A whiff of digital optimism?

There seems to be a whiff of optimism in the air, a little hint that somehow progress is being made. Is it in the effort to bring all the music industry’s constituent parts under the single banner of British Music Rights? Is it in the coy first blushes of a dalliance between the recorded music companies and UK Internet Service Providers? Is it in the notion that new models and new experimentation might just yield meaningful financial returns?

When I read back some of my earlier callings for radical change and the appealling but somewhat simplistic view of technology being 100% disruptive of past models, they seem a little naive in the light of what may be beginning to emerge.

A new pluralism? A multivalency of co-existence? Certainly no-one feels comfortable enough in the shoes they’re wearing today in the digital media business as a whole to believe that ongoing change will not be the norm for several years to come.

But, there seems to be a suggestion of a new springyness in the steps of those companies who are creating some of these many new ways of doing music-business.   The persistence of companies like Last.FM or their clone IMeem, the steadfast promotional/transactional evolution of companies like Seven Digital into brand relationship building linking artists and products, the quiet persistence of Playlouder in its music/internet service provider model, chasing the monetising of p2p. All of these are exploring and surviving. It is really hard work to do this. The level of commitment and passion involved is pretty high. And the kicker of the occasional big-cash blip, such as Last.FM enjoyed, certainly adds a frisson to the task, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

Of course, several degrees of murkiness do continue to cloud our little enlightenments.

Even as we all started to feel that the live scene might just be sustaining everything, major rows at Live Nation between Michael Kohl and his aptly named colleague Michael Rapino – which seem to have ended with Kohl’s departure albeit glossed over – would suggest that there is no simple cohesive view of the world going forward in that sector either.

Michael Kohl of course is the doyen of the finely sliced IP right. It was he, in the early nineties with the Rolling Stones, who devised the most sophisticated, regionally segmented, windowed parcelling-out of broadcast, cable, satellite TV, radio, streaming and downloading rights for the Stones’ infamously spectacular tours. And for the Stones, even then, album sales meant very little compared to the value of promotion and marketing that Kohl could “persuade” the label to provide which in turn clearly supported the tour.

Who knows what caused this latest rift, it’s as likely to be personality clash as much as divergence of business strategy. But the notion that, aside from publishing, performance and licensing revenues, ticket sales alone should be an artist’s primary source of revenue still seems a diminished result whichever way you look at it. None of us, it seems, is simply prepared to give up on the value of a recording and walk away from it completely.

This is how LiveNation presented the picture to GoldmanSachs earlier this year:

It’s a great multivalent graphic – but just a tad curious when you come to examine it. Broadcasting appears to have replaced publishing and there’s no mention of the internet at all although digital is a huge part of their business. I wonder when the THEN was and when the NOW is supposed to be?

I had the good fortune earlier this week to chair a public panel of some amazing expertise on the occasion of the Music Publisher’s Association’s Annual General Meeting. Gathered together were Kip Meek of Ingenious Consulting (previously at OfCom and now of the Broadband Stakerholders Group), Conservative MP and media specialist John Whittingdale, Spencer Hyman of Last.FM, Andrew Connell of Nokia as well as Andy Heath – the newly elected chair of British Music Rights and Gary Maclarnan who manages Mr Scruff. Joining us as experts were also Will Page Chief Economist of the MCPS, Andrew Orlovski Editor at Large of the Register and Paul Sanders – philosopher in chief of Playlouder, Consolidated Independent and State51. An august and impressive crew to the last. And it was no coincidence, dare I say more, that Andrew Orlovski’s intriguing article on music industry discussions with the ISPs appeared only two days after this illustrious event?

But none of them was prepared to say the CD is dead completely or that it will ever die. I think that is not collective blindness to technology’s inevitable disruptive power, but a much more sophisticated understanding of how complex our new world is and how pluralistic the models are going to be.

And despite the optimism, there was much more divergence of opinion about how rapidly ISPs and network providers might find common cause with the media and content companies. Kip Meek seemed to suggest that the issues and concerns that the broadband providers have with the broadcasters and film industry are so much more severe than anything that they have to deal with in the music sector (because of the sheer size of film and video files), that the debate will really focus there. As the BBC’s IPlayer mutates into the imminent Kangaroo player – the issues of who pays for bandwidth and how content gets monetised will fly in a very different direction. The extent to which the music folk think a tax on the ISPs fits in with the broadcasters’ ad revenue model remains to be seen. To me, they certainly look like very different directions, but perhaps in one scenario, simple ad-revenue sharing is not completely unattractive. But it was interesting to note how keen both Last.FM and Nokia seem to be on subscription services which so far consumers have consistently ranked as their least favourite option.

The convergence of focus on ISPs is being driven by television in the UK and what we do here may or may not prove a model for other parts of the world.  One thing that is clear is that if it is to compete to be heard and to have a place at the table with the Broadband community, the music industry needs to be more articulate, more subtle and flexible, and more coherent than it has ever managed to be before.

As Andy Heath tries to pull it all together here under the British Music Rights banner, his challenges look steep but the prize looks impressive.

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2 responses to “A whiff of digital optimism?

  1. There’s an interesting set of posts on MidemNet’s blog, notably from Mark Kelly of Marillion who are giving away tracks for download. But they have a plan behind the freebies, principally to drag in people that would never buy from them ordinarily.

  2. Yes, Michael, you’re absolutely right – most artists are probably forced to give some tracks away for free these days whether they’re known bands wanting to reach new audiences or unknown bands wanting to build a fan base…

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