David RD Gratton

Category: Music

Music needs context - 4 rules for saving the recorded music industry

October 9, 2007

Yahoo's Music's Head Honcho, Ian Rogers, recently posted a blog that has got me all fired up again. Thank's Ian. He's rightly upset at the music industry and he is not going to take it anymore. AMEN.

Let's all stop pussy-footing around the issues and let's make the tough decisions to deal with them. I want to bring up what I think are 4 fundamental rules for succeeding in selling recorded music. First, here are the facts. Music distribution cannot be controlled. If you think otherwise - you are wrong. You should pack up and go home. The world has passed you by and you're either too stupid or lazy to GET IT. Technology has changed the music industry AGAIN, and if you are a music exec you MUST adapt to it. Granted this is hard to do if you happen to be a lawyer. Which brings me to:

RULE #1 for thriving in the new music economy: If your company is headed by or overly influenced by a lawyer, fire him! These people support business strategy - they don't guide it. The fact that so many lawyers are top executives in the record industry is probably the biggest reason the recorded music industry is in the shitter like it is.

Lawyers will simply NEVER get their head around the facts which was originally rule #1, but got moved to rule #2, when I realized we had to get rid of the lawyers first. So, if you want to survive in the next 18 months let alone 50 years - you have to embrace this reality:

RULE #2: You have no control over music distribution.

You don't. ALL RECORDED MUSIC EVER MADE is now sitting on hard drives and flash memory sticks around the globe. The Internet exists. As the world gets more wired with near-free wireless internet access music will eventually flow like water as, Gerd Leonard likes to say. The vast majority of new bands are now offering their music freely on sites like MySpace, Project Opus, and Garage Band to their fans. They want it heard.

The reality of Rule #2 unfortunaltey has a nasty outcome that people really don't want to come to terms with either. Even though we are witnessing it today!

RULE #3: The value of an audio file will approach the cost of delivery. The cost of delivery is our Internet conectivity, which as I mentioned is approaching near zero.

Rule # 3 is the reason the RIAA is suing people. If people can get a song for free, they eventually will. It is already almost as easy and as reliable to browse and download from P2P networks as it is from iTunes or Amazon. When the convenience gap closes between the "illegal - free" versus the "legitimate - $" modes of music distribution, we would be naive to assume that a significant proportion of the population will not use the "free' alternative.

So we sue. Perhaps fear will keep music fans in-line and buying from the legitimate music sources. This "suing-thing" has been going on for 8 years and well the recorded music industry is closer to DEAD today than it was then. Suing music consumers has not changed anything and it WILL NOT save this industry. It's a strategy dreamed up by a lawyer. PLEASE, go see RULE #1.

RULE #4: Know what you are selling. And it ain't audio files. It's music experiences.

Music executives - which are mostly lawyers think they are selling audio files. They would be wrong. Let's remember that audio has for the most part ALWAYS been free for the fan. We listened to radio and got mixed tapes/CDs from friends. Yet, my generation was the largest purchasers of music in the industry's history. We bought music that we generally already had free access to. Why?

  1. Convenience. If we bought the vinyl or the CD, we could listen to my favorite songs on demand.
  2. Social interaction. Back in the eighties and nineties, listening to music was almost always a social interaction. Buying a new album or CD was a reason to invite your friends over. We listened together. We shared the experience.
  3. Packaging. We got something else other than the music. We got stuff like liner notes, and artwork, but more than that, too. KISS ARMY, you know what I'm talking about! Hey, even Led Zeppelin's last album had an album sleeve that changed colour if you added water. It wasn't advertised, I FOUND it, which made it cooler than perhaps it was.
  4. Connection. The social interaction and packaging gave us something else. Connection. We were more connected with the artists work, and subsequently with the artists themselves.

The above provided CONTEXT and CONVENIENCE to our music. It is WHY we bought music.

