The Current State of Popular Music

Over the holidays, during a family get-together, two younger relatives mentioned what their favourite pop song was. I did not know the song by title or artist, and until very recently I actually I thought it was an advertising jingle. I now understand that the combination of the song’s novelty factor and its ubiquitous appearance had helped to make it very popular. I can see why it may appeal to kids – but I doubt it will become an evergreen classic….

The song they mentioned incorporates a number of musical tropes very prevalent in many current pop songs, especially as regards the vocal styling and lyrical phrasing. But like much of the music being produced these days, it will likely be forgotten within a couple of years at most. The inherent “novelty” of the vocal could render the song a one-hit wonder, and the artist a one-trick pony.

I have nothing wrong with pop music per se, but if “we are what we eat”, surely we can become what we listen to. An unending and unvarying diet of mainstream pop music (as defined by commercial radio playlists, as measured by self-serving charts compiled by streaming services, and as financed by major record label marketing budgets and promotional tie-ins) is the equivalent of eating nothing but fast food and processed snacks.

So, at the risk of being labelled a grumpy old man, here is a list of things that are mostly wrong with contemporary pop music:

1. Vocals that feature one (or more) of the following:

  • the sound of cutesy chipmunks on helium
  • forced falsettos, cracked breathlessness and over-emoting warbling
  • singing from the back of the throat (as if constipated)
  • singing through the nose (as if congested)
  • whining, strained upper registers  (as made infamous by a certain tantric pop star)
  • auto-tune effects (especially those in search of a melody…)
  • shouting in place of projection
  • turning vowels into consonants, and consonants into vowels
  • adding syllables that don’t exist, and leaving out ones that do
  • over-stressed sibilants

2. Lyrical phrasing, scansion and rhyming schemes courtesy of Dr. Seuss,

3. Slogans, nursery rhymes and shouty phrases in place of lyrics

4. Drum and percussion tracks either programmed by ADHD, or inflicted with St. Vitus’s Dance

5. Boring, boxy and plodding 4/4 rhythms, with no syncopation or variation

6. Same set of production techniques and sound effects as used by every other producer or DJ

7. Samples based on the nastiest ringtones available (or programmed on the cheapest synths around)

8. Never mind a lack of key changes, or an absence of chord progressions, songs that revel in one-note vocal lines

9. An absence of interesting melodic or harmonic structures

10. Sound compressed into the smallest available bandwidth so it is easier to stream, but which ends up sounding flat and claustrophobic, and with exactly the same sound dynamics as every other song

11. No space to let the music breathe – every available beat and bar has to be filled up, especially with vocalese stylings

12. Too many cooks – songs by “X feat. Y with Z” are usually contrived concoctions dreamed up by the record company (“hey, we can flog this song to fans of all three of them!”) that end up as filler tracks on their respective solo albums

13. Kitchen sink productions (as in everything BUT the…) – you can almost imagine the producer in the studio shouting, “cue flamenco guitar, cue rapping, cue 80’s sample, cue metronomic rimshot, cue call and response vocals, cue detuned kick drum….!”

Part of the problem is that with the cheaper costs of recording, and the wider access to the means of production, anyone can make music, and release it direct to the public online. Meaning there is just so much more new music to listen to. However, the major record labels and their media partners still control most of the marketing budgets and distribution costs, that largely decide the songs we tend to hear, and that ultimately determine which songs become “hits”. By default, this process prescribes much of what is deemed “popular taste”. With the increased use of algorithms and other techniques, artists, producers, labels and media platforms can increasingly predict what songs will be successful, in a self-fulfilling prophesy of what will “sell”. it’s like punk never happened….

Next week: Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed

Box Set Culture

I was first introduced to the box set phenomenon in 1974, when I received a collection of novels by J G Ballard for my birthday. This led to an on-off interest in sci-fi (Asimov, Aldis, Bradbury, Dick, Spinrad, Crichton et al). It also made me aware that curators (like librarians) have an enormous influence on the cultural content we consume, and the way we consume it. Even more so nowadays with streaming and on-demand services. Welcome to the binge society.

Welcome to box set culture (Image sourced from Unsubscriber)

With network TV being so rubbish (who needs more “reality” shows, formulaic sit-coms or re-hashed police procedurals?) I am slowly being drawn back into the Siren-like charms of Netflix. More on that in a  moment.

