The pundits rapture… I shrug

Last week was all about Facebook, or rather Facebook talking about Facebook dreams into the big pundit echo chamber.

Alarmingly, commentators spoke about a revolutionary answer to web music monetization problems. Some even claimed last year’s Facebook F8 had transformed the Internet already. What? Against my better judgement I had a look.

Pundit World is a completely different planet to the one I’m on. Facebook is a big social site with 500 million or maybe a billion users but that’s all. Last week they talked about real time music features although they still can’t get notifications to work on their own app. My Facebook web site page is too buggy to rely on and musicians regularly report fan pages get blocked. That’s no basis for music solutions on my planet.

And what did Zuckerberg offer? Auto-updates about music you’re streaming from some sites and posts from some music ticketing sites. Of course, music pundits’ nom du jour Spotify was dropped too but if you’re not on Spotify or whatever else gets posted there’s no read-across from your friends’ music to yours.

Zuckerberg is taking his lead from contemporary Internet hit sites like Spotify and Turntable.fm but the music industry is way too fossilised to allow an open social music experience. For that you need to take your iPod round your friend’s house, or go to a gig.

There are two audiences for puffery like this: investors and users. I think investors will be happy, they got tons of media time and megatons of hype but from a user point of view it could be Apple Ping—will anyone care? Musician-user streaming money is negligible so there’s nothing for them—they’d probably prefer Facebook pages that work, or someone to pick up the phone when they don’t.

These two articles summed up F8 for me. Andrew Orlowski in The Register and Anthony Bruno in Billboard Biz.

Of course the Facebook timeline was also announced—they might stop messing around with posts and give you chronological order. That one is straight out of the software developer’s marketing manual: how to make a blindingly obvious correction look like a new feature.

Robert Heinlein sums up the record industry

I was reading press reports and blogs about the EU phonographic (master) copyright extension and I came across this excellent quote posted by G Thompson (@alpharia on Twitter) among some comments on Techdirt:

“There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute nor common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped or turned back, for their private benefit.” — Robert A. Heinlein, Life Line, 1939

I’m never sure if old quotes that capture something fundamental about the world are reason to feel reassured or to despair.

The other reason CDs don’t sell

The debate about piracy is somewhat like Global Warming, the Media only admits two points of view, for and against. The pirate view or the big label view. In Helienne Lindvall’s recent article for The Australian she argues the big label version: piracy is killing the music industry.

Helienne is a good journalist and music piracy certainly exists but I’m no freetard and when I look at the Record Industry Crisis I see different reasons for it.

In the mid-1990s everybody knew MP3 was coming. Over the previous century the record industry had come to specialise in content rather than technology and now saw the need to control technology again. Their solution SDMI was broken on delivery and the Internet adopted MP3 unfettered.

The labels’ Plan B was to refuse MP3 licenses, so they sued Napster and the first “iPod”, the Diamond Rio. They continued to plan their own web retail (Pressplay and MusicNet) while their business was slipping away.

Supermarket muscle had slashed big label margins on chart albums and now they were beholden to two new monsters on the web: first Amazon then Apple. (Some of the names in the USA were different—Walmart, Best Buy, etc.—otherwise the story there is the same.)

The full High Street price of a CD album in 1999 was about £15—by 2003 it was below £10. Distribution margins were also hit but the new retail giants forced big labels to take a cut too. In turn they cut staff and cut artist rosters.

In 2003 the iTunes Music Store opened and Internet music really began to cannibalise physical. 2002/3 was the peak UK record industry year for physical sales (MP3 had been on the streets for 8 years). It was after iTunes that album sales declined and single sales grew. To date albums are down about 50% and singles up over 600%.

The Record Industry Crisis is all about the loss of CD album sales and it seems to me a 7-fold increase in single track sales means buyers are cherry-picking album tracks instead of buying the albums.

Another negative effect of the web on big record labels was the massive expansion in broadcast channels. They used to dominate access to a limited TV and radio mainstream. On the web they’re just another content provider.

However, the big labels tell us none of this matters so much as “piracy” although big commercial infringers have been largely ignored apart from Pirate Bay, Gnutella and LimeWire. Instead the BPI (and their IFPI partners) sued thousands of individual file-sharers and blamed ISPs. Russian MP3 sites are still trading. YouTube and Grooveshark continue to build their businesses on content they don’t own.

The way I see it articles condemning pirates as the nemesis of the record industry only give them power they don’t have and influence they don’t deserve.

Defence against the Dark Arts

Promotion and marketing are two words much abused in music business discussion online. People often say they use social networks for promotion or marketing when they mean something much less definite. Promotion is making people who might be interested aware, and marketing is getting them to buy. There’s no half-way house.

Let’s assume I have a good band and music people want to hear (by no means givens and in my case not actually true). We all know what promotion does. If a venue holds 300 and I can only count on 50 I might use a third party to promote the event and get the other 250 through the door. If there were still only 50 people at the gig it would be daft to call him a “promoter”.

Likewise if I have a run of 1,000 CDs and I can move 250, I might ask a specialist to help market the remaining 750. Again, if I have to stack 750 CDs in the garage I can be sure no marketing worthy of the name has occurred. Importantly, if these “promotion” and “marketing” guys don’t deliver I won’t use them again.

The true worth of promotion, marketing or advertising has always been notoriously hard to pin down but for us it’s fairly easy. Did new people get to know what we do? Did more people hear our music? Did we sell more tickets? That’s all that matters. A mailshot is normally binned by over 95% of recipients and those are terrible odds if you’re collecting followers who just might care. They probably won’t.

Did I get more email addresses? Or Facebook friends? These are the wrong questions. Obviously. You can’t do promotion or marketing through a browser unless the right people are looking and listening.

The same applies to everything else a band is trying to do: move albums on Bandcamp, sell singles on iTunes, get heard and seen on stage or the Internet. The crucial aspect often missing in web chat about promotion and marketing is the audience. Sufjan Stevens can confidently promote a new single on Facebook where he has 380,000 real fans, but Joe Bloggs can’t. He could easily reach some social network contacts but are they really fans? Will they buy his music or tickets? Will re-vamping his social media change that?

You have to promote and market where your audience can be found, in a way that gets their attention. The most expensive promotion and marketing on Earth—Superbowl half-time—would be useless for almost every new band I can think of. There are no promotion techniques, however awesome, that work for everyone.

These days you can buy Facebook friends and Twitter followers in chunks of 10,000 or more. They’re not expensive. Or you can work social media day and night following and friending-back, hashtag spamming, posting, DMing, photo tagging, blogging, using The 7 Promotion Tips Every Musician Should Know and joining every new social site that pops up. Either way you’re probably wasting your time.

Social media promotion and marketing tips are often useless for the very people who are most likely to try them. The Internet is the worst place for a new act to try and get attention, it’s too crowded. Local press and radio, clubs, gigs and word of mouth will be far more effective until an act really has a fan-base. The exception is music forums, blogs and zines relevant to the audience. Until there is traction there, in your town and your genre, it’s pointless pumping Facebook.

Of course, you can and should have music, videos and information anywhere that helps what you’re doing in real life. But don’t waste hours on your laptop trying 9 Social Media Marketing Secrets. Do what works and discard what doesn’t, but do the important stuff first, like having an act people will kill to see. Then you’ll never feel the need for 15 Tricks That Will Boost Your Fan-base.