David Emery - The Music Industry Didn't Die

26 Sep 2013

I’ve been watching books.

Or rather, not.

For the last week or so on my daily zig-zag across the capital I’ve been trying to spot people reading books. I think for the purposes of informal but informative data collection I’ve got a good sample size, across morning commutes, day time train jaunts and late night bus rides. The full spectrum of people reading in public except, say, a lazy lunchtime spent underneath a tree disappearing. But close enough to do.

And how many books did I see?

One.

One lonely, battered copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on a dank and humid tube carriage. I suppose if you were to see a book in the wild there must be a not insignificant chance that it would be from J K Rowlings’ repertoire.

One book then, but that’s of course not to say that their weren’t people _reading._ And in a multitude of different ways and forms. I was originally planning to count up all the assorted devices being used but I lost count, for shame, but the key word is “devices” – in this very modern tip-of-the-iceberg sample group, the book is dead. Not dying; done. The knife is firmly in the hand of the Kindle – that much almost goes without saying – but it’s also a death by a thousand other cuts with the proliferation of an assorted variety of iPads, tablets and e-readers.

For books, this is a new. The Kindle was born in 2007, but didn’t become available on these shores until 2009, a scant 4 years ago. 4 years to leave a dogeared edition of a story about a wizard as physical literatures last ambassador. But despite that, there’s still so much obvious scope for innovation and revolution – where’s the Spotify for books? Or, say, the equivalent of a free promotional MP3? Less than half a decade is long enough to completely change things, but it’s phase one of something wholly new.

For books, the fun is just getting started.

TV and film are further down this road, but it’s also – due to the entertaining mess that is the field of global video rights – a twisty one. A twisty one, with some significant potholes in. In fact, you know in the film ‘Speed’, where they somehow successfully jump a bus over a impossibly large 50 ft gap in an unfinished highway? Imagine that with potholes, no run up and it happening in the real world where there’s actually physics.

I may have stretched that metaphor a tad too far, but you get my point. Video rights are tricky.

Countless words have been bashed out of late on the rise of Netflix, and with good reason – it’s interesting and what they are doing there is interesting. They are taking the medium in a direction that is modern and casts off the existing tropes of video distribution, of TV shows coming out week by week, or paying a la carte for films.

Netflix though, is by no means “it”. There are countless players, and this is all still a niche that is only now starting to impact on the mass market. And those countless players also means countless fragmentation, of certain content being only available through certain places, and the all the problems with piracy and consumer confusion that comes along with. It’s an area that’s innovative, disruptive, ever changing but ultimately still a mess as anyone who has ever tried to watch a new episode of Game of Thrones will tell you.

Music, then.

When placed next to books and video, music is the older, wiser brother. The revolutions that other forms of media are only going through now happened years ago for music. It’s a story we all know well, of course, but the transition from Napster to iPod to iTunes to mass-market digital consumption is easy to take for granted now.

The digital music market today is a mature – while still ever changing and adapting – market. Singles are digital now, and roughly 50% of albums sales are as well. Out of all media – ignoring for the moment video games, as that market is far newer in relative terms and less entrenched – music has handled the ongoing transition from a physical business to a digital one the most successfully.

Of course it’s all still shifting, but that speaks to its maturity and health. Streaming is obviously the hot topic at the moment, but then you look at the streaming market and see quite a few distinct players, all with slightly different feature sets, and all carrying significant licensed music. You don’t get the patchy issues of catalogue you get with video, for example. There’s no equivalent here of the “Game of Thrones problem” – in the large part, all the services have roughly the same content. Yes, there are some noted streaming holdouts and ongoing conversation surrounding that, but that feels like a short term blip, in the same way that the noted holdouts from iTunes were (which, don’t forget, included Radiohead).

Whether you want to file it alongside other streaming services or not, YouTube is probably the most fascinating platform at the moment for music, as even more so then subscription-based services it’s something completely different. It’s completely open and self service, democratic and deeply “Internet” in it’s philosophy. Yet it has the most sophisticated revenue system that the music industry has ever seen. Someone can upload a video they’ve made using an artist’s music, and that artist can choose whether that’s ok and also if they’d like to make money off it, all in real time, all taking into account the vagaries of global rights ownership, and all whilst being surprisingly simple.

Take a step back and think about it for a minute and it’s pretty staggering what they’ve achieved.

Piracy too, seems like a solved problem. For as much as it can ever be solved, of course, but it certainly seems quite irrelevant now, and that’s not because of draconian anti-piracy programs or DRM (remember DRM? Hey, guess what – it’s still all over ebooks and video!), it’s because there are easier and better ways of consuming music. It’s incredibly simple to buy a single through iTunes – way easier then pirating it and wading through dodgy file download sites – and if you want to listen to an album but don’t want to pay for it, there’s countless licensed options for doing it that are again easier and more reliable then piracy.

The future of music, then, is exciting. I’d say it’s more exciting now then it has been in recent memory; gone are the concerns that many people shared that the whole concept of recorded music being sustainable was dead. I think it’s been conclusively proved that digital purchasing of music is attractive, and also that streaming music can be monetized. And the future is for both of them to coexist, alongside other forms of digital music consumption (like YouTube), and to ebb and flow in popularity, with some genres suiting one type of service and model, and others another.

All of this is good.

No one is sitting on their laurels, nothing is stagnating, no one is getting rich quick. There is change, and there are solid foundations upon which to build this change.

10 years ago people used to think that the music industry was doomed.

Here’s to the next 10 years.

David Emery, UK Marketing Director, Kobalt Label Services

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