Stats are dangerous.
You know how your parents would tell you off as a child if you tried to stick your fingers in a plug socket? Yeah, stats are like that.
There’s an obsession in certain parts of the music industry, particularly in digital marketing, with stats. Metrics. Percentage increases. Growth.
Mostly this is like sticking a light bulb in your mouth, poking around the socket with a screwdriver and then flicking the “on” switch. You might think you’re going to get some illumination on the situation, but you really really don’t.
There are two key reasons why stats in the music industry are misleading to the point of self harm: luck and magic.
Firstly, then; luck. The tricky thing about how the whole music game works is that no one actually knows what they’re doing and why anything really happens. Sorry if this comes as a shock to anyone, I don’t mean it personally. It is true though. To break an artist there a million and one things that have to happen, most of which no one has any control over. You can certainly make it so those things don’t happen of course, and you can increase the chances that they do (a little), but you can’t actually force it.
My favourite example of this is Adele’s second record. Just how on earth did that sell so many copies? Well, I can exclusively reveal that it was solely down to…
There is, of course, no one reason, but a million little bits of luck that all added up into the perfect storm. In the UK, for example, late in the summer the year before it came out the most popular song for prospective X-Factor contestants to sing was ‘Make You Feel My Love’ from her first record. This song – strangely, looking back now – had never been a big hit when it was first released, but because of the bombardment of attention it received on mainstream TV it was transformed into a top 5 single.
Just at the point where the new album was being launched, she was propelled back into popular consciousness. There’s no way you could have predicted that, or engineered it. It was just luck, and that campaign was full of lucky breaks time and time again.
Every release has luck like that, in a smaller more everyday form. Luck that a live agent came to this week’s good gig, rather then last week’s stinker. Luck that a radio producer picked this track to play out rather then that track. Luck that a TV show had a last minute drop out so had a slot to fill.
Stats and data don’t know about luck.
They don’t know about magic either.
Magic is why marketing music isn’t quite like marketing anything else. Magic is why people will queue up to buy gig tickets overnight, or why one track can be on an advert and sell loads of records, where another does not. Without getting too hippy about it, music resonates with the soul in a way that transcends traditional commercial reasoning. It moves people in big ways and little ways, in subtle ways and life changing ways.
Posting an image of whatever to Facebook because it gets better reach then a link to an interesting interview misses the point. It misses the opportunity for magic, and the opportunities for luck that magic creates.
Clicking from a banner ad directly to iTunes because it reduces the amount of steps from view to purchase misses the point because it too misses the opportunity for magic. Who sees an advert and there and then thinks “I must buy this right now”? Whereas if you aid people in discovering the music, in getting deeper into it then the magic will do the rest.
Digital stats often miss that music is not a closed system. Buying from iTunes or Amazon is not the only option. If you see a pre-roll on YouTube and the next day walk into Rough Trade and buy an LP where, exactly, is your conversion data? Or see a tweet and then open up Spotify?
This is not to say that all of this data is useless, just that it is significantly unrepresentative of what is actually happening. Don’t let them lead you, or be your decision maker, because as solid and analytical and smart as they might seem, they are only a small window onto a tiny world.
Stats are dangerous. Make sure they don’t mean you lose the magic and miss the luck.
I've been watching books.
Or rather, not.
For the last week or so on my daily zig-zag across the capital I've been trying to spot people reading books. I think for the purposes of informal but informative data collection I've got a good sample size, across morning commutes, day time train jaunts and late night bus rides. The full spectrum of people reading in public except, say, a lazy lunchtime spent underneath a tree disappearing. But close enough to do.
And how many books did I see?
One lonely, battered copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on a dank and humid tube carriage. I suppose if you were to see a book in the wild there must be a not insignificant chance that it would be from J K Rowlings' repertoire.
One book then, but that's of course not to say that their weren't people _reading._ And in a multitude of different ways and forms. I was originally planning to count up all the assorted devices being used but I lost count, for shame, but the key word is "devices" - in this very modern tip-of-the-iceberg sample group, the book is dead. Not dying; done. The knife is firmly in the hand of the Kindle - that much almost goes without saying - but it's also a death by a thousand other cuts with the proliferation of an assorted variety of iPads, tablets and e-readers.
For books, this is a new. The Kindle was born in 2007, but didn't become available on these shores until 2009, a scant 4 years ago. 4 years to leave a dogeared edition of a story about a wizard as physical literatures last ambassador. But despite that, there's still so much obvious scope for innovation and revolution - where's the Spotify for books? Or, say, the equivalent of a free promotional MP3? Less than half a decade is long enough to completely change things, but it's phase one of something wholly new.