P2P, MP3s, and the iPod have improved convenience dramatically. How could we have been prepared for it? We had no idea how inconvenient it was to get music until it was at our finger tips. In our stampede for convenience, we have ripped all context out of music. Music files on our hard drives are devoid of context. Social interaction around our music has declined with the iPod's earbuds. We have no tangible stuff around our music. Without context music is missing much of the value. It is more disposable.

We still want context. We just don't want to give up our convenience to get it. Make buying music valuable - not because distribution is controlled, but because you are giving me a music experience. This is what we want and we will BUY it. Ian Rogers at Yahoo! is looking for it, and in doing so he has given a polite finger to the industry's lawyers. If we embrace technology rather than fight it, we can create experiences that will make those KISS ARMY tats seem cheesy in comparison, and those were cool!

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There is no value in today's playlist.

July 18, 2007

Music collections need to have meaning
The album was the first music collection. In the last 10 or 12 years, I have become a bit of a poo-pooer of albums as contrived vehicles for songs that could not stand alone on their own. I was not always that way. I used to think of albums as complete experience offered to me by my favourite bands. Concept albums like The Dark Side of the Moon, provide fans with a cohesive music experience crafted by the artists. We don't need a concept album to provide a cohesive experience. Although, this is obviously subjective, I would put London Calling and The Joshua Tree in the album category as well, while others may not. Although there may be debate I think it could be generally agreed that "some bands should produce albums while other bands (the vast majority) should stick to producing singles."

The brief rise and fall of the DJ
I used to own singles as a kid and teen, but 45s were a complete pain in the butt. Getting up to go to the stereo to put on a new 45 every 3-4 minutes. Some preferred K-tel music LPs, but I preferred the radio for all the good singles and radio delivered them in a cohesive music experience with commentary. That was the classic DJ. He cared about the music he played. He was our filter and we valued his opinion. As such he became the most important taste maker in music. We bought what he played. Unfortunately, this power led to his demise. The DJ - or often more accurately the station could be bought or programmed for advertising dollars. The classic radio DJ is now extinct and we no longer trust radio.

The rise of the mixed tape - the home DJ
I remember the vibrant days of mixed tapes. A few friends and I would make them and bring to them to all the parties. Mixed tapes took time to create. We selected music carefully. We imagined the party in our heads and we chose songs for tempo, style, mood. Quality was important; I had a two deck, 3-head TEAC just for making mixed tapes.

My mixes were generally played near the start of a party - they were generally upbeat mixes that were punctuated with unusual songs. Songs that most of my friends had never heard before like the The Hell of It or songs that were rarely, if ever, played on the FM radio like To Sir, With Love, or songs that were simply not "cool" for teens in the 1980s to be listening to like It's Not Unusual. I would get a lot of "Hey, what's that. I love it" with an equal smattering of "Hey, what's that? It's crap! Fast forward."

My girlfriend would introduce new "import" music from the UK that no one had heard in Canada yet. Don brought mixes with Bob Dylon and James Tayor which would close the night. Friends would ask us to make copies of our tapes, and someone at the party would inevitably steal some of our mixes. We were even asked to make up tapes for special events. Friends would go out and buy songs that we would introduce them to. We were the taste makers for our friends. We didn't just make these tapes for parties. We made, played and listened to them every day to suit our moods.

Rip. Mix. Burn.
The mixed tape format took off with CD burning and Napster. Holy crap! I never heard so much music. There were mixed CDs at every party, in every car, and in every home - no more CD shuffle mode! It was the same people making mixed CDs that were making mixed tapes. We could just make more. It took way less time to produce. 1999 was the best year in my music life EVER.

iPod kills the taste makers
By 2004 it was all over. We all had iPods with music collections of 20,000+ songs. Previously to this only serious FANS would take the time to make a mixed tape or CD. Now everyone had days worth of music at their disposal on their iPod. All this music without context. Sure I could look at any iPod music listing, and it would tell me something about the owner. But that's not the point. I want a music experience - I want to be shown something new - I want to be taken somewhere. My friends' iPods didn't provide that. They were a mess. The fact that the evil "shuffle mode" is the most common way of listening to one's iPod just reaffirms to me that our friend the iPod has all but killed any meaning in a music mix.

