When failure doesn't work, fail harder

>> Sunday, February 27, 2011

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

-cliché attributed to Albert Einstein.

It occurs to me I must be insane: I read another piece on the music industry's struggles for relevance in the digital age and I thump my head into my table as if I expect it not to hurt. And I keep doing this again, and again, and again--I see a link in my RSS newsfeed, I click on it, I read the article, I beat my head purpleblack on the tabletop, bang-bang-bang, I go back and check my RSS newsfeed, oh look, another link, click, read, ouch.

I think I keep expecting at some point some Steve Jobsian figure is going to emerge in the music industry who is going to say, "Hey, we can't win the game we've been playing, let's change the rules." I'm not an Apple fetishist, the only Apple product I use is an old iPod and there are some Apple products (::koff::iTunes::koff::) I actively hate with the burning passion of those proverbial thousand burning suns we nerds always use as a hatred-rating (I propose a new unit of measure, to be known as the kilosol: "What did you think of the sixth season of Buffy?" "I hated it with two kilosols." "Really? I didn't think it was that bad." "Dude, 'Spuffy' is worth a half kilosol all by itself.").

But, no. No, here's a summary of at least part of industry analyst Russ Crupnick's presentation at Digital Music Forum East last week:

Music consumers don't want to pay for digital music. We should charge them more.

No. I am not making that up. Here's what he's quoted as saying:

"We have lost 20 million buyers in just five years," Crupnick said. Moreover, only about 14 percent of buyers account for 56 percent of revenue for the recording industry.

"Consumers have flipped us the bird," Crupnick concluded, adding that the lost sales has thus far not been made up yet by other forms of revenue, such as concerts or merchandise sales.


"We've given consumers an awful lot of options for free music, which they've certainly taken advantage of," Crupnick said.


"I think we need to demand more from consumers," Crupnick said. "Why are we being so liberal? Why aren't we talking about asking for more money for the product?"

I have no idea if ITWorld's Joab Jackson is quoting him accurately or taking something out of context--but I have no reason to doubt Jackson, and the kind of thinking attributed to Crupnick is exactly the same kind of profoundly mentally-defective "reasoning" (to abuse that word) that's been coming from the music industry, the publishing industry, the television industry and the movie industry (though they've been a little more flexible and inventive, I think) for more than a decade now. "People won't buy our products because they're too easy to obtain, so let's make it harder for people to get and use them. People won't buy what we're selling because it's too cheap, so let's make stuff more expensive." And every time they do something like this, and it fails, what do they learn from the experience? Apparently what they learn is that they didn't make the product inconvenient or expensive enough, back to the drawing board to make things worse and see if that finally turns a profit.

They make the underpants gnomes look like fucking rocket scientists.

Here's the thing: I can't wholly blame them, because while what they keep doing is obviously stupid and insane, I don't really have a suggestion for them. And I don't have a suggestion for them because, honestly, I think their traditional business is doomed and their flailing about is the corporate equivalent of the herbivorous dinosaurs thrashing around looking for weeds the year winter never ended. What held the various content corporations together was that they were gatekeepers--distributing a feature film or hardback tome or vinyl record to stores around the world was something that practically no individual could do on his own, and even if you happened to be able to make a good independent low-budget feature, self-publish a decent novel or record a studio LP and press it to vinyl or duplicate it to cassette, nobody was going to see it, read it or hear it outside of whatever small circle you could cart the thing around to; if you wanted a mass audience, you had one route and one route only. But the digital age doesn't just make content creation easier (which is what a lot of people focus on, wrongly: for much of my lifetime, access to content creation tools hasn't been prohibitively expensive, depending on what kind of scale you were willing to work on- and what medium you were working in), what's more important is that the digital age almost completely removes barriers to distribution.

Monetizing that distribution may be an alternatively-colored pony. But then that might not be an issue for you: maybe, if you're a content creator, you're willing to stream your new song for free in the hope that people will come to your show in town, or to stream your movie for free but sell t-shirts, or make your book available for free download but ask for donations. I'm not sure any of these things will allow you to quit your day job, mind you, but that isn't really the point, either.

The point is that going through a corporate publisher might still be (for now) a better way to monetize your work (maybe), it's not the best way to find an audience. And I suspect that when push comes to shove, most creative people would rather have the audience than the money (as Gillian Welch sang, "We're gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn't pay"), as much as it would be nice to have both. If you want people to read your writing, the odds are very, very good more people will read it if you put it on a blog than if you send it to Random House with a hopeful cover letter. If you want people to hear your song, posting a clip of yourself singing it in your living room will probably generate more listeners than sending tapes to A&R guys at the various Big Five.

If the content companies are no longer vital to distribution, what purpose do they have? Movie studios have a function to serve if they can keep it profitable--a big feature film is ridiculously expensive and the fifty-foot movie screen in the darkness remains a unique experience that can't really be replicated in a home setting. Book publishers, I think, may be able to adapt by focusing on the midwife part of their operations: a self-publishing writer may not need help with distribution, but he almost certainly still could use the assistance of an editor, art designer, layout designer, etc. Maybe the music industry can take a similar focus, abandoning the gatekeeper and tastemaking business model they're clinging onto in favor of a model where they provide artists with services they can't necessarily provide for themselves, such as professional advice on marketing or the support of other consultants, graphic designers, etc.; unfortunately, however, the music industry has tended to subcontract those services--I'm not sure if any labels still have in-house graphic artists or producers, usually what the label does is give the artist, generally as part of their advance, a budget to hire someone they'd like to produce their next record or design the cover or whatever.

In other words, the music industry may be right fucked.

Which is why they want things to be the way they used to be. And it isn't going to work. The genie will not go back in the bottle, and if they make it harder for the consumer to discover music on their own, it isn't going to produce new sales, it's going to clip the industry's numbers even more. I'm very sorry, I'm not going to buy a Lady Gaga record just because Universal Music Group subsidiary Interscope very much wants me to. Not even if it's the only thing I heard all year because UMG was able to shut down all the Internet radio stations and alternate channels and so I didn't get to hear the new song by Indie Band X; this is what all this is about, you know--UMG and the others are hoping if you can't hear anything except what they're pushing, you'll settle for what they're pushing instead of buying something from somebody else, perhaps directly from the band, even.

The thing is, I'm one of those paying customers they're scrambling for. Which means I'd hate not to hear any new music, but it also means I have a pretty big CD collection already. Which means if I can't catch anything new and likable on Soma FM or wherever, well, y'know, I have a big shelf full of old stuff I like upstairs and I'm still not buying yer stinkin' Madonna-did-it-better-thirty-years-ago chicklet, or whoever else yer pimping this week.

They need to figure this out, and then they need to adapt or die.

But I don't think they're sane enough.

EDIT: It occurred to me that my summary of Crupnick's comments could be mistaken for an actual quote, so I clarified by adding his verbatim comments to clarify. Hope there wasn't any confusion about that.


vince Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 12:29:00 AM EST  

This is why so much of the new music I own is from artists that self-release or are with small labels. Very little major label music is worth my money.

And yeah - charge 'em more and sue their asses; oh, and claim that it's piracy if I buy a CD then rip it to my computer or mp3 player.


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