Thursday, December 16, 2010

6 Reasons Why The Album Format Died

I think it's safe to say that we're at the end of the "album age," and although the format will hold on for a while, it's clearly waning in popularity. I've given this a lot of thought and have come up with what I think are the reasons, but be aware, they're not all exactly what the popular wisdom assumes. So let's begin with the 6 reasons why the album format has, for all intents and purposes, died.

1) It was a visual experience. The album format in the vinyl record age had the advantage of that wonderful piece of cardboard known as the album jacket. The album jacket contained the cover art (still found on CDs), and most importantly, the liner notes on the back, which we'll get to in a second. But one thing that everyone either forgets or has never experienced is the fact that millions of albums were purchased completely on impulse because of the album artwork alone!

It may be hard to believe, but it was quite common to come across an album cover that was so cool that you'd buy it without knowing a thing about the artist. Sometimes it would be a total loser, but you still had the liner notes to read, and occasionally that would still make it a worthwhile purchase.

2) It was an informational experience too. Those of you too young to have experienced this don't know how much the liner notes meant to nearly everyone who bought an album (the picture on the left gives you an idea how extensive they could be). You could spend hours reading a well-written gatefold jacket, checking out every credit, wondering just where these exotic studios were (Smoketree Ranch in Malibu was the one that always intrigued me the most as a kid), and generally just soaking up any info you could about the artist. Of course, this was way, way before the Internet, so the liner notes were sometimes the only place to find any of info on the artist at all.

To say the least, the visuals and information along with the music made buying an album a total experience that today's album doesn't some close to.

3) The demise of the record stores. Once again, this may seem hard to believe but nearly every community had someplace that sold records, even if it didn't have a record store. There was an entire network set up to supply records to department stores, supermarkets, even diners. You couldn't help but to run into someplace selling records during the course of a day.

But the record store was the place to not only buy music, but to spend hours browsing. Why? Because of the cover art and liner notes. You'd peel through a bin of records, stopping every so often to look at an intriguing cover, which made you want to read the liner notes, and maybe even buy the album as a result.

But the record store was also the best place for word of mouth. The people that worked the record stores always knew what was hot, what was underground but about to pop, and what was overhyped. You could go into a store and ask a clerk, "What's really good?" and he'd give you 10 choices, most of which were pretty high quality. This is something that the music industry is still looking for today online. Now we call it "music discovery" and VC's still throw big money at anyone who claims to have an app.

4) The price. Albums used to be a bargain. A 45 RPM single used to cost anywhere from $.99 to $1.29 (ironically what a download costs today, except you got two songs then), but an album started at only $3.98, before prices gradually began to increase. Either way, in the beginning the album was a no brainer even for a kid on a tight allowance. For the longest time, the album was priced at $8.98, before it was discounted, which was still a bargain.

The greed started in the early 80's as the major record labels were taken over by multi-national companies, the attorneys and accountants ruled, and the prices of the album began to rise - first with what they called "superstar pricing," which tacked on an extra dollar for a superstar act (Tom Petty sued his label keep the price at $8.98, a gesture that would be very unlikely today by a big music act).

5) The CD. Then came the CD, and the business went to hell in hand basket. The packaging was different, so the jacket was no longer needed, and as a result, the cover art became less important, and you couldn't really do extensive liner notes because the print would be too small to read. Then the record labels really got greedy, charging outlandish prices (called "technology charges") on a product that eventually cost them less than the vinyl records they previously were making. In fact, prices soared to $19.95 for a front line artist's CD. If you bought one of these and weren't completely and totally satisfied, you were pissed, since dropping a deuce on anything was a real commitment.

And of course, there were no more impulse buys anymore because the artwork behind a 5 inch piece of plastic just doesn't have the same impact as on a 12 inch piece of cardboard.

6) Too much filler. Most vinyl albums are between 35 and 45 minutes long. This was out of necessity because of the physics of a record. Make it any longer and it starts to get noisy, the frequency response suffers, and it won't be as loud. But 40 minutes or so turns out to be the perfect amount of time for listening. There's a time commitment you have to make, but it's well within reason, especially if you like the music.

A CD is capable of containing a bit more than 73 minutes of music. Unfortunately, artists began to think that it was a really good idea to put all the garbage that they normally would've tossed from a vinyl record, and put it all on their CD. Now instead of having 40 minutes of great music, we had 55 minutes of mediocrity. Even if the artist had some great songs, it was frequently buried under another 50 minutes of crap. Now not only was the fan paying more money, but she was paying more money for less quality. Something had to give.