Playlists to the rescue. Or not.
Until recently, I have been a big advocate of playlists. We could group our music collections into themes and experiences called playlists. To me, even classic albums like Sergeant Pepper's could be considered a type of playlist. I thought playlists would be the "New Mixed Tape", even the rebirth of the DJ - our taste maker. It hasn't turned out that way. With a possible exception of "celebrity playlists" as popularized by iTunes, it has become absolutely clear to me that a playlist is simply a listing of a near random collection of songs with a title attached. Nothing more. They really are almost completely devoid of meaning.

We create playlist on the fly without purpose. We create playlist so we can burn them to a CD without thought. We create playlist based on our previous listening habits. We create playlists based on the blog buzz of a song. We create playlists which last 6 hours or more which makes them indistinguishable from a random radio stream. We create playlist from a five star rating system - "Give me all the 3 star songs from my library, please". (Don't get me started on how stupid that is. A 5 star rating on my iTunes. Why? Who keeps 1,2,3, or even 4 star songs on their computer or iPod? If I don't love it, why the hell should I keep it with me for on demand listening?)

We don't need playlists. We need taste makers. We need a mechanism or technology to bring back the taste maker, which BTW is a person, not some computer algorithm.

If people don't know who you are...

June 21, 2007

A while back a musician asked to have a song of his removed from Project Opus. The song was listenable on Project Opus through the "IMPORT MUSIC" function. Essentially, Project Opus acts as a directory for the song. The song has to be freely available on a server to be "Imported". However the actual song file is served from the original location. Project Opus does not copy or host the song. When the song is played, the player clearly indicates the song's owner and which server is providing the host with appropriate link backs. No advertising is permitted on the song page for music not hosted by Project Opus directly.

So this musician found his music on our site when he typed in his name + "music" into Google. His name came up first inside Project Opus. He e-mailed us quite irate about having his music on our site without his permission. I explained to him the situation, that someone from Project Opus liked his music which they found on www.theothersite.com and added it to their favourites/playlist via our import function. He told me that he posted the song on the other site as a promo, which in my opinion makes sense. Except that site wasn't in the top 10 pages on Google (probably more I stopped looking) when I searched his name + music or the actual song title, while we were first in both. I told him we will be happy to delete the reference, but someone may add it again.

He asked me to delete there, as he wanted to sell his music and that our player made it too "EASY" to get his music and he was selling it on his website, which is nowhere (I just checked) on a Google search for his name.

So now his listing on Project Opus is no longer indexed by Google (We could have manually removed it from Google, I guess), and any search for his name turns up NOTHING related to him or his music. But he is selling his music off his site.



Derek Sivers, Carter Marshall, and Tyler Bancroft provide advice for musicians looking to promote themselves

June 3, 2007

I presented on a panel on Saturday for Music BC at Tom Lee Music Hall. The highlight of the evening was the keynote by Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby. This was the second time I heard Derek speak in 5 months, and although some of the anecdotes were similar, his presentation was different. Speaking as much as he does, I am sure it would be easy to just pull out the canned presentation, but he doesn't. It is a clear testament to the passion he has for the indie music scene. He is really inspirational to all those who are just starting out. He's moving to London next week for 6 months or more, so he may be difficult to catch but if you get the chance be sure to go hear him speak.

After the keynote Carter Marshall, Nettwerk, Tyler Bancroft, Frontside Promotions Inc, and myself joined Derek for a panel that was supposed to be a "workshop focusing on e-commerce, online distribution, and viral marketing. Find out how Myspace, Youtube, iTunes and the like are turning the music industry upside down, and how YOU can take advantage." I left the session feeling somewhat concerned, as I am not sure we as a panel delivered the goods on that subject, we got a bit side tracked on DRM, pricing, business models, and the like. This is very typical to many music panels these days. It's natural I guess.

