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

“Language is a virus” – a look at coding skills

We are fast-approaching the point when a lack of some basic coding skills will be likened to being illiterate. If you are unable to modify a web page or use an HTML text editor, it will be like not knowing how to create a Word document or edit a PDF file. Coding does appear on some school curricula, but it is primarily taught in the context of maths, computer programming or IT skills. Whereas, if we look at coding as a language capability (part of a new literacy), it should be seen as an essential communication tool in itself.

quote-William-S.-Burroughs-language-is-a-virus-from-outer-space-92713First, I am aware that a number of programs for children are trying to teach coding and maths in more relevant ways, and having talked to some of their creators, I admire their ambition to place these skills in a broader context. Coding might be described as the “4th R”: alongside reading, writing, arithmetic we have reasoning”. So a program like Creative Coding HK (as it name implies) focuses on students making things; in the USA, KidsLogic is placing as much emphasis on contextual learning as on robotics; while Australia’s Machinam is re-writing the maths curriculum to teach practical, everyday problem-solving skills.

Second, as we know, learning the foundations of coding is like learning the syntax of a foreign language. However, while Latin and Greek can provide the basis for learning the structure (and many words) of many European languages, it’s not much use when learning character-based languages (Chinese, Japanese) – although there are common grammatical elements. But if we understand that a line of any code has to be structured a certain way, contain essential elements, define key attributes and run in a particular sequence or order, we may come to “read” and interpret what the code is saying or doing.

As an aside, I’m struck by the comments made by the founder of AssignmentHero during a recent pitch night. Although he had studied computer sciences at Uni, he did not use any of the formal computing languages he had learned when building his product. This highlights the downside of learning specific languages, which can become obsolete, unless we have a better grasp of “which languages for which purposes”, or find ways to easily “interpolate” components of one language into another (just as languages themselves borrow from each other). Or do we need an Esperanto for coding?

Third, even if I don’t want or need to learn how to program a computer or configure an operating system, knowing how to define and sequence a set of instructions for running some software or a dedicated program will be essential as more devices become connected in the Internet of Things. For myself, I have dabbled with a simple bluetooth enabled robot (with the original Sphero), acquired a WiFi-enabled light bulb (the programmable LIFX) and experimented with an iOS music app that incorporates wearables (the MIDI-powered Auug motion synth).

Finally, just like a virus, coding is contagious – but in a good way. At a recent event on Code in the Cinema (hosted by General Assembly as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival), there were three demos which captured my attention, and which I will be investigating over the coming months:

I think they show why, where and how many of us “non-computing” types will want to learn the benefits of coding as a new language skill. If nothing else, getting comfortable with coding will help mitigate some of the risks of the “digital divide”.

Next week: The arts for art’s sake….

Update on the New #Conglomerates

My blog on the New Conglomerates has proven to be one of the most popular I have written. I’d been contemplating an update for a while, even before I heard this week’s announcement that Verizon is buying the bulk of Yahoo!. Talk about being prescient…. So, just over two years later, it feels very timely to return to the topic.

Image sourced from dc.wikia.com

Image sourced from dc.wikia.com

Of the so-called FANG tech stocks, when I was writing back in May 2014, Facebook had recently acquired WhatsApp and Oculus VR. However, apart from merging Beats Music into its own music service, Apple has not made any big name deals, but has made a number of strategic tech acquisitions. Meanwhile, Amazon has attempted to consolidate its investment in delivery company, Colis Privé, but got knocked back by the French competition regulators. Netflix finally launched in Australia in March 2015, and within 9 months had 2.7 million customers, a growth rate of 30% per month. Finally, Google has since renamed itself Alphabet, and purchased AI business Deep Mind.

Over the same period, Microsoft appears to have reinvigorated its strategy: back in May 2014, Microsoft had just completed its acquisition of Nokia. Since then, Microsoft has announced it is buying LinkedIn (following the latter’s purchase of Lynda.com in 2015), but has also shut down Yammer, which it had only bought in 2012. The acquisition of LinkedIn has been framed as a way to embed corporate, business and professional customers for its desktop and cloud-based productivity tools (and maybe give a boost to its hybrid tablet/laptop PCs). On the other hand, Microsoft has a terrible track record with content-based products and services, as evidenced by the Encarta fiasco, and the fact that Bing is an also-ran search engine. I think the jury is still out on what this transaction will really mean for LinkedIn’s paying customers.

So, what are the big tech themes, and where are the New Conglomerates competing with each other?

First, despite being the “next big thing”, VR/AR is still some way off being fully mainstream (although Pokémon GO may change that….). Apple and Google will continue to go head-to-head in this space.

