When reporting sucks

Music:)Ally is often pretty good. But not always.

“You can imagine that when Spotify first launched, it sent a lot of people in the music industry into panic mode – ‘Let people stream stuff? Just madness!’,” said Smernicki at today’s Guardian Changing Media Summit, where he was speaking in a digital music panel session.”

This whole post (and it goes on in some detail) is big label PR. An advertisement. A eulogy to big labels and the kind of streaming they like, straight from their megaphone to us. Reporting press statements is just not good enough, there are times when a music biz site really must make a comment on what it publishes, otherwise it’s just a billboard.

Here’s the context their reporter didn’t know, or didn’t include.

Spotify launched in 2008. Rhapsody, which has as many subscribers as Spotify in the USA was launched in late 2001. That’s right, for 7 years people subscribed to a streaming service before Spotify launched—10 years before Spotify launched in the USA. Yet we are asked to believe that “when Spotify first launched, it sent a lot of people in the music industry into panic mode”.

It did not. It could not. It’s not all that anyway.

The only people in the music industry who ever gave a toss were the Major labels. They are investors in Spotify. They dictated the terms of the USA launch. Rob Wells, the digital guru at UMG, is fully behind Spotify to an embarrassing degree. There was no panic. Ever. They licensed Rhapsody 10 years previously!

So why does Music:)Ally serve up this blow by blow look-at-me pitch from the record industry without qualification or comment? Quality control? Gullibility? Star struck? Who can tell, but I doubt their paying readers were very impressed.

Pretending to measure society

People love numbers, especially when they seem to simplify something complicated. Chart positions and audience ratings tell us something about a song or a TV program but some numbers don’t tell us anything.

John Paul Sartre: “I have confused things with their names, that is belief.”

The first time I came across social media metrics was MySpace. Hitherto web metrics were links, click-throughs, page views, and unique visitors but MySpace counted Friends, which looked—to optimistic souls—like a popularity metric. But as with MySpace none of the words on Facebook means what it says: “status”, “friend”, “insights”… and Twitter is no better.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

I think Ludwig was right, which makes social media metrics a kind of anti-philosophy. Do “followers” really follow? I know mine don’t. Maybe 10% read my tweets, the rest play the old MySpace game: pumping their numbers. (It’s no coincidence 99% of followers I don’t follow back will unfollow me.) I’m not against social media, I use it quite a bit but you can’t take the numbers literally.

Which brings us to Klout. There are many things to dislike about Klout and their ethics but as a metric it is as weak as your old MySpace Friend count.

Klout: When we’re measuring your influence there’s no room for error.

But they don’t measure anything. They scrape some web data, plug into some APIs and do some rudimentary arithmetic. When I did business analysis for a living we distinguished between primary and secondary metrics—direct measures and indirect measures. Klout falls into a completely different category, it isn’t a metric at all. It measures nothing.

Nobody is going to say “well, Seth sounds convincing but Malcolm has higher Klout.” We judge influence and reputation by, well, influence and reputation. I very much fear that Klout is the kind of thing that will get social media experts a bad name.

You will not be a social media star

The Web 2.0 blinkers were firmly in place on this SXSW panel: How to Create Video Hits With Social Media.

“The rapper [eXquire], a panelist at Wednesday’s “Importance of Online Video and Social Media” discussion, transfomed himself from a security guard at a parking lot to the star of a video with 400,000-plus views … in under six months, almost entirely based on his social media prowess and tireless work ethic.”

Not the content? People spread the word and watched because of “his social media prowess”? How about the videos? I’m no rap fan but nobody ever got 400,000 views because they have great Twitter and Facebook skills.

“It’s arguably more important now to have a social media schedule than to have a touring schedule,” said Biery [Tom Biery, Collective Sounds], emphasizing how YouTube starlets Megan and Liz built a career based on songs created in their bedrooms using social media and near-constant fan engagement.

The old bedroom myth again. More important to use social media than tour? Ridiculous.

And Mills [Matthew Mills, executive producer/director, SpaceStation] agreed, saying that having a consistent YouTube presence helps build crowds while touring — and that the analytics from YouTube, Facebook, and sales can help artists target regions for touring and building audiences.

That’s more like it. Video is important online and social media is useful but without great content and an audience the chances of remaining invisible are extremely good. Nobody ever built a music career based on social media skills.

Good singles sell—make more

Mark Mulligan posted a useful article on 29 Feb Is the UK Music Industry Sleepwalking into a CD Crisis? He classifies buyers in the usual way and explores possible industry-centred solutions. But things look very different from the artist’s point of view.

First of all the CD collapse is not a UK music industry problem, it’s a Major record label problem, and there’s no guarantee their traditional cash cow will ever come back in any form. I have written about that before.

But something else changed profoundly in the world of megastar albums. As deals got better they stopped making two a year, and as labels’ PR got better they filled albums with tracks nobody really wanted. As soon as the fans had an alternative they went for it. That’s why single sales are up and album sales are down.

So maybe this isn’t a problem about digital formats—maybe it’s a problem with quality and quantity of music. If megastars made more and better singles perhaps the problem would disappear. After all, fans used to buy more tracks.

There are two examples which suggest this might be true. Rihanna is one of the few current megastars who stepped up production. Her team saw the move away from albums and switched emphasis—with Rihanna’s fans—to singles. That has undoubtedly worked. (Of course, the blame for infrequent releases doesn’t lie entirely with artists—managers at big labels think and work in years rather than weeks.)

Then there’s the DIY and indie sector where we also see growth. These acts never had the luxury of big venues and a big record every three years, so they are ideally suited to a world where fans have access and work-rate means income.

Maybe the answer is music streaming into every living room but I don’t see that happening.  I don’t see people asking for that. I see them supporting artists who gig regularly and make more great tracks worth buying. That is what’s happening.

Do the Majors still matter?

An excellent Guardian article by Helienne Lindvall suggests Universal’s takeover of EMI poses a threat to musical diversity. Warners (who also oppose the merger) call UMG/EMI a “super-major” even though the combined company will be no bigger than UMG was 10 years ago.

Talking about a threat to musical diversity seems odd when today there is more music—and more information about music—available than ever before. The media still moves predominantly in the mainstream world where there is an unnatural emphasis on TV bookings and chart positions.

On the other hand this is a sensitive time. Digital singles are growing rapidly and it would be unhealthy to allow a single player to dominate that mainstream market. And as the article points out UMG/EMI will perhaps have too strong a hand in negotiations with new media and Internet start-ups. But do the Majors still matter?

Adele may be a one-off (she is breaking all-time sales records) but the Indies have had a spectacular decade and the direct-to-fan sector has exploded. The Indies have always been under-reported because they are frequently distributed by a Major. Does anyone really know what percentage of the new musical landscape UMG/EMI will own? Traditional sales figures are measured by Soundscan (USA) and BPI/ERA OCC (UK), and although many D2F releases are taken into account others are not.

Another factor is the importance of 360 degree deals to the Majors because while CD revenue has fallen live revenue has been growing. It seems highly unlikely any record label is getting their hands on touring mega-stars’ box office. By their nature 360 deals won’t be signed by the acts with most to lose—we know the biggest acts now have better deals than ever. The simple fact is they don’t need any label that much.

These days new artists don’t tend to look for a Major when they need more scale. Which leaves us the possibility that UMG is becoming the biggest fish in a disappearing pool, and that is a monopoly that would only concern UMG themselves.