Posts Tagged ‘music’

Will books be the next records?

December 21, 2009

My post of last week about the exaggerated death of vinyl records (and their resurrection) has got me thinking about the challenge to the physical book from the Kindle and other similar electronic devices.

Will Kindles, and any eventual and probably much sexier Apple i-Tablet thingie, kill books?

The contrast with recorded music is a curious one. Music has had a shifting portability dimension in modern times mainly built around the “player”.

Phonographs and record players had limited mobility, while radios became more portable (but lacked storage/choice elements). As storage media changed (to 8-track cartridges and cassettes) car stereos became possible, and eventually mobile personal stereos (both boombox and Walkman styles) the norm.

With CDs we got sound-quality and durability that created an expectation that our music should be available everywhere. Digital music was thus just the next step. Of course, there was that disruptive technology stage where digital was a poor substitute and the players were clumsy, but Apple sorted that all out for us.

The pace of change in the book industry has been much slower. The basic product is not much different to that of 100 years ago. Yes, the printing technology has been transformed, but the reading experience is pretty much the same. Portability has never varied as the content and the medium have remained one and the same.

The big question then becomes whether the embodiment of the book is more overwhelming for consumers than in the music market. I can see that carrying multiple titles around in a Kindle is more practical when travelling, or as a students, but beyond that I personally am pretty wedded to carrying a single book on public transport, to a cafe etc. I like the diversity of covers, typefaces, textures, weights, sizes etc and associate them strongly with my reading experience.

If others share such emotive connections, are Kindles a real threat to publishers, printers and bookstores? Or are they just the cassette player of the noughties?

Why doesn’t iTunes have a long tail?

September 17, 2009

One of the supposed strategic advantages of online retailers like Amazon and iTunes is their much larger stock of products.

long tail musicAs Chris Anderson has described, if we look at the distribution of popularity of many products (such as books, movies, songs, search phrases) there is a very lengthy tail of titles and choices which the mightily heterogenous world of consumers might be interested in purchasing. Certain firms are very well positioned to take advantage of this long tail phenomenon by either catering solely to some portion of the tail (some micro-niche), by making search for such products practical, and/or by holding massively diverse portfolios.

Amazon has been lauded as a success story based on the last two elements, especially through its aggregation of the used books market. It would seem to do a reasonable job on the music side of things.

Elsewhere in the music market, CD Baby has sold more than 5 million CDs by independent artists (from a current stable of around 278,000 titles) thus tapping into the micro-niche end of the spectrum.

The other big player is Apple’s iTunes, which reportedly has more than 8 million songs on offer. But this is where it seems to fall down.

I have been recently revisiting some CDs from my pretty large collection, in particular a minor Aussie hit album from the mid-1990s by a band called the Clouds. This release charted way back when, along with efforts from other local outfits like Ratcat, The Falling Joys, and The Hummingbirds.

The strange thing is that these albums, once popular enough to justify record deals, have disappeared from the retail environment. They are NOT available from iTunes, nor are they still in print as physical releases.

The bands, their publishers and their original record labels have dropped the ball here. Surely there is little to no cost or risk in getting this material listed on iTunes. Likewise, Apple is being far lazier than I expected in building up the inventory of their store.

Is there perhaps a niche role here for some entrepreneur in identifying back catalogue for iTunes? This could extend to some shopfront for fans of this sort of music (and presumably the same for many other niche genres). A physical counterpart to this is Collingwood’s Aztec Music which rereleases long-lost 70s and 80s albums on vinyl.

At the moment, folks are forced to illegally share access to a considerable portion of history’s record music. When, exactly, will this long tail shift out of the black market?

Disruptive technology amplified

February 18, 2009

I’ve posted on here before about the changing dynamics of the music industry. This interview with marketing guru and bigtime blogger Seth Godin highlights a raft of substantial and probably irreversible shifts that continue to bewilder the big record labels (See also his rearticulation of these ideas on his blog).

Godin has a neat take on the changes too:

This is the greatest moment in the history of music if your dream is to distribute as much music as possible to as many people as possible, or if your goal is to make it as easy as possible to become heard as a musician. There’s never been a time like this before. So if your focus is on music, it’s great. If your focus is on the industry part and the limos, the advances, the lawyers, polycarbonate and vinyl, it’s horrible.

Music disruptive technology iPod beats CDLet’s put this into the language of strategic management ..

Disruptive technologies (internet, low-cost recording and dissemination of audio and increasingly video, filesharing) have diminished considerably (if not almost absolutely) the power of previously dominant players in the field. This includes not only the record labels but also radio, MTV and their cohort channels, bricks and mortar retailers, and producers of CD players and CDs.

Massive shifts in distribution channels away from many of the aforementioned mechanisms. Indeed we have seen almost a polarisation whereby there a few huge-scale outlets for buying digital recordings (i.e. iTunes, Amazon) and small ranges available in large scale retailers (WalMart, Target etc), and then an enormously lengthy tail for buying digital, CD or even vinyl, often directly from the artists, from indie labels or well-conceived aggregators (like CD Baby). And, of course, a huge proportion of the product is exchanged for free through filesharing.

These two phenomena have indeed changed the world of music as we know it. This is a fascinating case of disruptive technology, as it remains very unclear which businesses have gained from this huge shift in the nature of the value chain. You could argue that Apple has through its i-empire, but I’d hazard a guess that their revenue gain does not outweigh the losses of income to the record labels etc. Similarly, it does not look like the innovators (i.e. those responsible for MP3s, file-sharing protocols etc) have reaped much in return.

moroccan-musos-djamaa-el-fnaAs Godin indicates, it would seem it is the musicians who hold much of the power now. The major barrier to entry of olden days – a major label recording deal – has fallen.

The marketing requirements have shifted considerably, with much less uniformity in the approach taken. Mainstream music has faded from our culture as smaller and smaller niches open up as viable and vibrant communities of interest.

It is unclear that major record labels have any competitive advantage at all in such domains. Indeed their credibility is highly questionable, and, with integrity and uniqueness so highly valued, their patronage may well be a burden for new acts. Indeed it appears possible to build a substantial following without a label or indeed much pay-to-listen product (as exemplified by the case of Aussie outfit Short Stack or US singer Corey Smith).

Musicians face considerable diversity of possible revenue streams, many of which are not subject to extreme bargaining power (merchandise, live performances, personal CD sales (i.e. at performances/appearances)), or offer considerable returns for limited effort (licensing of songs to video games, movies, advertisements). Increasingly there is little need to utilise the record label to tap these streams. I’ll finish with another quote from Godin which should remind artists where the gold may lie:

The idea that you could have a micro-market of 250, 500, 1,000 copies of a CD every night is a totally different way of thinking about what you do for a living, rather than making one album a year marketed with payola and promotion that reaches a certain group of people and ignores everybody else.