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Music’s New Conundrum: Too Much Choice? – MusicTank

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Music’s New Conundrum: Too Much Choice?

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Web 2.0’s music consumers’ paradise of unlimited music poses one overriding question: how do fans discover the music they want amidst the clamour of a thousand different advisory voices?



1. Keynote (Summary) – TOM ROBINSON

Hard to stay on topic, but I’ll do my best to focus.  Too much choice?  For who?  Assume we’re talking about ‘the majority of the record buying public’ – but who are they?  Industry has a history of patronising consumers – pigeon-holing into demographics like ‘sun readers’, ‘mums & dads’ etc.  The implication here is that people are too stupid to know what they actually LIKE.

Two recent celebrity deaths spring to mind: Alan Freeman and John Peel.  One a ‘top 40 man’, the voice of the charts for many years, the other a ‘midnight mumbler’ dealing mainly in obscurity.  John Peel is the one who will be remembered for years to come, despite the obscurity of his tastes – supports the notion that choice is good, that there’s much to be found outside traditional channels – this is what John Peel gave people: choice.

Also interesting to ask when the amount of choice was supposed to be ‘right’?  I started really listening in ’63, heard Manfred Mann, asked for it down the local record shop and the proprietor hadn’t even heard of him.  So I bought The Beatles instead.  That kind of thing wouldn’t happen today.  Gateways to music have always been there, but have they really served us that well?  John Peel was an exception, but let’s be honest – most were poor.

Online opens up huge possibilities.  Stations are now global, can choose to listen to exactly what you like. And it’s not just choice in terms of which gateways, you can also choose when and how you listen, choose the time and manner of your listening experience.  ‘Listen again’ on BBC radio for example – much more freedom.

I asked my son what he listens to.  He agreed that there is too much stuff out there, he just found a radio station he liked and kept listening.  The station – Soma FM – is massively varied, funded by donations.  He just decided he liked it – and uses it as a gateway for new music before buying on iTunes (doesn’t use Limewire which only caters for the mainstream).

Lived in East Germany for a while – no choice whatsoever there, musical or otherwise.  When the wall finally came down I invited an East German friend to come over and experience London – he couldn’t believe the level of choice over here, how well we were catered for and how wasteful we are (choice does have its downside I guess). Nonetheless, the level of choice we have across the board as consumers is incredible – and no-one seems to have a problem with the level of choice we have in groceries at Tesco.  Why should music be any different?

As a musician this transition has only been a positive thing for me.  Old recordings can be made available for free, with just a donate button next to the links for those that wish to contribute.  Works for me.  When I started out, the only way to get any exposure was to get a record deal.  I’ve just helped with an album from a little-known singer-songwriter called Ian Griffiths.  We recorded the album for next to nothing, shot the video on a cheap camera and edited with free software from the internet.  This stuff really can be done on a budget – now he’s been played on Steve Lamacq.  All he needed was TO BE GOOD – we’re now living in an age of real possibility.

The vast majority of the record buying public are not stupid and the record companies are being forced to realise this.


Andrew Keen:  The reality, however, is that the industry is shrinking, fewer people are buying recorded music. Less is bought, less is produced – that’s no good for anyone.One of the main reasons people aren’t buying (i.e. the biggest) is piracy – lack of value recognition.  The thing that’s being killed is the physical copy, industry is dying – recorded music ending up as promo material for gigging.  Not good or bad per se, just the way things are going.  People talk about democratisation, the ‘cutting out of the middle man’ – I don’t really see it.

The problem with the primacy of live music is that we just see new hierarchies and elites emerging – only people with the money to pay for tickets will get to see them.  This is reverting to medieval times, patronage etc.  Actually restricting access.

Richard Fero:  We spend a lot of our time listening to the consumer – no-one has ever claimed there’s too much choice, just claim they might need a bit of help.  They embrace choice, just looking for a bit of direction.  Looking for trusted places, word of mouth – passionate muso mates who make recommendations.  Consumers broadly see the current situation as positive.

