to get terrestrial radio (i.e. “broadcast” radio – which is actually radio; “internet radio” is just an oxymoron, and destructive one at that, because its use compels us to think that the medium is something that clearly it is not…) to pay royalties for the recordings that they broadcast.

As it stands, broadcast radio pays royalties only for the compositions – the songs – that are broadcast on the public air.  The United States is one of the very few countries in the world that pays nothing to the artists or labels who produce the actual recordings.

if you want parity between analog and digital, if you want more money from the use of your music… start there. Of course that’s assuming you can actually get your music on radio.  Good luck with that…

Anyway, that’s more precisely what I was trying to say in my 15 seconds of fame on the radio yesterday.  Thanks to whoever heard that and is now reading this for the opportunity to indulge in perfect 20/20 verbal hindsight.

SECOND: I direct your attention to a blog post by the erudite and pithy Kidd Redd, a partner at Nashville’s Flo Thinkery – which figures because he is clearly something of an original thinker in his own right.   In his “Stylerant” post yesterday, Mr. Redd addressed the same issue that “On Point” addressed that morning.  Follow the link to read the whole thing; In the meantime here’s the paragraph I thought was pertinent (scroll down to Starving Musicians):

So listeners download, and they stream. It is only natural for artists like Thom Yorke to suddenly stop dancing weirdly and say, wait a minute, I need to do something to make people understand that this making of music really is hard work, it has enormous value, and you can’t have my album for free. Slow clap, Thom. I’ve always thought that artists who don’t like the deal should simply pull their music. Good for you. Only thing is, no one will care. NO ONE, except music biz peeps and your Mama. People have lives in which music is only a part. Maybe a big part, and a part we would all be sad to live without, but then again, we won’t have to. We can gather, and we can sing.

“We can gather and we can sing.”  As anybody who has followed my musings on these subjects over the years will recall, that premise is central to my thesis, my as-yet unwritten “Grand Nebulous Theory of the Future of Everything, Music in Particular.” Which goes something like this:

At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will look back on the era of industrialized music – wherein music became a product, packaged and shipped and sold like soap – as a brief, anomalous period in the annals of human history.

The ultimate, end result of the disinter-mediation of the digital era is going to be a return to something more akin to music as it was before there were recordings:  less as an expression of popular, mass culture, and more a manifestation of community spirit.  We are going to stop expecting that music is something that somebody else – the Tom Yorkes of the word – does for us, and something that we do for ourselves.   Music not as something that you buy, but something that you make.

THIRD: That point was graphically – and aurally – driven home last night at a home in the hilly and leafy West Meade neighborhood of Nashville where a small congregation of hand-made music and song lovers gathered… and sang.

The event was the the revival of a tradition that was very much at the heart of my Nashville experience for the first 8 years that I lived here – Mike Williams “6 Chair Pickin’ Party” – where Mike and his wife Kathy would invite a half-dozen songwriters into their home – along with typically 40-50 guests – to swap songs and stories around a faux electric camp fire.

kateo6chairs

Another view of last night’s “Pickin’ Party” – photo purloined from Kate O’Neill’s Facebook page…

In the late 90s and early aughts, Mike’s Pickin’ Party was a Nashville institution.  Three Wednesdays of almost every month (the exception being when Mike and Kathy spent a month in Kerrville, TX, doing pretty much the same thing in the open late night/early morning air), some of the best singer/songwriters in the world would climb the steep hill to Mike and Kathy’s house, past the sign that said “Park on street… Sing on key…” to play their hits and their personal favorites for an enthusiastic audience tightly huddled in the living room.

The parties were discontinued in 2003 when  Kathy was chosen to serve as CEO of the whole international Girl Scouts organization, and she and Mike took up residence in a loft in lower Manhattan.  They tried to host similar parties there, but that effort was discontinued when the other residents objected to all the traffic in the one small elevator that served their entire building.