Second, content streaming is not yet the new “rivers of gold” for publishing (and the sale of Yahoo! might confirm that there’s still gold in those advertising hills….). But music streaming (Apple, Spotify, Amazon and Google – plus niche services such as Bandcamp and Mixcloud) is gaining traction, and Amazon is building more content for SVOD (to compete with Netflix, Apple and Google). But quality public broadcasters such as BBC, ABC and NPR are making great strides into audio streaming (via native apps and platforms like TuneIn) and podcasting. One issue that remains is the fact that digital downloads and streaming still suffer from geo-blocking, and erratic pricing models.

Third, Amazon continues to build out its on-line retail empire, even launching private label groceries. Amazon will also put more of a squeeze on eBay, which does not offer fulfillment, distribution or logistics and is a less attractive platform for local used-goods sellers compared to say, Gumtree.

Fourth, Amazon is making a play for the Internet of Things (which, for this discussion, includes drones), but both Apple and Google, via their hardware devices, OS capabilities and cloud services, will doubtless give Amazon a run for its money. Also, watch for how Blockchain will impact this sector.

Finally, payments, AI, robotics, analytics and location-based services all continue to bubble along – driven by, for example, crypto-currencies, medtech, fintech, big data and sentiment-based predictive tools.

Next week: Another #pitch night in Melbourne…

 

 

 

 

David Bowie Was – “It’s a god-awful small affair…”

The music of David Bowie was the soundtrack to my teenage years, coinciding with the extraordinary run of albums he released in the 1970s, the like of which we will never see again. He was the first (and probably last) 20th century mega pop star, with a prescient knack for reinvention and innovation. He will be remembered as one of the few truly original musicians of his era, a legacy that he has confirmed with his final studio album, released on his 69th birthday, just two days before he died. Talk about timing…. Even his long-time collaborator, Tony Visconti was moved to say “His death was a work of art.”

Sleeve of 1976 compilation album released by RCA Records. Portrait by Tom Kelley. (Image sourced from Discogs.com)

Sleeve of 1976 compilation album released by RCA Records. Portrait by Tom Kelley. (Image sourced from Discogs.com)

Overture

My own journey with Bowie began with “Life on Mars?” (from “Hunky Dory”), which was released as a single in June of 1973. I was 12 years old, and my family had just returned to suburban London after three years living in Australia. The re-entry was bewildering.

The UK of my childhood had disappeared in my absence: there was decimal currency, membership of the EEC, a Tory government, colour TV, and the Three-Day Week. And then there was glam rock, with Bowie at the forefront. The kids at school were all wearing platform shoes, outrageously wide shirt collars, flared trousers, and Bowie haircuts. If they’d been allowed, they’d probably be wearing glitter and makeup as well. There certainly hadn’t been anything like this in staid, suburban Adelaide, which felt like it was firmly stuck in the 1950s.

Prologue

Although I had probably heard “Space Oddity” (and even “The Laughing Gnome”) on the radio as a child, “Life on Mars?” is the first Bowie song I connected with. I couldn’t fathom the lyrics, but their sense of alienation (along with the song’s outsider perspective) must have resonated with me. It also suggested a loss of innocence, time and place. It was hard to avoid or ignore Bowie during this period. There was a constant stream of hit singles released to an eager market that was happy to keep him in the charts week in, week out.

Act I

At the time, I was more in tune with Top 40 radio than album releases, so for me Bowie was “just” a singles artist. I was mostly oblivious to the stage and album personas of “Ziggy Stardust”, “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”. It took me a while to backtrack through those albums, especially “The Man Who Sold The World”, which was only known to me through Lulu’s cover version of the title song. As for “Pin Ups”, although it was not his strongest effort at the time, it was a significant portal into 60s psychedelic, progressive and underground rock music for those of us too young to have been there.

The first Bowie album I actually bought was “ChangesOneBowie” because it was an excellent primer, and it contained two of my favourite tracks of the mid-70s, “Fame” (from the pivotal “Young Americans”) and “Golden Years” (from the even more significant “Station to Station”, which Kraftwerk name-checked on their contemporaneous album, “Trans-Europe Express”). “ChangesOneBowie” was not a typical greatest hits collection, but stood as an album in its own right.

From there, it was headlong into the Berlin trilogy of “Low” (still an astonishing collection of post-modern rock songs, electronic and ambient music), “Heroes” (confirming Bowie as one of the few pre-punk musicians it was still OK to like) and “Lodger” (tackling issues of cold war politics, gender identity and domestic violence against a backdrop of Eastern, Reggae and Krautrock influences – “world music” before the term had even been coined).