Paul Brown:  The Pandora service started in the US, personalised radio – about discovery.  Objective is to connect artists to consumer as directly as possible, and to help people discover new music they’ll like.  Now have 8.5m users in the US, service is completely ad-funded.

I’m very excited by the possibilities – acknowledge problems, especially the older generation can find the transition tough.  Then again, we still revert to old principles – trust the filters that serve you well and treat you as if you have a brain.

Maybe people do have a tendency to snack, but if you give people what they like then they will hang around.  We’re constantly in contact with our listeners, and we know they appreciate the choice we give them – they find it exciting.

David Jennings:  The music industry may be shrinking, but culturally music is growing. More gigs, more artists, more labels – faster growth than industry shrink.

Technological possibility has opened this all up.  Sometimes people want choice, some don’t – different types of consumer.  The bloggers, the nerds etc at one end, the chart listeners at the other – interesting dynamics.

Richard Fero:  We’ve looked at music cultural growth, mapping different consumer groups on the basis of their relationship with music.  The number of enthusiasts is actually GROWING – especially females.  Technology is allowing people to get more into the music.

Charlie Rapino:  Too much stuff out there – choice is hard because so much stuff is mediocre these days. Consumerism breeds homogeneity – makes everyone equal.  Seems to be too much focus on delivery methods etc these days, not the product itself.  We’re focused on working to deadlines rather than quality.  My analogy is a pizza restaurant – the best ones are those run by the head chef who really cares about the quality of the product.  Today’s labels are like pizza restaurants that are run by the delivery boys.

Tom Robinson:  Sales deadlines that Charlie mentions is a good point.  Would like to ask AK about stratification, hierarchies though.  When Prince subsidises giving an album away for free by fleecing the well-heeled elite this genuinely makes the music available to all.  How can that not be democratisation?

Andrew Keen:  I don’t believe that artists put as much effort in when they’re giving their work away for free – will be watered down.

Tom Robinson:  Reminded of the Mick Hucknall story.  When he was negotiating a deal with EMI he asked someone to find out how much the label were earning from each sale in comparison to himself.  Unimpressed with the answer, he split with the label and started selling his albums via his own website.  Sales profoundly decreased but he DID earn much more then when the release was label-financed.

Paul Brown:  Industry not in decline – the traditional recorded music market is in decline.  Old model, not of relevance any more – saying this was the ‘be all and end all’ does a disservice to the indies, the guys who were doing it on their own.  Many more artists have a voice now – new channels.  May be mediocre, but if people like it…

David Jennings: Whoever said they wanted less choice?  I’ve always wanted more choice.  Fan discovery is absolutely vital, people want more music now than ever before.

Keith Harris:  (Chairman, MusicTank):  All this talk of Simply Red, Prince – how can this sort of model be expected to work for new artists, the ones that didn’t have the marketing muscle before?

Richard Fero: This is the role the taste-makers will come to fulfil, they will bring the quality acts to people’s attention – there are still plenty of places to go for people to get heard.

Charlie Rapino: Things will always stand out if they’re really great.  This is the excellent vs. good distinction, shouldn’t be hard to stand out in our current sea of mediocrity.

Andrew Keen:  I just can’t get over how cheerful everyone is.  The industry is dying!  Pandora is an awful service, algorithms cannot and should not replace human interaction – the music will suffer!

Paul Brown:  AK is of course entitled to his opinion, this is a democracy after all.  I do however take issue with the idea that Pandora is somehow killing record stores. People don’t buy records because they’re not getting the right service – simple as.  We’re giving people the opportunity to hear new music.

Gigs are selling out at unprecedented levels – Pandora is actually motivating people to spend on music.

David Jennings: Pandora is not a panacea, but there’s certainly a proliferation of channels.  Different strokes for different folks.  The guys in the record stores might be struggling, but it’s a new order in which people have to find a place.


Keith Harris:  I guess the key word here is trust – people have to trust others to give them the music they believe in.