On a personal note (as if this whole blog post is not personal notes?) and as I explained to one of the performers last night, the best thing I’ve done since I’ve been in Nashville started at Mike Williams’ pickin’ parties, when I asked a few people I’d met there, “what would you think if I tried to sell some of your CDs on the Internet…?”  That was in the spring of 1995 (yikes!), so of course I had to explain to most of the people I was talking to just what the Internet was (and once they figured it out I sold the business to them…).

Mike and Kathy are back in Nashville now – they had the foresight to hang on their house here for the decade that they were in NYC – and they’re cranking up the Pickin’ Parties again with a series of events every other week in July and August.  They travel a lot in a big ol’ motorhome that was their retirement gift to themselves, but when they’re in town, Mike says, there will be parties.

And if you could have been there last night – as you are welcome to be at the next three parties, on July 31, August 14 and 28 (contact me for info) – then, I believe, you would have seen the real future of music.

If you had been there, you would have been part of room filled with talent and heart and whimsy and laughter, great playin’ pickin’ and singin’, an audience that did not hesitate to sing along and oh…did I mention heart? I heard some of the best songs I’ve ever heard last night.  Songs like Whit Hill’s “Stethoscope”, a song that you would likely never hear on the radio but nevertheless fires a harpoon right into your heart.  Or Laurie McClain’s “My Heaven.”  Here, listen for yourself:

 

So yesterday was an intriguing, unpredictable confluence of events and musings that, taken together, somehow demonstrate the trajectory that we’re somewhere in the still-early or maybe middle stages of: The real future of music is not about downloads, streaming, radio or “American Idol,” or who gets paid how much for what.  The real future of music is like its distant past: people… gathered and singing.

 

 

 

Lefsetz Nails “The Model,” Pareles Nails “The Cloud”

Hard to imagine, I know, but every now and then I read something that sums up the State Of The Arts far more succinctly than I have ever done with my rambling missives.  Today I wish to share two such somethings with you, my vast and loyal readership.

There are two sides to this “music business” equation (a proxy for all business, really) that are effected by evolving technologies.  There’s the creator/producer side, and then there’s the user/audience side.

Again, the easiest nomenclature for the user/audience side would be “consumer;” Then we could just call  the two sides of the transaction producers and consumers.  But the distinction is important: particularly where “digital” music is concerned, there is no “consumption.” Consumption applies, to, say, grapes: when you eat a grape, that grape is gone.  It has been consumed.  But when you listen to a digital recording, or even purchase a track from a server somewhere, nothing is “consumed.”  The original is still there.

I keep stressing this bit of pedantics because I firmly believe that thought processes are formed by language. Vocabulary determines perspective and maybe even attitude.  That’s why I keep reminding readers that “Internet radio” is an oxymoron, and you can’t paste a “label” on a stream of electrons and digits.  But I digress…

From the user side of the equation, it was encouraging to read this assessment of the burgeoning new market for “cloud” services from Jon Pareles, a senior music critic at the New York Times:

I can’t wait. Ever since music began migrating online in the 1990s I have longed to make my record collection evaporate — simply to have available the one song I need at any moment, without having to store the rest.

That’s the promise of “The Celestial Jukebox” that I have also been anticipating since the mid 90s – “whatever you want to hear, whenever you want to hear it, wherever you are.”  As Pareles points out, we still wait for “the bastards to let us.” Read More

I’m NOT The Only One: Passman Thinks Sub Services Are The Future, Too

I don't know if I've ever read Donald Passman's book, All You Need to Know About the Music Business.  I think I might have glanced through it when I first arrived in Nashville in 1994.  The whole business is in such a state of flux right now that trying to compile it all into a book strikes me as aiming a Howitzer at a moving target, but Passman has been re-issuing this book for almost 20 years now and I guess old habits die hard. 

