From the Guardian‘s inestimable Charles Arthur comes a must-read post on the gloomy future of the record industry. Because it’s so good, I’ve re-posted here in full:
Bad news for the music industry. And it comes in threes.
First, Warner Music (which might be thinking of buying EMI from Citigroup?) reported its numbers for the fourth calendar quarter of 2010(which is actually its fiscal first quarter). Oh dear. Total revenue ($789m) down 14% from 2009, down 12% on constant currency basis (ie allowing for exchange rate fluctuation); digital revenue of $187m was 24% of total revenue (yay!), up 2% from last year (oooh), but sequentially down by 5%, or 7% on constant currency.
Operating income before depreciation and amortisation down 20% to $90m, from $112m a year ago. All of which led to a net loss of $18m, compared to a net loss of $17m a year before. In other words, things are still bad there. And it’s still got some heavy gearing: cash is $263m, long-term debt is $1.94bn. Warner might want to buy EMI, but it would put a hell of a strain on it. And the music business isn’t exactly looking like a place where you’d want a bank putting your money.
Second, Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist who spends upwards of $60 per month – and by his estimate around $2,000 annually – on music and music subscriptions was forced to turn pirate in order to get hold of the new Streets album:
“searched the Internet for the record. It was not even listed in iTunes or emusic. It was listed on Amazon US as an import that would be available on Feb 15th, but only in CD form. I’m not buying plastic just to rip the files and throw it out. Seeing as it was an import, I searched Amazon UK. And there I found the record in mp3 form for 4 pounds. It was going to be released on Feb 4th. I made a mental note to come back and get it when it was released. I got around to doing that today. I clicked on “buy with one click” and was greeted with this nonsense “
Which was Amazon saying that because he wasn’t in the UK, he couldn’t buy it. Unable to find a VPN that would let him masquerade as a Briton, he took the next step:
“So reluctantly, I went to a bit torrent search. I found plenty of torrents for the record and quickly had the record in mp3 form. That took less than a minute compared to the 20+ minutes I wasted trying pretty hard to buy the record legally.
“This is fucked up. I want to pay for music. I value the content. But selling it to some people in some countries and not selling it to others is messed up. And selling it in CD only format is messed up. And posting the entire record on the web for streaming without making the content available for purchase is messed up.”
Well, you could argue that an inability to actually wait for the few weeks, perhaps a month, before he could hear the songs via a licensed US label was what’s messed up. Is there no other music in the world that he can hear first? Nobody else? True, it would make sense if contracts were signed so that everything happened at once. But the record industry is still rather like the book industry: because it generates most of its money from physical things, it organises itself around those things.
And finally to Mark Mulligan, music analyst at Forrester Research.Writing on the Midem blog, Mulligan points out that “Digital music is at an impasse” because “it has not achieved any of its three key objectives”, specifically:
1 – to offset the impact of declining CD sales
2 – to generate a format replacement cycle and
3 – to compete effectively with piracy.
Mulligan notes that
“the divergence between emerging consumer behaviour and legitimate music products is widening at an alarming rate. And consumers are voting with their feet: Forrester’s latest consumer data shows digital music activity adoption is flat across ALL activity types compared to 1 year previously (in fact the data shows a slight decline).”
The hope on the part of the music business that the iPod, and the iTunes Store, and then digital music stores of all sorts, would be its saviour has turned out to be false. As Mulligan notes,
“all music activity is niche, except for video. Just 10% of Europeans and 18% of US consumers pay for digital music. Only music video has more than 20% adoption (and only in Europe at that): YouTube is digital music’s killer app.”
(If you are, or know, any young teenagers you”ll know that this is absolutely true. YouTube, and of course in Europe also Spotify. The problem with Spotify being, in the eyes of the record companies, that it simply doesn’t pay them enough. Whereas in Spotify’s eyes the record companies have for too long demanded too much.)
Mulligan adds that the “transition generation” – the 16-24 year-olds – aren’t the future. Instead, the future lies with the 12-15 year olds.
“In fact, when you look closely at the activities where 16-24′s over-index [do more than other age cohorts], you can see that their activity coalesces around recreating analogue behaviours in a digital context. The 16-24′s started out in the analogue era. They are the transition generation with transitional behaviours.
“The 12-15 year olds, though, don’t have analog baggage. All they’ve known is digital. Online video and mobile are their killer apps. These Digital Natives see music as the pervasive soundtrack to their interactive, immersive, social environments. Ownership matters less. Place of origin matters less. But context and experience are everything. The Digital Natives are hugely disruptive, but their disruption needs harnessing.”
So why does this matter, asks Mulligan? Because
“current digital music product strategy is built around the transition generation with transition products to meet their transitional needs and expectations. Neither the 99 cent download and the 9.99 streaming subscription are the future. They are transition products. They were useful for bridging the gap between analogue and digital, to get us on the first step of the digital path, but now it’s time to start the journey in earnest. We’d be naïve to argue that we’re anything close to the end game yet. But the problem is that consumer demand has already outpaced product evolution, again.”
It’s time, he argues, for the music companies to deal with the world as it is, rather than as it used to be or as they liked it. Many in the business will tell you that that is exactly what they are doing; and nothing that Mulligan says in any way detracts from the (real) efforts that are being made by many record executives, who are not as clueless or uninformed as many would like to think. Instead, they’re frequently dealing with institutional and sector-based inertia that’s hard to get moving. Plus if Simon Cowell can discover a singer on a talent show and propel her to the top of the UK and US album charts (the first British act since the Beatles to achieve that), selling millions of CDs, well, is his strategy so wrong and everyone else’s somehow so right? Realities like that give even the most digital executive pause.
Back to Mulligan, who points out that
“the digital natives have only ever known a world with on-demand access based music experiences. …And the experience part is crucial. In a post-content-scarcity world where all content is available, experience is now everything. Experience IS the product. With the contagion of free infecting everything the content itself is no longer king. Experience now has the throne.”
So what’s needed? He thinks future music products need “SPARC” (no, not the Sun processor architecture). Digital music products, he says, must be:
• Social: put the crowd in the cloud
• Participative: make them interactive and immersive
• Accessible: ownership still matters but access matters more
• Relevant: ensure they co-exist and joint the dots in the fragmented digital environment
• Connected: 174m Europeans have two or more connected devices. Music fans are connected and expect their music experiences to be also.
His parting shot: “Music products must harness disruption, that isn’t in question. What is, is whether they do so quickly enough to prevent another massive chunk of the marketplace disappearing for good?”
I think Warner may have answered that already, actually.
My commentary: after reading this, if you were a music industry executive you’d probably want to slash your wrists. But things may be both worse and better than it seems for the big music publishers. Here’s why.
Firstly, experience can be excluded, branded and sold. The predominant form of musical experience today is not the download but the live music festival or concert. Large multinationals are already aggressively into this space (think LiveNation) and we should expect this to continue. Secondly, experience can be a good as well as a service: that is, really well produced and packaged vinyl can be an experience (although only a niche experience – but then again, all music is niche now anyway). Finally, certain aspects of the music market are not being disrupted in the same way as downloadable songs – for instance, royalty streams where the end customer is large enough to warrant legal pursuit by collection agencies.
On the other hand, in some ways, things really are as bad if not worse than the Forrester report suggests. Free music is not going away, and today’s teenagers really don’t expect to pay for it. That battle is over. So the future for recorded music may really be truly non-excludable and free. That’s a challenge that no-one in the industry seems willing to face up to, even those advocating streaming or subscription models. Finally, the recent history of the music industry suggests that music publishing executives – indeed, musicians themselves – struggle to understand the new paradigm, even twelve years after Napster.