However, there were some real gems that I think are worth passing on:
Tyler Bancroft:

  • Don't just have a CD. Shoot video! Any video. Upload it everywhere (not just YouTube) and people will watch it. The video does not need to be expensive. Consumer MiniDV is fine.
  • The thumbnail that is embedded in the page is critical for inducing people to click the video for viewing. Know how each video service selects the thumbnail that will be displayed. YouTube uses the centre of the video's first frame. A picture of a sexy woman will get clicked more often than the title of your song or band. Derek made a good point about truth in advertising, but if your video is original (you are artists and entertainers after all) and delivers the goods, you will be forgiven, I'm sure.

It's a bit of a shame that Tyler didn't get an opportunity to talk more about what he does to promote on the Internet, because I have a feeling he knew the most about the subject since he is actually up to his eyeballs "doing it". He is one of the driving forces behind the Jeremy Fisher campaign.

Derek Sivers:

  • Do a cover song - in your band's musical style. Remember no one in Kentucky knows who you are. However, if a listener from kentucky looks up 99 Luftballoons on iTunes for example, and they see a cover of it by your band, they will likely listen to it as well. If they like what they hear, they will often buy it. If they buy it they will take a look at ALL your music. Derek sited a number of examples of this, and the numbers are impressive. I have to agree. it's a brilliant way of getting exposure for an unknown band. Oh.. he also mentioned don't do a cover Lennon's Imagine or any other song that has been covered to death as it defeats the purpose. Go find a one hit wonder.
  • He mentioned my favourite self help book of all time. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnagie. Read it. I agree.

Carter Marshall:

  • Put your music EVERYWHERE.
  • Derek made a comment to value your music and make people pay for it. In other words don't give it away for free. Carter agreed, but said that you do not have to value your music in a straight monetary sense - especially when you are starting out and trying to get it heard. Building a legitimate fan list is critical to your career. So considering giving tracks away for free in exchange for the listener's e-mail address.

To me this was a great piece of advice. An ongoing connection with your fans is critical. You can sell a CD once to a fan, but that same fan may come to all your shows, and tell all their friends if you can establish an ongoing relationship with them. To do that, you need their e-mail address.


  • Don't spam - that goes for comments on Facebook, or MySpace. Be personal. Be it e-mail, MySpace, or what-have-you, make your correspondence personal. An e-mail that has my name on it, and says something to me personally as well as giving me the details of your next gig is much more likely to get me to your show, and I will bring friends. Sure it takes more time, but if you focus your e-mails and comments I can guarantee you that you will get better results and have longer lasting relationships with your fans and supporters.
  • Make sure your music is exposed to search engines. So tell people what your band or particular song sounds like on all your websites. (Shameless plug: Project Opus is highly optimized for this type of thing.) If people tell you that a certain song sounds like Nickelback then say so. It doesn't matter if you don't agree or that you are not a fan. This goes to the same logic of Derek's "record a cover song" advice.

I hope people found the session worth their while, and I'm sorry if we got side tracked. Derek's inspirational keynote was most likely more than enough. I am going to try and track down Tyler to pick his brain for an interview to get more of his ideas down.


More on CD Sales Collapse

March 23, 2007

The collapse of the recorded music industry is now getting reported by the media. Techcrunch is reporting that music sales are collapsing and down 20% from 2006. My Prediction of a 30-50% collapse is easily going to be realized.

Mike's blog post and many of the comments basically assume that recorded music will not be a viable economic model anymore. Artists and entertainers will need to make their money in merchandise, licensing, and live shows. Recorded music is dead.

I for one do not believe that. Recorded music can be reinvented as I commented in his blog post:
There are other avenues than simply saying give the song for free and get them to the show. Are you really happy with the recorded music experience? If not, I and others believe there are opportunities to be explored there to bring value back to the recorded music experience:

I truly believe there is great opportunity in recorded music that will come to the fore as in the next 12-18 months.

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