In any event, I'm pleased to see that Mr. Passman thinks well of the future of subscriptions services as the ultimate form of digital music delivery, despite the speed bumps such services have encountered along the way: 

Q: Why do you think subscription-based services (such as Rhapsody) haven't really taken off? 

A: Passman: They're not convenient enough, they're not truly cross-platform. For me, the ultimate would be anytime-anywhere access to any music for one subscription. On my computer, in my car, on a connected device, whether it's an
iPod or something else, on an airplane when I don't have an Internet connection. Not just tied to one or two devices. I'm personally a believer in subscription services. People don't think twice about paying for cable, and when you stop paying it goes away. But with music, there's a kneejerk reaction because we're used to owning it.

via news.cnet.com

Which nicely echoes the point that I've been making all along: Besides the clunky interfaces, the biggest obstacle to more widespread acceptance for music subscriptions services is the persistence of the illusion of "ownership."   

Which, again, is why I'm one of the few who thinks the Google partnership with Lala such a potential game changer.  Yes, I know, Lala is not a flat-fee subscription service (yet?).  But the user interface works exceptionally well — is far superior to Rhapsody or the latest incarnation of Napster (from what I hear).  

So users will find Lala from its new links in Google music searches, discover its ease of use, and become enraptured with the virtually infinite quantities of music they can absorb when they don't have to "own" it to listen to it.  From there it's a short leap from Lala's current "nickel and dime" approach to "just let me pay a flat monthly fee and open the flood gates."

Add an iPhone app (presently in beta) to that scenario and it's pretty much "game over." 

Spotify Fans Weigh in on “Google’s sorry music widget”

Logo_400_90 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.

It’s A Start: 500k New Users Download Rhapsody for iPhone

Rhapsody Rhapsody’s iPhone app has been downloaded 500,000 time according to the company.  “Over 500K shrewd users have decided that unlimited access to practically any song, practically anywhere ain’t such a bad idea,” wrote Rhapsody’s Garrett Kamps on the company’s blog. Exactly how many are also paying $12.99 a month for a Rhapsody Unlimited subscription was not disclosed

via www.hypebot.com

I pulled an ad for the Rhapsody iPhone app out of the new issue of Rolling Stone over the weekend, and I plan to try it out. Rhapsody has struggled to find a viable business model, but it’s entirely possible that mobile availability could be the ingredient that pushes it to prosperity. People are slowly getting used to the idea that they don’t need to “own” what they want to listen to. They don’t “own” what they hear on the radio, this is like “radio on demand.”

Orphan Business Model Attracts More Prospective Parents

For a business model that supposedly has no future, there sure are a lot companies trying to jump on to the "Celestial Jukebox" bandwagon. Earlier this week I read that British TV company BSkyB is planning a subscription service called "SkySongs." Now comes another entrant, from the guys who brought you Kazaa.  The New York Times reports:

The idea of selling monthly subscriptions to a vast catalog of online music has met with only limited success. That isn’t stopping a new batch of entrepreneurs from trying to make it work, The New York Times’s Brad Stone writes.

The latest and perhaps most surprising entrants to the field are the European entrepreneurs Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis. In 2001, they created and financed Kazaa, one of the original peer-to-peer file-sharing services that hurt the music industry. The two have created and financed a secretive start-up called Rdio, with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

I've lost count now, how many subscription services are now climbing on the Celestial Jukebox bandwagon. Let's see… Rhapsody and Napster are now the old kids on the block. There's my personal fave, Lala.com. There's the infinitely over-hyped Spotify, now I read about something called "Mog," there's the BSkyB service that is supposed to launch next week, and now Rdio, from the Kazaa guys.
For a model that so many people scoff at, the landscape is starting to get crowded. Hopefully I can get a decent count of the options before they start shaking each other out…

Breaking News! Music Biz Needs “Radical Overhaul” !

One of tenets of the “Music 3.0” concept that I’m articulating here is that the experience is less about the “product” and more about… well, the “experience.”