Box set culture has been especially prevalent in the music industry, despite or even because of downloading and streaming services. It’s possible to buy the complete works of particular artists, or curated compilations of entire record labels, music genres or defining eras of music. It’s a niche, but growing, business. In recent times, I have been lured into buying extensive box set retrospectives of major artists (notably Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Fall, Kraftwerk), as well as extended editions of classic albums (Beatles, Beach Boys), and first time releases of exhumed and near-mythical “lost” albums (Big Star, Brian Eno, Beach Boys again). I like to justify these acquisitions on the basis that they are significant works in the canon of contemporary music. But only die-hard fans would attempt to embrace the monumental box set put out recently by King Crimson – comprising a 27-disc compilation of just TWO(!) years in the band’s history.

Death (and/or lapsed copyright) has become a fertile ground for box set curators and re-issue compilers, whether in literature, film or TV, as well as music. I’m sure there are publishers and editors maintaining lists of their dream compilations, waiting for the right moment to release them (a bit like the TV stations and newspapers who keep their updated obituaries of the Queen on standby). Sadly, in the case of Mark E Smith of The Fall, his death was immediately preceded by a significant box set release (tempting fate?). And as for Bowie, he had no doubt planned his legacy (and now posthumous) retrospectives prior to his own demise.

On the other hand, streaming services create the false impression we are in control of what we listen to or watch. Unless we meticulously search, select and curate our own individual playlists, we are at the mercy of algorithms that are based on crowd-sourced behaviours that are imposed upon our own personal preferences. These algorithms are based on what is merely popular, or what the service providers are being paid to promote. And while it is possible to be pleasantly surprised by these semi-autonomous choices, too often they result in the lowest common denominator of what constitutes popular taste.

And so to Netflix, and the recent resurgence in pay TV drama. Binge watching (and box set culture in general) has apparently heralded a golden age of television (warning: plug for Sky TV). But depending on your viewpoint, binge watching is either a boon to shared culture (the normally stoical New Statesman) or results in half-baked content(the usually culturally progressive Guardian). Typically, the Independent is on the fence, acknowledging that binge viewing has changed the way TV is made (and watched) but at what price? Not to be left out, even Readers Digest has published some handy health tips for binge-TV addicts. Meanwhile, Netflix itself has released some research on how binge-watching informs our viewing habits (and presumably, our related consumer behaviours). And not everyone thinks this obsession with binge watching is healthy, or even good for business – presumably because it is not sustainable, as consumers will continue to expect/demand more and more at lower and lower subscription fees.

Meanwhile, for a totally different pace of binge-watching, SBS recently tested audience interest in “slow TV”. The free-to-air network screened a 3 hour, non-stop and ad-free documentary (with neither a voice-over narrative nor a musical soundtrack) featuring a journey on Australia’s Ghan railway. So successful was the experiment, not only did the train company’s website crash as viewers tried to find out about tickets, but SBS broadcast a 17 hour version just days later.

Next week: Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

Music Streaming Comes Of Age

Last Saturday was the 10th International Record Store Day, an annual event to celebrate independent music shops. A key feature is the list of exclusive and limited edition vinyl releases, most of which can only be bought in selected participating stores – in person and on the day. But there are also loads of other promotions and live events, designed to get people browsing the racks in their local retail outlet. In an age when streaming services now account for the bulk of US music industry revenues, what is the future of the neighbourhood record shop (those that are still left, that is)? Will streaming services kill off digital downloads, as well as sales of physical product like CDs and records?

Despite the sense of doom that has permeated the record industry in recent years (if not decades!), there is also a feeling that, just as the internet has not yet managed to kill off the publishing industry, digital has not yet killed the radio star. The independent music industry in particular has found a way to survive, and retail stores are still an important part of the business.

So, what are the recent trends in music industry sales and business models?

First, the continued rebound in vinyl sales (at least in the UK) show that there is renewed interest in this 70-year-old format, with industry data showing a 25-year high (but not yet a return to the 1980s’ peak). Record Store Day is generally credited with boosting vinyl sales. And to be fair, even music streaming services have contributed to this growth, through curated content, recommendation engines and user preferences: meaning that listeners get exposed to a wider range of music and artists than they would from traditional Top 40 radio, and they get to explore and discover new music.