For books, the fun is just getting started.
TV and film are further down this road, but it's also - due to the entertaining mess that is the field of global video rights - a twisty one. A twisty one, with some significant potholes in. In fact, you know in the film 'Speed', where they somehow successfully jump a bus over a impossibly large 50 ft gap in an unfinished highway? Imagine that with potholes, no run up and it happening in the real world where there's actually physics.
I may have stretched that metaphor a tad too far, but you get my point. Video rights are tricky.
Countless words have been bashed out of late on the rise of Netflix, and with good reason - it's interesting and what they are doing there is interesting. They are taking the medium in a direction that is modern and casts off the existing tropes of video distribution, of TV shows coming out week by week, or paying a la carte for films.
Netflix though, is by no means "it". There are countless players, and this is all still a niche that is only now starting to impact on the mass market. And those countless players also means countless fragmentation, of certain content being only available through certain places, and the all the problems with piracy and consumer confusion that comes along with. It's an area that's innovative, disruptive, ever changing but ultimately still a mess as anyone who has ever tried to watch a new episode of Game of Thrones will tell you.
When placed next to books and video, music is the older, wiser brother. The revolutions that other forms of media are only going through now happened years ago for music. It's a story we all know well, of course, but the transition from Napster to iPod to iTunes to mass-market digital consumption is easy to take for granted now.
The digital music market today is a mature - while still ever changing and adapting - market. Singles are digital now, and roughly 50% of albums sales are as well. Out of all media - ignoring for the moment video games, as that market is far newer in relative terms and less entrenched - music has handled the ongoing transition from a physical business to a digital one the most successfully.
Of course it's all still shifting, but that speaks to its maturity and health. Streaming is obviously the hot topic at the moment, but then you look at the streaming market and see quite a few distinct players, all with slightly different feature sets, and all carrying significant licensed music. You don't get the patchy issues of catalogue you get with video, for example. There's no equivalent here of the "Game of Thrones problem" - in the large part, all the services have roughly the same content. Yes, there are some noted streaming holdouts and ongoing conversation surrounding that, but that feels like a short term blip, in the same way that the noted holdouts from iTunes were (which, don't forget, included Radiohead).
Whether you want to file it alongside other streaming services or not, YouTube is probably the most fascinating platform at the moment for music, as even more so then subscription-based services it's something completely different. It's completely open and self service, democratic and deeply "Internet" in it's philosophy. Yet it has the most sophisticated revenue system that the music industry has ever seen. Someone can upload a video they've made using an artist's music, and that artist can choose whether that's ok and also if they'd like to make money off it, all in real time, all taking into account the vagaries of global rights ownership, and all whilst being surprisingly simple.
Take a step back and think about it for a minute and it's pretty staggering what they've achieved.
Piracy too, seems like a solved problem. For as much as it can ever be solved, of course, but it certainly seems quite irrelevant now, and that's not because of draconian anti-piracy programs or DRM (remember DRM? Hey, guess what - it's still all over ebooks and video!), it's because there are easier and better ways of consuming music. It's incredibly simple to buy a single through iTunes - way easier then pirating it and wading through dodgy file download sites - and if you want to listen to an album but don't want to pay for it, there's countless licensed options for doing it that are again easier and more reliable then piracy.
The future of music, then, is exciting. I'd say it's more exciting now then it has been in recent memory; gone are the concerns that many people shared that the whole concept of recorded music being sustainable was dead. I think it's been conclusively proved that digital purchasing of music is attractive, and also that streaming music can be monetized. And the future is for both of them to coexist, alongside other forms of digital music consumption (like YouTube), and to ebb and flow in popularity, with some genres suiting one type of service and model, and others another.
All of this is good.
No one is sitting on their laurels, nothing is stagnating, no one is getting rich quick. There is change, and there are solid foundations upon which to build this change.
10 years ago people used to think that the music industry was doomed.
Here's to the next 10 years.
Part of the MusicTank 10 @ 10 Series
For men of a certain age, and with a certain quality of hair, there comes a time when going for a haircut takes on an additional level of seriousness.
You watch the barber intently. Look out for the “look”. The look that indicates precisely the same thing as that sharp intake of breath from a car mechanic: “I have news that you know is coming but you’re not going to like it”.
This time, maybe you’re fine.
You escape haircut intact, demeanour preserved. But you know one day, you’re going to get the look – or even make the look yourself for those of significant conviction – bite the bullet and accept that you have finally succumbed in the battle with your receding hairline.
It’s. All. Got. To. Go.