Now uber-market research firm Forrester (via Ars Technica) confirms the theory, and takes a few sacred cows — like Digital Rights Management (DRM) and 20th Century copyright law — over the falls with them.

There is even an elaborate diagram that attempts to illustrate the myriad ways that “users” will cease to be “consumers” in the new era. The “creators” will not so much offer up an end-product as they will drop a marker that starts the process — around which will form the various tribes who will respond in kind:

Forrester_music_ars

The music industry needs a “radical overhaul” to its products if it wants to revive sales, and that overhaul revolves around actually catering to consumer needs. That’s the argument in a new report from market research firm Forrester, which says that the music business needs to give up being obsessed with itself in favor of letting users create their own music experiences with ease. This goes far beyond offering mere albums for purchase—Forrester suggests users be allowed to completely customize and share their music in an extremely open, platform-agnostic manner.

First and foremost, the firm says consumers have the “right” to a unique music experience. This means that they should be able to completely customize what they’re looking at and listening to by having lyrics, on-demand live footage, photos, live chat with other fans, expandable music/video players, and more right at their fingertips. Imagine the recently introduced iTunes LP, but with much more content to choose from and fully customizable.

So this new model, it’s not so much about the shouting as it is about the “call and response.”  That is an expression of the return to the “oral traditions” of music that will thrive in the new era in which music is no longer “product” based.

Unfortunately, the Forrester Research report that Ars Technica cites above can only be had in its entirety for the low, low price of just $499.  That’s a bit of a deterrent to precisely the kind of “mash up” the report would seem to encourage.

But, then, $500 is a bit much to pay for something that seems so… obvious.

Spotify: It’s a Start

Tonight, Spotify boss Daniel Ek admitted that less than 10% of Spotify subscribers had upgraded to the Premium version.

Spotify claims over 1 million subscribers but only a maximum of 90,000 of them are stumping up £10 a month for the ad-free Premium service. That means it brings in just £900,000 a month – not small change but not enough to make the service profitable.

It's likely that the Spotify Mobile app on Android and iPhone will increase those numbers but Spotify is keeping just how much close to its chest.

Ek told the crowd at the Glasshouse that Spotify could be profitable if it "chose to be" but that he's focused on developing the business.

via stuff.tv

I suppose that for most users, the occasional ad is a small price to "pay." I would say though that the fact that there are a million users is not insignificant. That represents the leading edge of a constituency that is going to get used to hearing whatever they want, whenever they want. And if Apple ever approves the iPhone app, you can add "wherever" to the equation.

More Spotify: Access -v- Ownership

Spotify

The catch? Spotify’s paying customers are still just renting songs, for about $13-$16 per month, depending on the country in which the listener resides. Most discussion of Spotify has centered around a trend toward streaming music rather than owning it, when in fact the more critical question is whether it can persuade a significant percentage of consumers to rent songs rather than just listen for free. (Otherwise, it’d be just another free music site, doomed to face the same struggles as MySpace Music.) I doubt that many free users will convert to paying customers, for a few reasons:

  • By and large, consumers aren’t all that interested in renting music. When each last revealed its numbers, neither of the two leading music rental services, RealNetworks’ Rhapsody and Napster, had more than a million paying subscribers.

via gigaom.com

I fundamentally disagree.

That’s what paradigm shifts are about: changes in behavior. Yeah, in the existing paradigm, people actually think they “own” music. In fact, all they own is a license to listen to the music, delivered on some kind of disk or wafer (or digital file). Behavior will change when the audience begins to understand that, for the cost of “owning” 10 tracks, they will have access to the entire universe of recorded music. And when the technology becomes both reliable and ubiquitous.

And, as I keep saying, the amazing thing about Spotify is not the model or the depth of the catalog, but all the buzz it generates about being the “iTunes killer” when it is not even generally available in the country that has the most iTunes users.

Nevertheless, the buzz around Spotify serves the useful purpose, of educating the public to the possibilities.