Playlists Will Not Save Your Music Business

My media business will not be saved by video, bots, newsletters, or Slack integration. That’s what Joshua Topolsky told me yesterday. And he’s right.

A still from High Fidelity (2000); Captures the sentiments pretty will I think

A still from High Fidelity (2000); Captures the sentiments pretty well I think

The New Thing that so often arrives just in time as the savior of the whole machine is many times bullshit. It’s a desired escape from an already challenging (dire?) situation that is causing headaches upon ulcers upon headaches. That’s why it seems so magical in the first place; it seems to appear out of nowhere like some miracle from a higher power. You prayed to the media gods for deliverance, and so they delivered unto you newsletters, bots, and Slack.

But Topolsky is right about the misleading nature of these new things: they have the potential to help, but none has the power to deliver us, to part the seas of stubbornness and ego.

While it appears to me that he sought to write about media in general, Topolsky could easily have been talking about any of the media industries in particular. Music, for example, fits right into his sardonic diatribe in a way that must chafe for the megalithic powers who used to control the industry. In music, it goes: yay for playlists, analytics, offline access, curation, and exclusives—build those in, and then we’ll be saved. No, these won’t save your (music) media business. And that’s painful for a lot of people.

More and more, the posts on changing media dynamics which garner shit-tons of feedback are the ones that are the truest. They are radically brilliant—radically poetic in a way—because of their sheer shunning of “conventional wisdom.” Such is more or less an oxymoron nowadays anyway.

I saw an earlier example of this back in November with Chris Dixon’s post on independent gaming, and was similarly moved to write my response on independent music, something he was also referring to (knowingly or not). Now with Topolsky doubling down on a similar idea, it’s becoming an even starker point.

“Because that [former media] system was built on the concept of scarcity and locality—the limits of what was physically possible—it was very easy to keep the gates and fill the coffers.”

And here we come to the prickly point that so many music businesses have trouble with now: scarcity is obsolete; democratization wins. I underscored this in my Dixon-response piece, but now it seems all the more palpable. What used to serve as a power play by music companies—the scarcity squeeze by the major label—has lost most of its bite, if not its bark as well. Maybe it’ll work if we call it “windowing” and stagger the release on multiple services! Nope, we all know that you simply changed the name of what you were doing instead of trying to actually change the action. And it’ll end up free somewhere anyway. Live with reality.

Wait, I’ve got it! We’ll tell people that we have the best playlist-making feature around! Great, so does everyone else. And, by the way, the people who really matter for your music business don’t care. The general consumer/listener might care (and I stress might), but the artists who actually produce the content you rely on for your lifeblood won’t give a shit. Why? Because it does nothing for them.

Ah, then we will give them the deepest, best set of analytics they can have! Awesome, so will everyone else. You can join the swaths of sites telling them they have a couple hundred streams, have made no money, and then tell them they owe you $4.99/month for that wonderful data. The reality that you don’t want to hear is that the vastly growing demographic of artists—independents—are smart enough to know this already, and all you’re really doing is giving them numbers with no context. You’re giving them the numbers, the locations, the graphs— but with no real way to actually affect change in those numbers.

Offline access and exclusives then! Right! Except not, because exclusivity doesn’t help these artists long-term, it only helps you in the short term. It’s why artists immediately understand the opportunities before them now while other people struggle to see the big picture. Because they have long-term vision, and patience. Because exclusives are not where the long-term strategy is, either for the artists, or the music business.

It’s in the community cultivation and the relationship bridging. Social and messaging then! No, stop, that won’t be an easy save either. The reality that so few people want to hear is that community cultivation is a long-term process. It’s about knowing things about your content producers—in this case the artists you work with—that your competition doesn’t bother taking time to find out. Don’t ask me how many registered users I had yesterday. Ask me how many conversations I had yesterday with ten artists in seven different countries with fanbases numbering in the tens of thousands. Ask me what comes out of that. And then remember that was only ten artists.

Over the last few years, we were asked who we thought would win the streaming wars, because streaming is obviously the future of music. Except that’s too simple a magic potion because it’s going to take a lot more than that to reach the new horizon. It’s not about fixing the faulty component in the engine. They’re all faulty, and have been for near 40 years.

You have to rebuild the engine completely. Bottom up. You need to construct a music company that does everything that will change the reality for a new artist; after all, there are so many more of them than anything else. And they never stop creating and producing. You need to take your time to do all the sexy things—the playlist functionality, the radio, the streaming, downloading, profiles, social, live—and all the un-sexy things you never thought about—the legal stuff, the business stuff (more than just analytics!), the financial, and the marketing. Fixing the broken paradigm is a losing proposition; building a whole new one is (ironically) cheaper, better, and much, much more powerful long-term. That’s the strategy I’m committed to.

Topolsky was dead-on:

We’ll have to learn a thousand hard lessons, most of them centered around the idea that if you want to make something really great, you can’t think about making is great for everyone. You have to make it great for someone. A lot of people, but not every person.

And that’s what’s missing from the music-business discussion right now. The “everyone” that most streaming services are targeting is already saturated with competition, high prices, and a lot of bad press (from artists and artist agencies like ASCAP and BMI). The “someone” that Topolsky refers to, though, is the independent demographic, clear as day. They’re underserved, undervalued, dismissed, marginalized, pissed off, and not tied to any major label contracts—just right to woo and capture with something as easy as a conversation and explanation of a better future.

I’m as shamelessly self-promotional as Topolsky admits he is because these are the people I love. I know they see what I see, and they’ll wait around as long as it takes to make it work. Because they’re not jaded or angry—they’re just waiting.

Waiting for something better to come along for them.

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