Second, digital downloads, once seen as the industry growth engine, are facing a pincer attack, from streaming services as well as vinyl sales. No wonder that Apple is expected to slowly and quietly retire the iTunes download store, and shift more focus onto its own Apple Music subscription service. The music industry (especially the dwindling number of major labels) didn’t really “get” the internet. Having just competed in the CD-format wars, the major labels then competed on digital file formats, and tried to lock their digital content to proprietary players and software protocols. Some of this reticence was justified – thanks to digital piracy and illegal file sharing – but they didn’t (and still don’t) help themselves by poor CX on their retail websites (if they have an e-commerce presence at all), and adherence to arcane geo-blocking.

Third, many musicians are benefiting from increased exposure via streaming services – although with Apple Music and Spotify seemingly leaving the other platforms far behind, the downside risks from a dominant duopoly don’t need spelling out. Especially as the royalty payments from streaming are generally much smaller than they would have been from physical sales, “traditional” downloads and radio airplay. This source of friction between labels, their artists, music publishers and online content platforms surfaced again earlier this month, in a spat with YouTube over fees for video streaming.

Fourth, in a new move in the streaming wars and the battle to win mobile screen real-estate, Australian startup Unlockd has just secured a deal with MTV UK to stream free music videos in return for viewing ads. It’s also a move designed to counter ad-blockers and locked screens, while finding another way to distribute sponsored content. Elsewhere, some mobile carriers are now including music streaming services as part of customers’ un-metered data consumption, although what this may mean for artist royalties and the revenue share from ad-supported content on Spotify etc. is unclear.

Fifth, as another example of how the music industry is having to adapt, UK startup Secret Sessions is using a combination of social media, independent/unsigned artists and major brand licensing deals to find new ways to generate revenue streams for artists that can no longer count on income from traditional sales-based royalty deals, especially with the diminished licensing revenues from streaming services.

Sixth, as further evidence that all is not well in the world of music streaming, SoundCloud continues to lose its way. Once the music service of choice for user-contributed content created by independent and unsigned musicians, it got greedy and has been subject to recent speculation about its financial health and future.

Initially, SoundCloud was all about the makers and producers – helping artists connect with their audience, via a simple but effective website and mobile app. It also meant that at first, SoundCloud charged musicians and labels under a “pay to publish” model, while listeners could simply stream (and sometimes download) all this content for free. Then, it alienated many of its earliest supporters and champions, by introducing “ad-supported” streaming (with priority access going to labels and artists with big marketing budgets, who could also attract/demand the lion’s share of the advertising revenue).

SoundCloud also seriously messed with the app, making it far less useful to artists, and then introduced its own subscription-based streaming service, SoundCloud Go. Only, it wasn’t satisfied with just one subscription model, and recently announced an “upgrade” – whereby the “old” service became “SoundCloud Go+“, and a “new” SoundCloud Go was launched. Confused? You will be….

Meanwhile, Bandcamp continues to outperform the industry, in terms of annual sales growth, and has become a unique platform that offers music streaming, digital downloads and even physical product. (Frustratingly, Bandcamp is still blocked from selling digital content directly via iOS devices – even though much of this content is unavailable on either iTunes or Apple Music. Surely that’s anti-competitive?) And now there’s an amusing string of “SoundCloud vs Bandcamp” memes doing the rounds which may say a lot about the respective fortunes of these rival services.

Finally, the last word on the current state of music streaming and digital downloads should go to the artist known as L.Pierre. He has just announced the release of his latest and final (vinyl-only) album under that particular moniker, with an accompanying artist statement which could be seen as both an indictment upon and a requiem for the music industry.

NOTE: Apologies to my readers for any confusion regarding the timing and accessibility of this post. Thanks to WordPress, this article “missed” its scheduled time, and the outgoing e-mail notification had a faulty link. Normal service will hopefully be resumed next week…

Next week: Startup Vic’s E-commerce Pitch Night

Will streaming kill the music industry?

