Has digital killed the music industry?

Or, more specifically, has disintermediation broken the business model?

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Ever since the invention of compact cassettes in the 1960s and the arrival of the Walkman in the 1970s, pundits have been predicting the end of the music business (remember those “Home Taping Is Killing Music” campaign logos of the 1980s?) – a theory that look set to come true in the 1990s with the launch of mp3 players and peer-to-peer file sharing. Yet, rather like Mark Twain, the death of the record industry appears to be greatly exaggerated.

Most debate about the demise of the music industry is predicated on the impact of technology that facilitates music piracy, whereas in reality the business model has been broken as a consequence of digital disintermediation.

For most of its history, the recording industry was a model of vertical integration. The major record labels owned the content, the means of production (recording and manufacture), the publishing and licensing activities, the distribution channels – and in some cases, they even manufactured the hardware, owned the retail stores and promoted live concerts.

The 1970s began a rapid process of horizontal integration, as the major record labels merged with one another at such a rate that by the late 1990s there were really only four global companiesSony, Warner, Universal and EMI. At various times, each of these companies has also been affiliated to substantial film, electronics and publishing interests – further proof of the vertical and horizontal integration.

The “Big Four” have now been reduced to just three with the sale of EMI to Universal. European Union Competition rules resulted in parts of the EMI group of labels being divested to Warner, and the music publishing division being sold to Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

EMI was probably the epitome of vertical integration – but over the years, it was forced to sell or close assets like its UK manufacturing plant and the HMV retail chain, and came close to selling off London’s Abbey Road Studios (a decision that was reversed following public outcry and reinforced by a heritage listing). Some observers blame poor business decisions and weak digital strategies for EMI’s demise, but I would argue that the highly integrated model has been found wanting, and EMI was a dinosaur that could no longer survive in its current form. For example, despite some errors of judgement (such as putting “Copy Control” software on their CD’s which affected their ability to play on personal computers), in many ways EMI was something of a pioneer in digital music – being one of the first major labels to remove DRM from its downloads, and licensing its content for streaming services.

Despite the rampant corporate contraction, the growth of digital download platforms and the expansion of music streaming services, it’s clear that record labels still have a role to play in developing and distributing new content. Independent labels, distributors and retailers continue to wax and wane according to the fortunes of the wider industry, and technology makes it even easier for artists to self-release their recordings direct to the customer – but record labels provide the financial and marketing support that are critical to commercial success, and other intermediaries (publishers, distributors, licensees, retailers, promoters, etc.) continue to add value to the supply chain.

In fact, just this week, Billboard has been running a poll on whether Universal and Sony should break away from their parent entertainment conglomerates – the theory being that the music labels represent greater value on their own, especially when unencumbered by ailing electronics and movie businesses. Results so far suggest that ownership does not matter so much as having the best strategies for, and access to, the means of content creation and distribution.

At the same time, the music industry is going through another round of vertical and horizontal integration and disintermediation, driven by new technology, new distribution platforms and new business models linked to the way we access and consume content. So, while Apple’s iTunes platform has been accused of anti-competitive practices in its dealings with content owners, it also faces competition from music streaming services like Spotify, Rdio and Pandora, and new content platforms like Twitter’s #music and Vine. And if sales of new CD’s (and even mp3 downloads) are reportedly declining, there is still healthy demand for live music events especially those linked to the marketing of established back catalogue titles, which is where record labels come into their own as curators of re-released and re-packaged content.

In conclusion, here are some random reasons why I think the music industry is actually in good health:

Music retailing loses its voice…

"HMV" by Margaret Manchee (courtesy of the artist)

“HMV” by Margaret Manchee (courtesy of the artist)

The decision last month by HMV (UK) to go into administration is further indication of how traditional bricks and mortar music retailing has not managed to keep up with trends. A combination of new technology, different purchasing habits and industry fragmentation has seen the retail model come unstuck – in a similar fashion to chain store book retailing.

Few mainstream or high-street music retailers have managed to survive unscathed in recent years – Tower Records and Virgin Megastores have disappeared from all major markets, and Sam Goody has been re-branded in the USA – although HMV retains stores in Hong Kong and Singapore, and both Tower and HMV stores operate in Japan under local licenses to private equity investors; Virgin retail still has a presence in France, where it competes with the domestic chain of FNAC. Otherwise, it’s mostly local independent and specialist stores that manage to keep going, although in Australia the national chain stores JB HiFi and Sanity appear to buck the trend.

One reason why the major music retailers have not survived is that in order to grow and diversify their sales turnover they started stocking books, DVD’s, games, merchandise, concert tickets and audio accessories. This meant that they reduced the amount of rack space given over to music, and as a result they lost their retailing focus.

Another factor for their demise is that like their counterparts in book retailing, they become over-reliant on high volume sales of best-selling product put out by the major music labels, overlooking the fact that the average sales for best-selling albums have been declining since the 1980’s. They ended up selling fewer copies of each title, and compounded their sales decline by reducing the number of artists/products/genres that they stocked. At the same time, the 6 major global record labels that dominated in the 1980’s have been whittled down to just 3 – Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. (It’s virtually the reverse of the long tail theory, which has been a contributing factor to the success of Amazon in book and music retailing.)

