The tyranny of sameness

The mainstream is all about lots of people liking the same thing. People who like other things are just as curious and commercially active, probably even more so, but they are less easy for the mass media to serve.

I never liked the mainstream much. I grew up with pirate radio during secondary school. At break we would head up the field with our transistors and catch a couple of tracks, just half a dozen of us. We rarely liked the same thing with the same passion, instead we shared our enthusiasm for different things.

So the mainstream has always baffled me. There are some benefits in making, storing, promoting, and selling several million of one CD rather than “only” 50,000 of 60 others. And traditional radio and TV finds it easier to feature a few acts rather than many. But all that is for the convenience of middlemen, not artists or consumers.

We are encouraged through charts and so-called talent shows to pick winners. Winners, of course, are also easy for mass media to mass market, it’s much harder to promote diversity and difference. It’s impossible to feature everything people like and pick winners at the same time.

That’s why even BBC 6Music (the UK national “new music” station) conforms to the post-pirate popular radio template: label-driven playlists and prime time personality presenters, with eclectic music shows relegated to off-peak hours. When the BBC launched Radio One in 1967 it didn’t just make pop radio legal it also made it safe for the masses.

Under its charter the BBC should be “distinctive”, but it isn’t. A distinctive new music radio station would be manned round the clock by music DJs reflecting the true diversity of world (and indeed World) music.

Instead the mass audience has the comfort of experiencing and buying the same stuff as everybody else, and record labels—even though the benefits of mass producing a limited number of titles are much diminished with digital—still sell a very small range. What we don’t know is how many of that mass audience will buy more when they can see and hear it, but it’s my guess we’ll find out in our lifetime.

Your music collection is too big

Music sites that claim to have “everything” don’t.

I’ve read as many accounts of cloud music services as I could find. People generally report they have tracks you can’t get online and each service has 80% or less of the tracks they want. My experience with iTunes Match backs this up.

When music biz experts debate which music streaming service is the next big thing they’re missing the obvious fact that none of them are.

If you’re under 25 and like only chart music from the last 10 years you’ll have better luck. Most music buyers have an album collection of around 100 titles (at 25 it would be more like 50) but people who are into music have broader taste and much bigger collections.

The debate about music streaming solutions isn’t for fans with 1,000 albums who spend their time looking for new music. It’s all about the mainstream. You might think music industry experts would be talking about services for the biggest customers instead of the most customers. Opinion formers and early adopters must look elsewhere. This innovation isn’t for them, it’s for people who don’t want much.

History repeats… a bit

There was a gold rush in new music media—new startups appeared almost weekly and patent disputes broke out. Even though the new kid in town spent more time in court than developing the product buyers couldn’t get enough music players and content. This was before World War One—the flat disc was replacing the recordable cylinder.

Berlinner accumulated many patents but history suggests his success was down to ease of manufacture (stamping), flat storage, and louder playback without amplification. (Amplification didn’t hit the mainstream until 1925, the disc was launched 30 years earlier.)

The current music format upheaval is different and although history doesn’t repeat exactly it probably has something to tell us. When Berlinner launched the disc in 1895 he laid the foundations for today’s record industry and defeated the incumbent. Edison made his cylinders until 1929 but never came close to retaking the recorded music industry he had started. Perhaps he hoped amplification would redress the balance but in the 1930s half of all American record production went into jukeboxes where once again discs ruled. However, there is a more important winner in this story—the customer.

The cylinder was perhaps more capable than the early disc, it was recordable and Edison had the resources, a killer brand and marketing power. Nevertheless customers chose the disc, decisively. It’s futile to second-guess the customer, they choose what they want.

In the late 1990s, faced with a new format (MP3) they didn’t control, Berlinner’s descendants made a series of attempts to regain the upper hand. But customers didn’t like what was offered. DRM on downloads, DRM on CDs, Major label web stores, subscription streaming… the verdict of the public has been decisive. Music distribution today can be summed up under 4  headings—CD sales, download sales, file sharing and radio. Overwhelmingly that’s what people want. Of the 2 billion online we know around 1 billion will be music customers. 900 million of them don’t use a big label streaming service and of the 100 million who do less than a quarter pay.