The resurgence in vinyl sales is certainly not enough to save the music business. But will streaming finally cook the goose that once laid Gold Discs?

statistic_id273308_music-album-sales-in-the-us-2007-2014

US album sales (in all formats) are in decline. (Source:  Statista)

What can we learn from the music industry based on the apparent rebound of vinyl sales in recent years? Is streaming doing enough to halt the decline in total music revenue? Will CD’s soon disappear altogether? What future for LPs in a world of “Album Equivalent Sales”, “Track Equivalent Albums” and “Streaming Equivalent Albums”?

Are there parallels here with other content, publishing or entertainment sectors?

Back to Black

Last month the 8th annual Record Store Day was launched with a fanfare of upbeat data for vinyl sales. It was a good news story in an otherwise depressing saga of declining album sales, stagnating revenues, and mixed messages about the impact of digital downloads and streaming services on the music industry.

Coming off a very low base (like, near-extinction levels), the extraordinary sales growth of vinyl (especially in Australia) can be attributed to a combination of factors, although it is difficult to see how any single trend is responsible for this growth:

  • The growing popularity of Record Store Day itself (although it’s not without its problems – see below)
  • Baby boomers buying their record collections all over again
  • Hipster interest in analogue technology
  • Record labels mining their back catalogues
  • Niche market interest among audiophiles, collectors and the cool kids
  • New approaches to packaging vinyl with downloads and other bonus content
  • DJ culture
  • Secondary markets via E-bay and Discogs
  • Retailing switching from megastores to specialist shops

Infographic: Vinyl Comes Back From Near-Extinction (Source: Statista)

Where Is The Money Coming From?

Latest industry data suggests that digital sales (downloads and streaming) are now on a par with physical sales (CD, vinyl and the rest). Overall revenue has stabilised, having fallen from a peak in 1999. And streaming services are enjoying huge growth.

But the true picture is harder to establish:

First, while the IFPI provides global aggregated data, each local industry body (RIAA, BPI, ARIA etc.) likes to tell a different story from its national perspective. So it’s difficult to compare like with like. (For example, while Taylor Swift is supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon, she does not figure at all in the BPI data for 2014…..) One brave soul has tried to compile data for the past 20 years.

Second, because of the changes in distribution and consumption, music sales have to be counted in different ways:

  • Wholesale revenue vs retail sales
  • Physical sales vs digital sales
  • Per unit download sales vs streaming equivalents
  • Product revenues (e.g., album sales) vs licensing revenues (e.g., soundtracks)
  • Subscription fees (e.g., Spotify) vs per download revenue (e.g., iTunes)
  • Advertising income from video streaming vs royalties from broadcasting and soundtracks

Third, when more and more music is accessed via video platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, and Vevo, streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora and Omny, or apps such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mixcloud and Shazam, “sales” data starts to become less and less relevant. (And some people are still hanging on to the ailing MySpace platform….).

The bottom line is that despite the growth in streaming services, digital sales (in whatever format or media) are not yet enough to compensate for the continued decline in album sales in particular, and music overall:

The peak era of CD sales is over. (Source: Talking New Media)

Record Store Day Woes

The success of Record Store Day has divided opinion as to whether it is actually a “good thing” for the industry. It started as a campaign by independent record labels, distributors and retailers to revive the habit of buying records in-store. Labels produce limited edition and often highly collectible items for the occasion, and there are rules as to how, when and where these releases can be made available to the public.

At first, it really was driven by the independent labels, many of whom brought out interesting product that otherwise wasn’t available, such as label samplers, unreleased material and one-off artist collaborations.

Now, the major labels have jumped on board, meaning the market is flooded with unnecessary re-releases (do we really need Bruce Springsteen‘s ’70s and ’80s albums reissued on vinyl?) drawn from their extensive back catalogues (no need to pay for recording costs or new artwork!).

This means that smaller labels who release new vinyl records on a regular basis (not just once a year) get bumped from the production line, as the major labels exert their purchasing power over the pressing plants.

In addition, some Record Store Day releases are so badly distributed that stores are unlikely to take delivery of the items in time for the event. Or bad decisions lead to over-supply of certain items, which end up in the bargain bins (major labels again especially guilty of this offence).