In contrast, local independent and specialist music stores have kept innovating, and kept abreast of market trends. For example, international Record Store Day each April sees music fans queuing at dawn around the block at their local record store to get their hands on exclusive and limited releases, releases that are often produced in analogue formats of vinyl and cassette.

Relying on the trio of global record labels to supply major new product and maintain bestselling legacy back catalogue meant that the music megastores became totally removed from the development of new artists, new product and new genres. Whereas, the independent and specialist stores have a vested interest in spotting and supporting new local talent, and in building stronger relationships with their customers – both on-line and in-person – via special promotions, in-store performances, and limited one-off releases. The megastores simply lacked the wit, wisdom, flexibility and credibility to deploy creative sales tactics or develop personalised customer experiences.

HMV’s closure in the UK is yet more evidence of how the old world music industry business model has been broken, except for one important area: marketing. The major labels (and an increasing number of independent labels) still have considerable marketing clout. This is a similar story to the book-publishing world, which is likewise dominated by a few global houses. But even with their marketing budgets, the major labels are under threat from viral marketing, social networking and direct-to-consumer distribution.

I would argue that the major labels have always been their own worst enemies. For around 50 years, from the 1940’s to the 1990’s, the majors tired to control all aspects of manufacturing, distribution, publishing, licensing, sales and marketing; the Virgin and HMV (aka His Master’s Voice) stores had their origins in record labels, and at various times the major labels also developed recorded music technology – HMV and gramophones, Phillips and CD’s, Sony and the Walkman etc. Vertical integration is all very well, but unless the content is continuously refreshed, the audience starts to tune out; and the one thing that the majors have never been very good at is identifying and nurturing new talent or spotting /developing new trends in music.

From the 1950’s when Sun Records unleashed rock’n’roll on the world, through to the 1990’s when the Sub Pop label defined the “Seattle sound” of Nirvana and grunge, the majority of interesting new music has been fostered by independent labels – the hey-day being the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s when punk brought the means of production to the participants themselves, allowing musicians to engage directly with their audience and without having to be intermediated by the majors. I’m thinking of innovative UK labels like Stiff, Chiswick, New Hormones, Rough Trade, 4AD, Step Forward, Factory, Zoo, Mute, Eric’s, Fast and Postcard. The majors only picked up on this new music once it had been developed, tested and cultivated by the small independent labels.

Having survived the post-punk interregnum of the independent upstarts (often through mimicry and imitation via so-called “boutique” labels launched by the majors themselves) the majors regrouped in the 1980’s, only to flounder once more when grass roots music movements like rap, hip-hop, house, electronic and techno emerged in the mid-to-late 1980’s.

More recently, the majors over-looked the potential of the Internet and digital music – they failed to embrace the new technology, and instead they tried to control and suppress it. Witness the majors’ failed attempts to sell direct to consumers via their proprietary on-line platforms, the proliferation of different and incompatible digital formats, and the over-zealous digital rights management systems (some of which even locked content after a fixed number of plays!).

Although Apple’s iTunes platform has transformed and opened up the sales and distribution of digital music, the marketing is still dominated by artists whose major labels are willing to buy shelf space and pay for promotional content. In effect, iTunes is the new music megastore.

The latest frontier in digital music is geo-blocking – which means some content on iTunes is not available in all markets, or it is sold at vastly different prices between markets – a practice that also applies to software, films and other digital content, and an issue that is likely to come under regulatory review in the near future.

Where do I see the future of the music retailing? Although predictions are incredibly difficult when the whole industry is so fragmented, I think there are 3 key (but unrelated) themes emerging:

1. Although total CD sales continue to decline, and illegal downloading threatens commercial sales of digital music, sales of vinyl records (both new and back catalogue) seem to be increasing. Some back catalogue titles previously issued by the majors are being licensed to independent labels that restore and curate this content – suggesting that the majors have little interest in their own legacy. Both newly issued and reissued vinyl records frequently come bundled with a copy of the CD, or with access to digital files, and often feature bonus material. To me, this implies that consumers want the “authenticity” of vinyl, along with the artwork, sleeve notes and tactile/contextual experience of the music, but they also want the convenience of portable music. It  suggests that well-presented content will generally find a market, as long as the music labels and record stores continue to connect with their audience.

2. TV talent programmes like “American Idol” reinforce a very narrow, shallow and ultimately sterile style of music, delivered via a karaoke production line. This says more about the entertainment industry’s need to sell and cross-promote new talent rather than any appetite for investing in original and creative artists or content. Let’s assume that the participation in (and the audience for) these shows is rooted in show biz rather than the music biz, but does anyone really think that any of these latter-day pop idols will ever have a back catalogue to match the likes of David Bowie or Joni Mitchell?

3. Digital music technology means that anyone and everyone with a smart phone or a tablet can make their own music and distribute it via the internet without leaving home, without signing publishing deals, without entering into a recording contract and without paying royalties. A lot of musicians choose to self-release and control all aspects of production, marketing and distribution, by-passing the “traditional” music industry altogether. However, this democratisation of music production introduces a series of paradoxes – the increased quantity of content does not necessarily equate to increased quality; the commoditisation of music reinforces its disposability; and in all this “noise” it’s increasingly hard for new artists to be heard or discovered. Which is why the major media channels will continue to dominate and influence most of what we get to hear, and control the sales and distribution.