Monday, January 31, 2011

Why Digital Music Has Failed

It's amazing how just a single sentence that gets picked up by the mainstream press can set off a media firestorm. Mark Mulligan, an analyst for Forrester Research specializing in digital music, found that out recently after a line from a presentation he recently gave at Midem regarding the current state of digital music was picked up by the New York Times.

The quote that set things off was "As things stand now, digital music has failed."

In a recent blog post explaining trying to put the quote into context, Mark explained:

"Digital music is at an impasse.  Digital music has failed to reach its three key objectives:
1 – to offset the impact of declining CD sales,
2 – to generate a format replacement cycle and
3 - to compete effectively with piracy.
With music’s first digital decade behind us we’re still trying to define a role for mobile, we’re still waiting for a 99 cents downloads market to emerge outside of iTunes, we’re still waiting for 9.99 subscriptions to break out of a niche, we’re still trying to work out how to make the economics of ad supported add up, we’re still waiting for piracy to decline, we’re still watching recorded music revenues decline and we’ve still got CDs as the bedrock of music sales.
The simple fact is that current music products do not meet consumer demand and the divergence between emerging consumer behavior and legitimate music products is widening at an alarming rate."

Mark's right and he's hit the nail exactly on the head as to one of the reasons why the music industry is in its current state of doldrums.

You can't take a product that sells for $10 to $18 and replace it with one that sells for $.99 and expect the industry to remain healthy. Plus, you can't sell fewer products than you did in the past and expect everyone in the business to remain smiling either.

I'll give you another major factor, one discussed in posts here before - it's the music. Instead of making a judgement as to whether or not music is as good as "the old days," I've got a better way to describe it - it's just stale. There hasn't been a major trend in about 20 years since hip hop hit mainstream, so there's been no new blood to energize the overall music scene. Prior to that, we experienced a new trend every 11 to 13 years from the beginning of recorded music. We're long overdue.

One prediction is electronic music just might be the next trend. Sure, it's been around for a long time and is a huge underground scene right now, but it hasn't broken to mainstream yet. I don't know if a new trend would be enough to breath new life into music sales, but anything new in music that breaks big is bound to be healthy for the entire music scene.

Will it overcome the points the Mark makes? Probably not. But it might stop the bleeding and at least stabilize the industry to a point where we can recover because we have a known reference point of revenue.

Anyone else see a new musical trend on the horizon?

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Alex Zuzin said...

Please forgive me being forthright - it's a discussion often had around the Silicon Valley, where my home is. Some of my friends have started, and tanked with, music-oriented start-ups. I'm an amateur rock producer and player myself, and a music fan since before I walked. Your question is near and dear to hearts, basically.

The consensus view is, Mark isn't quite right. Yes, digital music failed, and no, it's not because of the price drop - that's a symptom, not the root cause. Music industry is far from alone in the honorable list of industries whose underlying structural weaknesses have been exposed by the Internet. The exact same situation is hitting newspapers, e.g., and the same sentiment applies: "Yes, the Internet has battered the newspapers, but there's also that other tiny detail. Most newspapers are crap". The Internet has likewise slammed Music 1.0 around, which doesn't excuse the fact that it didn't understand what its product actually was, or that the overwhelming majority of it was (still is) crap. You know the reasons in a lot more detail than I ever will.

So, today we stand on the ruins of an industry optimized by its former monopoly position for inefficient production of mostly expensive crap. Of course, it's trying to hook-and-crook its way back to some semblance of its former glory. Of course, it's spectacularly failing. From what little history says on this, the only way out seems to be through - drive production costs way down and the quality up, re-discover the market(s), and generate new demand.

To that, I'd like to say that your books are doing more for the future of music than anything Apple has done so far (and no, I'm not brown-nosing). You know how it is to have the music bug - you can't not do it. This industry has an endless supply of workforce born with the genetic inclination, it would seem. What's sorely missing is skillful use of what today's technology offers. Production and distribution both need to be completely revamped, and yes, there's tremendous room for improvement in both - you'll probably agree.

Web development has this adage of "release early, release often" - get the first version of whatever you have out the door, then stay in tight feedback loop with early users to methodically improve your stuff. But we didn't invent this dynamic - the show business did, didn't it, way before computers :))?

What turns out is, you can't quite do it from inside larger corporations - they fight threatening innovation like our immune systems fight the flu. So the software industry keeps feeding and grooming a pool of willing nuts who routinely undertake the rather intense trials starting up companies. Start, crash, fail, get up and go. Again, not very different from trying to bootstrap a band, yes? The only difference is, software nuts tend to band together and learn from each other's mistakes to constantly improve their game. I'm thinking Music 3.0 could really benefit from an entrepreneurial, technique-oriented culture of that kind. Given your tremendous educational work, I'd venture you agree ... :)

Stone Vista Media said...

What about the Singer/Songwriter. Nothing new. But a new category on iTunes. With the success of Taylor Swift and other events like the Hotel Cafe Tour.

My teenage girls listen to William Fitzimmons, Owen, Conor Oberst. And we all know teenage girls run the world...

Bobby Owsinski said...

Thanks for the cogent comment, Alex.

Kristian Jackson said...

I was talking with someone not so long ago about the lack of musical trending since the late 90s. I'm not sure that we will see an all encompassing trend anytime soon as listeners are far more eclectic than ever before. I was only looking at a 15 year old girl's iPod content the other day and thinking that I was right...again. I do a lot of work with teenagers (yes, I'm also a classroom music teacher) and I see this trend all the time. They will have everything from a modern metal track to an acoustic ballad with a date range from 1955 onwards. It's a great thing and gives us artists plenty of room to move. It's really just the industry itself (including media) that struggle with that diversity. Seriously, hop over to and have a listen to my album and tell me where my music fits stylistically. The best thing is, the audience don't care. They each lean towards some songs over others, and they never pick the same tracks. A marketing nightmare? Maybe. But I believe that's why we won't see a dominant musical trend anytime soon.


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