In 1980, Bowie said farewell to the 70s with “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”, which thanks to the video for “Ashes to Ashes”, helped usher in the MTV era. It remained his strongest work for more than 30 years (apart from “Heathen”, and maybe “Let’s Dance”) until “The Next Day” in 2013 (which acted as both a coda to and summation of his musical career), and the valedictory released early last month.

Act II

For much of the 80s and 90s, Bowie seemed to flounder. In the 70s, he had been the instigator of change and the artist to follow; witness the legion of artists who cite him as a key influence. But after “Let’s Dance” he became more of a follower as he tried to catch up with the latest trends rather than setting them, and much of the material on the resulting albums sounds outdated, stodgy and formulaic, lacking the deft touches of his earlier work. While I can even understand why he formed the Tin Machine, I have no time for their music. To my ears their albums are no better than much of the vapid, soulless and synthetic rock that polluted mainstream radio and TV as the major record companies tried to re-corporatise pop and rock music following the disruption of punk, new wave, post-punk, electronic and independent artists and labels.

Act III

I’m sure history will treat the “third act” of Bowie’s career (from “1. Outside” to “Reality”) more kindly than when some of those late albums were first released. Overall, it’s a reasonably solid body of work, and still a lot better than what most of his contemporaries were churning out at the time. It feels as if Bowie was treading water, biding his time, waiting for new inspiration while he explored other interests – whether securitising his back catalogue via Bowie Bonds, or launching his own ISP, BowieNet.

Then came the growing silence: no new material, no live tours, and gradual withdrawal from the spotlight. Only the odd glimpse, and the occasional rumours about his health. Maybe the curtain had finally fallen on Bowie’s recording career.

Epilogue

Suddenly out of nowhere, after an 11-year hiatus, in January 2013 came a startling new single, “Where Are We Now?”, which caught most of us by surprise. It was both new and comfortably familiar – the sonic palette had been updated (without trying to sound “trendy”), but the lyrical themes were the same. Bowie himself sounded wiser but world-weary, and there was an abiding sense of loss, regret and redemption.

The accompanying album, “The Next Day” did not herald any great musical surprises, yet it was good to have him back with such a solid album. The songs avoid being Bowie pastiches (which is a trap many comeback albums fall into), but each track could have appeared on one or more of his classic 70s albums. At one point, too, his vocals sound reminiscent of Scott Walker‘s recent work (surely not mere coincidence?). Despite the lingering thought that this really was the last Bowie album, “The Next Day” was soon followed by new material, various remixes, the “David Bowie Is” touring exhibition, a stage show based on “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, and yet more Bowie compilations, box-sets and re-issues.

All this renewed activity now seems like a diversion, designed to catch us off our guard. Because we were hardly prepared for what happened next: the huge anticipation, when yet another new album was scheduled for release on January 8, 2016; and deep sorrow, when Bowie’s death was announced just two days later.

I haven’t managed to listen to “” more than a couple of times. The lyrics are loaded with poignant references to death, resurrection and final endings. It feels like we are listening in on someone predicting and meditating upon their own imminent demise, contemplating their life with quiet reflection. While the accompanying music is not exactly funereal, nor it as avant-garde or as cutting-edge as some reviews might suggest; but it’s still quite experimental for a mainstream artist. Inevitably, the album will be regarded as Bowie’s final artistic act, a grand gesture, signing off on his own terms. Not many of us will get to do that…

Postscript

When I heard the news that Bowie had died, I was walking home through the park. The city was bathed in a golden glow of a rain lit sunset, and there was a huge rainbow across the sky…. Starman indeed.

Without the benefit of Bowie, I probably wouldn’t have explored or appreciated loads of other music: the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Iggy & the Stooges, John Cale, Brian Eno, Neu!, Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, Can, Wire, Faust, Buzzcocks, The Cure, Nico, Devo, TV on The Radio, Arcade Fire, Blur, The Associates, Nick Cave, Au Pairs, The Doors, Tindersticks, Air, Magazine, Kraftwerk, Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Pixies, Talking Heads, Television, A Certain Ratio, Echo & The Bunnymen, and many more.

If I had to choose one song that best epitomizes Bowie’s personal perspective on stardom (and notoriety), along with a sense of his own mortality and place in the world, it would be “It’s No Game”, from 1980’s “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”. Bowie was neither politician nor philosopher (and he certainly wasn’t a saint), but this existentialist anthem is a perfect statement on the human condition that is still valid today, which is why I for one will miss his presence.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to my fellow presenters David Whiting and Steve Groves at North West FM Community Radio for the great times we had with our special Bowie programs over the past few years.

Next Week: Tech vs The Human Factor