The evangelists of music streaming commerce—who have flogged this particular horse for over a decade—have made little headway. They tell us people “prefer access to ownership”, but quite clearly they don’t. We are told it’s early days but it isn’t—it was early days in 1995 when MP3 became available to everyone with a telephone line. There must be a point when it’s obvious streaming doesn’t sell. For me it was iTunes outselling all the streaming services overnight… in 2003. The Major labels will catch up one day, maybe.

The music conference treadmill

Midem, SXSW, ReThink Music, The Great Escape, Music Connected… there seems to be a music industry conference every week. Why do they invest so much time when the big labels seem to be in a terminal decline?

Maybe that is why. Last year half a billion dollars was invested in music start-ups, mainly on the Internet. It’s clear that some people—and a great deal of money—still has faith in the music industry.

Nobody is speaking at all these conferences or investing all that money to join the big labels’ nosedive. They clearly believe there’s a commercial future in music and they aren’t fazed by the fact that multi-millionaire label managers have no idea what it is.

The endless chat goes round in circles but there are still things to talk about. Nobody has really come up with a music application that uses the potential of the Internet, even though Spotify and Facebook are getting attention.

Spotify is still a jukebox—monthly subscriptions are 10 years old, the 15 million track catalogue is almost that old and jukeboxes are a hundred years old. Facebook, far from being the ultimate social music platform, is barely even listening to what musicians or their fans really want. And that is why neither is having much success. In spite of all the talk.

But somebody will.

iTunes Match

I don’t like computers wasting my time—that’s why I use Apple (since 1990). There are tasks you can do better with Linux or Windows but fortunately I don’t need them these days.

Nothing’s perfect and even Apple has glitches from time to time, so I left iTunes Match well alone for 6 months. On Friday night I decided it was time, checked my iTunes library, removed WAVs and AIFFs, and pressed the button. I left the laptop on overnight and checked occasionally the next day—something was (still) going on.

Late on Saturday I took a closer look although I wasn’t expecting it to be finished. I changed View so I could see the Match status columns and checked the spinning wheel next to iTunes Match. It was uploading a track or two every hour and still had 2,000 to go. Looking through the library about half the tracks still appeared to be untouched! Apple discussions advised me to clear some track errors and restart, so I did. Things improved: 10 or 20 tracks an hour at first but getting slower again. A couple of hours later I could see no way to get the job finished in less than a week (24 hours a day) and after about 26 hours total I switched it off.

My music library is 11,390 songs plus 8 Gb of audiobooks, about 60 Gb altogether. In recent years I have learned to allow iTunes to organise all the files and even Consolidated the library recently when I found a few rogue tracks pointing to a long dead network drive.

In fact most of the errors I got during Match were tracks still pointing into nowhere, although that’s precisely what Consolidate is meant to fix. Other errors were expected, for example tracks I keep joined because “Gapless” playback isn’t quite gapless. The strangest thing was the number of odd Uploads in otherwise Matched albums, presumably because my compression is mostly 128 kbps AAC. Although Apple calls that High and it’s fine to my everyday ears it may not be good enough to match with. (I keep some tracks in WAV (Beatles Mono and Stereo boxes etc.) but if I want hi-fi I have 99% of the CDs.)

Some tracks were Ineligible but I expected that, the killer was the length of the process and lack of feedback. My upload speed is 448 kbps, so if 2,000 tracks had to be uploaded it would take some time but I should see it ticking along. Then there’s the iTunes messages: as I cleared errors and restarted sometimes all the tracks were marked “error”, at other times I could see which were Waiting, Matched and Uploading. But why, if I was on Step 3 (uploading tracks and artwork), was so much of the library showing no status at all? A minor irritation is that most of the album artwork went blank (it’s all still there, just not showing until you click Info and Return—a bit of a pain with 780 albums to click through).

Some people are happily using iTunes Match with more than twice the tracks I have—there must be a reason for it but life is definitely too short to find out what that might be.