  • There does seem to be a basic dishonesty in the premise here.  No-one ever claimed that Tower Records was ‘too big’.  Is the real issue here that there’s too much free choice? i.e. choice between products that people aren’t forced to pay for.

Charlie Rapino:  If it’s a problem with the amount of it being available for free, how come the porn industry isn’t in crisis?

Tom Robinson:  They mostly operate successful subscription services.

Andrew Keen:  The porn industry is actually a good example – they have figured out a way to get people to still pay for their product in the digital age.

  • Selling of silver discs relies on marketing of the product, analogy does not hold.  People in this room make their money from marketing the product, not the music.  These are the people in jeopardy.

Tom Robinson:  And we can’t go on treating each copy or illegal download as a lost sale – it’s not.  These things DO have a value purely in terms of propagating interest.

  • While you can’t make that assumption, there is no denying that the widespread availability of illegal copies does hit sales.

Tom Robinson:  Not for all artists though – it might hit the occupants of the top 20 hard.  These are the guys that are losing the labels money.  The ones without the airplay, the exposure – they benefit.

David Jennings:  The analogy of labels as pimps in my book – these are the guys encouraging the artists to churn them out.  Indies have always been laissez-faire about DRM etc, as they’re willing to ‘put out’ in order to increase their exposure.

Andrew Keen:  Still a prevailing attitude that music should be free.  Music has always been sold as if it belongs to the consumer, that personal connection.  The consequence of this is stealing.  This is not replicated in the porn industry.

Charlie Rapino:  Certain types of entrepreneurs took away the charm associated with music – you have to make people NEED to own the original.  The product has been watered down, it’s inevitable.

  • The problem arose with CDs, led to a compulsion to fill the capacity.  The quality went down when people started to think a release had to be ‘this’ long.  I heard of one fiercely independent artist who played as SXSW and fended off deals.  Directed everyone to his myspace page and made £11 per album sold.

Richard Fero:  People are willing to pay, they DO want to give back to the artists.  Research shows that the artists people are passionate about DO get paid.

  • There has been a disconnection between the artist and the general public.  If people do care, then they’ll pay – people want to feel like they’re needed by the artists.  When people are confronted with the idea of an artist getting paid for the work they do, they will pay.

David Jennings:  People do generally care about the consequences of their actions – look at the fur trade.

  • People who purport to be worried about music being ‘commodified’ shouldn’t pontificate – it’s the PROFITS that are under threat, not the music. Music is simply going back to its roots.

Andrew Keen: 
This is being looked at the wrong way – you shouldn’t be making a purchasing decision on the basis of an ethical appraisal of the artist, it should be about the PRODUCT.

  • The industry is ALWAYS lagging in terms of technology, no-one ever seems to embrace the technological changes that are happening, always looking back over former glories.

David Jennings:  Consolidation is a worry – three levels (net, blogs and rock & roll).  Net neutrality is important in terms of maintaining access for those have supposedly been liberated by the internet revolution.

  • I’m also Italian, and like CR’s pizza analogy.  We’re moving towards a pizza express culture – people don’t learn their craft like they used to, people haven’t been weaned on the right stuff.  People aren’t genuinely learning about music any more, we need more government involvement.

Andrew Keen:  This isn’t a technological discussion, it’s a cultural one – this is why people are so impassioned.  I am sympathetic to the audience view, we shouldn’t want this dumbing down.  People are losing the value of thought and contemplation in this world of a thousand voices.

  • Are less people learning how to play musical instruments these days?

Richard Fero:  We have tracked enthusiasm over the years, passionate vs passive.   The top group of passionate music consumers is growing, so people’s enthusiasm for music does seem to be increasing.  No stats on actual musicianship though.

Keith Harris: We should avoid being too elitist here though, the programming suite is also a musical instrument.

Tom Robinson:  It just comes down to judgement.  You don’t have to be a classical genius to produce a great record, it’s about having the judgement to know what to discard, what to embellish etc.  The masses (by and large) don’t have this.  Consumers are now empowered to make choices about who has the best judgement FOR THEMSELVES.