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

Startup Vic’s SportsTech Pitch Night

Last month’s Startup Vic’s Pitch Night featured SportsTech, one of the semi-regular topics in Startup Vic’s themed pitch nights. Hosted by LaunchVic at the Victorian Innovation Hub, supported by the Sports Geek podcast and Track, Victoria University’s sports partnership institute.

In a new partnership between Startup Vic and LaunchVic, upcoming pitch nights will feature EdTech, Diversity and HealthTech. Meanwhile, back to the sport. The competing pitches were (links in the names):

Benchvote

Describing itself as a Sports Fan Engagement Platform, Benchvote has a tag line of “the Canva of creating high performing digital campaigns for sport”. Covering marketing, sponsorship and commercial, the platform claims to achieve 50%+ conversion rates on campaigns, partly achieved through a gamification aspect to appeal to fans.

The platform offers campaign templates, drives social media traffic to users’ own websites,
thereby converting that traffic into firm leads. It also has the potential to support other related verticals – including entertainment, media and betting. The proprietary nature of the solution is the combination of a SaaS model plus insights algorithms.

Asked by the judges about customisation versus scaling, we were told that it is a totally white label solution. Although the platform can support agencies as well as product providers with creative content and digital assets, the preference is to let clients do their own (given the business origins as an agency turned software company).

In terms of the competitor landscape, it’s between agency solutions and software services on one hand, and integrated platforms and single solutions on the other.

Potentially integrating ticketing data, the team are also looking at international expansion, and are in the middle of a raise.

MarineVerse

This is a VR sailing platform, that claims to be “Democratising sailing by enable people to sail in VR”. A big call.

Already running a VR Regatta competition, the team is building a community of clubs, members, and daily races. There’s also a VR sailing classroom, with the MarineVerse Cup – a two-week event – to come. Competition exists in the form of Virtual Regatta, which is actually a non-VR, e-sports platform.

Offering a $10 per month subscription model, MarineVerse is banking on the new
Oculus Crest device to boost adoption. The business has been bootstrapped for three years, and is experiencing 8% monthly growth.

Targeting a demographic of 30-55 year olds who are cashed-up and time rich, the team are also developing multiplayer races. The judges asked if there was potential to support high-performance training and use player data for predictive performance or behaviour.

Unite

A platform for sports club and team administration, Unite developed by Eastwood sports tech offers apps such as training calendars, fixtures management, media engagements, sponsor obligations and travel planning. Designed to help manage “Commitments to the team and individual level”, Unite offers a B2B subscription module (individual team players are the actual users) for professional, semi-professional, e-sport and collegiate teams.

Although TeamWorks is a major competitor, in fact there is much more competition at the grass-roots level, because peak bodies and administrators want to own the data. Currently at the working prototype stage, with an MVP. The service is designed to manage and approve player activities and such as media commitments, sponsorship and endorsements. It is built as a hosted SaaS using AWS security features, sitting behind the  club’s own fire wall.

Wedge Pro

As the name suggests, this device is all about “The Art of Wedge Play”, designed to reduce player handicap, and help with short game training, especially lifted wedge shots. According to the pitch, many amateur players suffer from poor technique, poor distance control, and lack confidence.

Apparently, there is a $2 billion global market for golf accessories, such as this physical attachment which launches a monitor linked to an app.

A 2017 winner at the La Trobe Accelerator Program, the team is looking for an app developer for data capture. While offering post-sales service and device re-calibration (for adjustments according to player height, the cord length matrix and player handicap), judges wondered if there was also the opportunity for VR applications as well as the kinaesthetic experience. Asked about distribution, the team mentioned getting the product into golf shops and pro shops (without providing any specifics), while building a brand for a suite of golf tech products.

After all the cotes were counted, the People’s Choice was Unite while MarineVerse was the Judge’s favourite.

Next week: FinTech Fund Raising

An open letter to American Express

Dear American Express,

I have been a loyal customer of yours for around 20 years. (Likewise my significant other.)

I typically pay my monthly statements on time and in full.

I’ve opted for paperless statements.

I pay my annual membership fee.

I even accept the fact that 7-8 times out of 10, I get charged merchant fees for paying by Amex – and in most cases I incur much higher fees than other credit or debit cards.

So, I am very surprised I have not been invited to attend your pop-up Open Air Cinema in Melbourne’s Yarra Park – especially as I live within walking distance.

It’s not like you don’t try to market other offers to me – mostly invitations to increase my credit limit, transfer outstanding balances from other credit cards, or “enjoy” lower interest rates on one-off purchases.

The lack of any offer in relation to the Open Air Cinema just confirms my suspicions that like most financial institutions, you do not really know your customers.

My point is, that you must have so much data on my spending patterns and preferences, from which you should be able to glean my interests such as film, the arts, and entertainment.

A perfect candidate for a pop-up cinema!

Next week: Life After the Royal Commission – Be Careful What You Wish For….

 

Startup VIC’s Retail & E-Commerce Pitch Night

As with the same event last year, this pitch night was again hosted at the Kensington Clik Collective. Going by the audience numbers, the retail tech and e-commerce start-up sector continues to generate widespread interest, despite (or because of?) the fragile state of most bricks and mortar retailing in Australia, and the onslaught of global online shopping from the likes of Amazon and eBay.

The four pitches in order of presentation were:

barQode

According to the founder, it all started with a scarf… and how he might have paid more for the item at the time he wanted it (but less than the retail price), compared to the eventual discount price a few months later. If only he had been able to bargain on the spot. Enter barQode – a location-specific app that enables customers to make an offer on an in-store item, and retailers to match or counter the customer offer.