Your haircut is important, isn’t it? For something so easily changeable it becomes a persons signature, defining them in a multitude of differing ways. Even changes aid that definition; sticking with one style for a long time says as much about a person as changing it all the time. Conservative and comfortable, experimental and indecisive. Something in between.
For the record, this time: no look.
* * *
This is my last week working for Beggars Group.
It’s been a pretty amazing ride over the last 8 years. I’ve had the ridiculous fortune to work with some of my all time favourite artists like Radiohead, The White Stripes, Sonic Youth and Queens of the Stone Age and about a million more. And then there was that whole Adele thing as well.
You can’t rest on your laurels forever, though. More importantly, I think everyone needs a challenge; problems to solve, things to change.
Next week I start at Kobalt Label Services as Marketing Director. It’s a fascinating time for the industry, with digital having finally bedded in and revenue coming from all sorts of different places it seems like the perfect point to take a step back and reconceptualise what a label could and should be, which is exactly what KLS is doing.
Sometimes there comes a point where you have to give yourself “the look”.
First things first: there is nothing wrong with making money from art.
I thought we should establish some ground rules before getting into it properly. To make sure we’re all on the same page. So, making money is cool, right? Without money, a significant amount of art would be impossible, with only rich trustafarians left to squeeze out deep and meaningful expressions of whatever their pricey education and expensive drugs have lead them to believe in.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. You just wouldn’t want only that, would you?
Money from art is ok, then, and I’d even be happy to extend that to making ‘lots’ of money being ok as well. Success is alright in my book, reaping the rewards of doing what you believe in doubly so and if you’d rather your favourite artist was a bit worse off so they were more ‘authentic’ then, well, fuck you quite frankly. I think it’s a fundamental misconception that wanting to be successful, being business minded and – for want of a better word – lusting after wealth is in somehow disingenuous with being an artist. The two things aren’t coupled together.
Or, at least, they don’t need to be.
There is a line – there is always a line – where capitalism takes precedence. The “sell out line”, if you will. In days gone by (at this point I’d like to go off on a lengthy tangent on how ‘in days gone by” actually never happened, and everyone remembers it wrong and it was just as complicated and messed up as yesterday, today and tomorrow will be but I’m not going to) this line was potentially clearer for the most part: doing something overtly commercial meant you’d sold out. And the actual scope of that sort of thing was relatively small, confined to appearing in adverts and endorsing products and really not a great deal more.
Now, though – what’s commercial and what’s not? And also, what’s an endorsement and what’s not?
Commerciality runs throughout the modern art and music; it is intertwined in a way that is completely inseparable. If a band puts a video on YouTube, there is almost certainly adverts next to it and they (in a potentially roundabout way) will be getting paid for it. Is that commercial? Yes. Is that selling out? No. Has your favourite band ever played at a festival? Yeah? Well guess what: they probably played next to a massive advert for some form of tastes-a-bit-like-piss beer. Is that selling out? Again, no.
What about the mainstay of ‘selling out’; the murky world of syncs, also known as ‘having your music on a TV ad and making a fuckload of money out of it’. Is it commercial? Well, duh. Is that selling out? No. No it is not. Here’s where we define the line, and I think it’s a pretty reasonable distinction:
If the commerciality affects the art, or how people can consume it, then you’re selling out.
Simple. Makes sense, though, doesn’t it?
To put the rule into practice on the TV ad example, if you have a track licensed on a TV ad, no – that is not selling out. It’s not affected the creation of the track or its existence, or how people can consume it – all it’s done is brought it to a wider audience (which is great!) and resulted in a pay day for you (which is great!).
Let’s think of another example, then. Say you were going to release your album for free through Samsung phones a few days before it was in stores? Now, as far as we can tell the commerciality hasn’t impinged on the art itself, but it sure as dammit has affected how people can consume and listen to it. This isn’t to do with the money, this isn’t to do with brand partnerships – as Jay-Z certainly has done that plenty of times before – but it’s to do with cash getting in between an artist and their audience.
You could almost boil the rule above down to a simple “is this good for the fans?” question. Now, I guess if you’re one of the million people that downloads the album through an app on your Samsung phone then I guess the answer is ‘yes’ (although dear god is that really going to be a nice way to experience the album?), but that still leaves a huge amount of people that can’t do that without spending at least £100 on a new phone. To be a Jay-Z fan should I have had some sort of psychic foresight when I got my current non-Samsung phone in a 2 year contract 8 months ago? I guess so.
How to sell out in 2013: it’s actually pretty difficult, but don’t worry – if you innovate enough you can surely find a way (especially if you’re Jay-Z).