Some store owners appear reluctant to participate because they feel embarrassed about the prices they may have to charge for many of the limited releases, which get bought by speculative customers, rather than collectors, fans and enthusiasts – a fact borne out by the immediate listings and inflated prices on E-Bay and Discogs….

As one store owner I talked to commented: “Every day should be record store day…”

What Else Does The Data Reveal?

For all the new young pop stars that the industry keeps churning out, there’s nothing like longevity and back catalogue to prop up the sales numbers. For example, Barbara Streisand was in the Top 10 for US album sales (and with new material!), and the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Bob Marley and Oasis feature in the top-selling vinyl records. Will Record Store Day 2025 herald the vinyl release of Justin Bieber’s pre-pubescent “demos”?

The decline of album sales has been particularly steep in the genres of Hip-Hop and R&B, while rock and pop continue to dominate the market. Some industry commentators have suggested that music sales are merely “in transition” as consumers switch from buying CD’s and downloading music to subscribing to streaming services. Meanwhile, in the US, country music’s #4 position by overall consumption reflects substantial album sales, as streaming is still a small component for the genre.

And those vinyl sales numbers? They’re simply a blip on the chart and largely driven by avid fans willing to shell out for deluxe editions….

The future is streaming?

Apple and others certainly believe (or hope) that streaming will save the music industry. Having demolished the market for CDs, iTunes is in a battle for its own survival among competing streaming services, where Apple itself is about to lead the charge having acquired the Beats platform.

But others are not so sure, predicting that streaming is already in decline, along with download sales:

First, the streaming platforms are yet to make a profit. Part of this is due to the cost of content that has to be licensed from the record labels and artists. Part is also due to the cost of acquiring customers, even if this can be done via social media, because the decline in music buying has been so abrupt, so the industry may be permanently damaged that streaming cannot bring back paying customers.

Second, even though streaming may overtake downloads by next year, there’s still nothing certain that teen pop fans (the target audience) will pay $7.99 – $9.99 per month to listen to music via so-called “freemium” services. Evidence suggests that consumers are happy with the free services, even if they have to put up with ads.

Third, while I agree that the freemium model is a fixture in the digital economy, the problem with Spotify et al is that they are not growing the market for music, but simply cannibalising it by displacing existing platforms (commercial radio, digital downloads, physical sales), while being tied to third-party distribution channels (the internet) and devices (smart phones, tablets and computers).

Anyway, subscription-based music streaming is nothing new, and was first launched over 100 years ago (and thanks to Mark Brend’s “The Sound of Tomorrow”, I learned that Mark Twain was the first subscriber).

If the “old” record companies are charging streaming services too much to license their content, then the streaming services should just find other sources – there’s plenty out there – but then, just like the major record labels, they are not really interested in music, only in shifting product and promoting “artists” (even if they are still figuring out how to make digital pay). The record labels don’t help themselves with their reliance on back catalogue, and their archaic territorial licensing practices either – forcing customers to circumvent geo-blocking barriers (legally or otherwise…).

Unfortunately, file sharing, illegal downloads and “free” streaming have meant customers don’t feel compelled to pay for digital music content. Personally, I prefer to curate my own listening, and not let someone else dictate what I hear, even if the service “knows” my preferences…

And the moral of the story is…?

More distribution platforms, more formats and more content may not be enough to save ailing industries, whether it’s music or television, newspapers or movies. These businesses will have to learn to live with lower margins and/or smaller market shares. The quality of a home-made movie uploaded onto YouTube may not be anywhere near that of a Hollywood blockbuster, but if cat videos are what grab punters’ attention (and by default, pull in the advertisers), the studios may have to find alternative strategies. And if music fans prefer to use free streaming services, the industry has to do a better job of producing content that consumers may be willing to pay for.

Ironically, in publishing, one sector that has been written off ever since the arrival of CD-ROM’s and the internet, teen consumers are still happily buying and reading print editions, alongside e-books. More so than other content industries, publishing has rapidly adapted to the new user-defined model: aspiring authors find it easier to self-publish (e.g., via Tablo and dedicated crowdfunding platforms such as Pubslush and Unbound); they can easily connect with an audience (especially in the realm of fan fiction); and a platform like Wattpad allows writers to test material before they commit to formal publication, and lets readers vote for what they’d like to read more of.

Next week: Making connections between founders and investors