To be clear, this is not (yet) a price comparison tool or even an on-line platform – it’s an app aimed at specific, location-defined, in-store purchases.

While simple in concept, the app does require a huge behaviour change by shoppers. Australians are infamous for being “price sensitive” buyers (not the same as being “cheap”, as one retail consultant once corrected me). Cost plays a huge role in purchasing decisions, especially as choice is often limited in a sector dominated by an oligopoly of brands, and a traditionally restricted market in terms of parallel imports and geo-blocking.

But barQode requires Australians to get comfortable with the notion of haggling, and that is quite a culture shift. Yes, some retail brands offer price matching against their competitors, but as this pitch pointed out, this is all about in-store purchases and prompting a more emotional engagement.

Most of the questions from the panel of judges focused on the competition, customer acquisition and market entry. Using a combination of platform fees and analytics services, barQode claims to be cheaper than the competing platforms, which also risk dis-intermediating retailers from their direct customers. Costs of acquisition were not disclosed, since the app is only in very select beta. The founders appear to be targeting discount retailers rather than selecting a specific category launch. This raises the prospect of only attracting bargain hunters who are already tempted by stock clearance offers (a race to the bottom?) – rather than engaging with select brands who can afford to yield some margin while potentially securing a new customer base.

The team claim to have a patent pending (they are working on image recognition, rather than simply relying on bar codes and other inventory data), and is seeking $350k in seed funding prior to a $1.5m Series A.

Epic Catch

Under the banner, “The social collective – date differently”, Epic Catch claims to be fostering organic connections via shared experiences for singles.

I have seen this start-up pitch couple of times before, where the initial emphasis was on being a new kind of dating service. But now, presumably with more experience and more market research, it claims to be addressing the “loneliness epidemic” – despite all the so-called “connections” people have via social media (and given recent events at Facebook, how much longer will that particular trend run?)  there is actually less and less personal engagement in the world.

According to data cited by the founders, in Australia, 35% of households consist of single people, a figure expected to reach 60% by 2036. At the same time, single people (neither age nor other demographics were defined) each spend an average of $12,000 a year on social activities. (It would have been interesting to see a breakdown of this spending pattern by consumer category, season, age, gender and location?)

The business model relies on a mix of subscriptions, commissions and affiliate fees, via a business partner model, member fees and booking fees. The founders are looking to raise $1.5m, primarily to fund marketing costs, as customer acquisition has mostly been organic, word of mouth, and SEO. To help them on their journey, the founders have appointed a solid advisory board, in their quest to counter the “fast food culture of dating and matching apps”.

Winery Lane

Winery Lane is a curated online market place, servicing independent wineries. Currently engaged on an equity crowd funding program (to raise $900k in return for 18% equity), the founders suggest that the $7.5b wine industry suffers from too many brands. A few large names dominate the market (by supply and by retail consumption), and a long-tail of boutique and specialist wine makers struggle for recognition (even though they often have a superior product). The biggest challenge is: producers can’t control the end distribution, especially small producers.

Winery Land has identified three core personas of wine lovers: geek, aspirational, and seeker. Their goal is to connect independent wine makers with this target audience, by removing the risk for sellers – through enabling them to share their wine-making narratives, and only charging a success-based commission on sales.

The business model is to target 50-60 independent wineries, and charge a 30% sales commission, while offering a 20% discount to customers on 12 or more bottles.

Asked by the panel (which included a representative from Vinomofo) about potential competitor Naked Wine, the founders claim they operate in different segments – in particular, their focus on selling genuine wines (and not running private labels).

Behind the platform is a data acquisition component – by “pooling” their mailing lists, participating wine makers can actually reach a larger (pre-qualified) audience. The judges felt that marketplace models for wine are still to be proven, and wine makers are naturally very protective of their customer lists, to whom they can usually pre-sell their normally small vintages.

[As a piece of random market research, the next day I spoke to one wine-seller representing a boutique producer at a pop-up market in the lobby of a CBD office building. He claimed that by participating in a growing number of these pop-up markets around Melbourne over the past 12 months, he had increased the size of their customer list 10-fold. When I asked whether his sales and marketing strategy included using platforms such as Naked Wine, his opinion was these services were often more like marketing software. They may also require producers to discount too heavily, that they resemble something of a bulk distribution model, and that it was akin to a “pay to publish” model for wine makers – based on the cost of getting stock on to the inventory. And while it isn’t perfect, MailChimp was good enough tool for building, engaging with and growing their customer lists.]

Postie

This SME marketing platform highlights a major paradox:  small brands engage better than big brands, but social media and e-mail engagement are both declining.

Using Instagram-based campaigns, Postie has doubled average campaign engagement to around 42%, and tripled typical click-thru rates to 6%. Postie has also reduced the time to create a campaign from 5 hours to 8 minutes.

While there is some template flexibility, there are limited options, as Postie draws on the Instagram design aesthetic.

According to the founders, there are 15 million brands on MailChimp, and 8 million brands on Instagram. What makes Postie different is that it owns its e-mail campaign client, and brands get to control their own retail inventory management.

Despite some of the challenges in SaaS marketing solutions, Postie has seen success with some specific verticals such as hairdressing, but admits that is hasn’t quite got the right product-market fit. As a result, and as a means to scale growth, Postie is starting to train users, to become more of a self-serve solution.

Somewhat surprisingly, the judges voted Epic Catch the winning pitch – I guess it is hard to ignore the founder passion, and the decision to pivot away from being a “traditional” dating platform. Meanwhile, the people’s choice (based on Twitter votes) was for Postie, and by a large margin – I suspect because many start-up founders, entrepreneurs and SME owners in the audience would welcome such a service for their own business.

Next week: The fate of the over 50s….