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Rethinking Music in the Digital Age

“It’s still a star business.”  For Jon Platt, EMI North America, it all starts with the music and with artist development.  The challenge is where to find the time and money to grow talent in an industry climate that favors disposable stars and demands instant results.

At last week’s “Rethink Music” conference in Boston, artists, academics, policy makers, and businessmen gathered to discuss the challenges facing the industry and to consider how music will be funded and distributed in the digital age.  The focus was on creativity and technology, and how  innovations simultaneously make it easier, yet at the same time more difficult for songwriters and performers to ply their craft.  While technology has made music readily accessible at the desktop and on the go, the creators of that music may not realize a profit from their work.  Illegal downloads and widespread sharing of digital media are difficult to intercept and unlikely to change.  As Platt explained, “It’s hard to educate a generation that is used to getting water out of the faucet for free.”

Most in attendance agreed that the music industry needs a new financial model, and one that is “not predicated on the sales of prerecorded music”.  Joe Kennedy, President and CEO of Pandora, insisted that the key to success is to create a wonderful experience for the consumer.  That experience should offer quality, convenience, and the capacity for new music discovery.  The music industry needs to provide consumers a product they’ll want to buy.

Kennedy predicted exciting times ahead.  Currently half of music purchases are digital downloads.  The growth in smart phone and tablet technology has contributed to an increased volume of digital purchases, and as prices for those phones come down, music will go increasingly mobile. 

It may be good news that only15-20% of the internet population purchases music, and that fraction of users is responsible for half of all music sales.  There is a large, untapped market that could be mobilized if music purchases could be made simpler and more attractive.  The next major advance in music distribution is expected to come through cloud technology. 

Just as we all get email through the cloud, music will soon be available without downloading.  Both ad supported (Pandora), and subscription based (MOG) services will soon make music available on demand through home theaters and in the car, and available to share through social media including Facebook.  Artist and songwriter payments will be based not on individual downloads, but on frequency of play.

As music goes social, the relationship between artist and fan has become increasingly important.  While consumers may be reluctant to pay for recorded music, they have been surprisingly open to providing direct support to musicians, cutting out the middleman. 

Boston based artist Bleu described his success using the online funding platform “Kickstarter”.  Without the means to publicize his new album, Bleu turned to his fans, asking for online contributions to fund promotion.  In return, fans were offered rewards ranging from a signed cd to the opportunity to write a song with the artist, based on contribution level.  The goal was $8K in 45 days.  Instead, Bleu raised $40k.  Whereas fans often balk at a $0.99 digital download, the average fan contribution direct to the artist was $100 for this project.  Fans wanted to be directly involved with the artist and his work.

As the music industry evolves, the artist has become a small businessman.  Through an emerging direct band to fan connection, the artist can slowly build his/her business over time.  New software applications will allow better analytics to answer questions about demographics, allowing musicians to better understand their current and potential fanbase. 

The future of music is exciting, but challenging, as artists and industry professionals alike seek to provide a high quality product in a form that consumers will buy.  For the musician, the challenge to both create and market can seem overwhelming.  As one artist advised “Just be the best you that you can be.”

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. MacPolski #

    Definitely eye-opening. The music industry is in a state of flux and it’s interesting to read the thoughts of those influential in the business. Great write-up!

    April 30, 2011
    • Thank you, MacPolski. It really was very interesting. The publishing companies, music distribution businesses, and artists all came at the problem from different angles, but seemed to end in the same place – focusing on the importance of the art, and of connecting with the fans.

      April 30, 2011
  2. Judith Morton #

    Woo Hoo. Taylor Hicks is on the cutting edge. Taylor smart! Enjoyed the article.

    April 30, 2011
    • Yes, one of the artists at this meeting specifically commented that he would be reluctant to recommend to almost any new artist that they sign with a label. Taylor was definitely on the leading edge of the curve when he decided to go independent.

      April 30, 2011
  3. Tish #

    This is a very interesting article and I have to say that I think it is a very exciting time for both the musicians and the music consumer. Just a few short years ago the public’s opportunity to discover new artist was tied almost completely to what we hear on the radio. Now we can find new music and artists easily through social networking. I’m loving this time 🙂

    April 30, 2011
    • That’s a really good point, Tish. Between social media and youtube, I’ve found lots of new music to enjoy.

      May 1, 2011
  4. Louise #

    Excellent and thought provoking post. I’m so glad you were able to see some of the inner workings of the industry.
    Years ago, music labels had to make the move to iTunes, MP3 and facebook to generate interest in addition to youtube.
    Now the independent artist is in the front seat and in charge of their own careers. Dinosaurs like Clive D. need to get on board and actually help their artists more in the social arena or they will find their stables empty of artists and creative talent.
    Thanks again. Good to know that Taylor and other artists I have come to know in the last 6 years are staying true to themselves and their intuitions about what is best for them rather than what will push ‘units’.

    May 1, 2011
  5. What a tough business! I have too much to say- don’t know where to start and don’t want to ramble. I’ll just say that I think it’s a shame that truely talented people have such a hard time making a living making music.

    Thanks for doing the research for us and bringing it here!

    May 1, 2011

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