Which is just about the time MP3's and Napster came on the scene, which eventually helped push the music business from an album business into the singles business that it has now become. Ironically, popular music started with as a singles business, to whence it now returns.

It's easy to say that online music slayed the album, but it was only the final dagger after 6 long swords.

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Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating the music business.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Music Industry's Biggest Blunts

Paul Resnikoff's Digital Music News had a great story the other day entitled "The Music Industry's Biggest Blunts 2000-2010" where he used the analogy of some of the industry's highconcepts to passing around a joint. It's a fun read, very poignant, and in some cases, hits really close to home.

Why do we play this game?  It seems that in times of digital disruption, the music industry has had this strange tendency to cling to potential saviors, almost all of which disappoint.  The major labels are masters at this, though this goes far beyond the Big Four.  And, it makes you wonder whether the same blue-sky, save-the-industry mentalities are currently driving areas like cloud-based models, DIY distribution, and  'middle-class artist' concepts.     

But what are the biggest blunts this industry has smoked so far?  

(1) The a-la-carte download. Remember when Steve Jobs was praised for 'saving the music industry' by simplifying music purchasing?  These days, he's mostly praised for making billions for Apple and tripling Wall Street investments, not for enriching musicians or labels.  And the a-la-carte, variably-priced download is hitting its plateau.

(2) The ringtone. In hindsight, this was a billion-dollar hulu hoop, but labels, mobile startups, rappers, and everyone in-between were pegging serious fortunes on the ringer.  These days, there's still some scratch, but mobile entertainment is a totally different - and tough-to-monetize - space.  

(3) Mobile Music. That is, controlled, walled-garden environments that would force fans to pay.  That is, before the phone became smart, and totally connected to the PC.  

(4) Subscription services. There was a time when services like Napster and Rhapsody were viewed not only as saviors, but potential multipliers of broader industry revenue.  These days, both are currently swimming in niche waters, and publications like Digital Music News have been accused of smoking another spliff called Spotify. 

(5) 360-degree deals. Not sure if this is as much a blunt, or merely some diversified resin to keep the party going. 

(6) Branding and sync licensing. Everyone wants a branding deal, and music supervisors are chasing every last sync possibility.  But it seems that this area is best viewed as a revenue enhancement, not a revenue replacement, and a rush of creative supply is only driving down potential payouts.

(7) MySpace Music. Sort of a mandatory parking spot for bands, but the monetization part never quite ramped.  

(8) Ad-supported music services. One word: Spiralfrog.

(9) Publishing. Once upon a time, publishing was viewed as a rock in the storm.  The only problem was, this rock wasn't that big compared to recordings - nor was its fate truly independent.  Instead, publishing is getting dragged by mechanicals, sinking syncs, and broader economic malaise.  And these days, most publishers are thrilled with flat financials.

(10) Touring. This is where the real money was!  Except, bands taking this advice often found themselves struggling to fill clubs, earn gas money, and create meaningful revenues.  Not only that, everyone was getting the same memo.  Meanwhile, for big fish like Live Nation, sagging attendance is currently creating serious revenue problems.  

(11) Licensed P2P. If only the industry had licensed Napster!  But modern-day attempts like Mashboxx, Peer Impact, Choruss, and whatever Virgin Media was trying may have been too little, too late.

(12) DIY Distribution. The hangover is just starting on this one, but the dogma surrounding direct-to-fan distribution remains deafening at times.  Meanwhile, DIY bands are struggling against some serious challenges, including a huge glut of competing content, distracted music fans, and tough monetization models.  This is a blunt in progress...

(13) DRM. Thankfully, this stopped getting passed around a few years ago!  (thanks Larry Miller for adding this one...) 

Follow me on Twitter for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Check out my Big Picture blog for discussion on common music, engineering and production tips and tricks.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The People That Use Twitter

Twitter is a phenomena the media likes to tell us is the latest trend, but in reality it's still bubbling under the mainstream. Want proof? Check out this chart regarding Twitter's demographic use.

Some of the groups who are notable for their relatively high levels of Twitter use include:
  • Young adults – Internet users ages 18-29 are significantly more likely to use Twitter than older adults.
  • African-Americans and Latinos – Minority internet users are more than twice as likely to use Twitter as are white internet users.
  • Urbanites – Urban residents are roughly twice as likely to use Twitter as rural dwellers.

There's been some discussions in recent weeks whether Twitter has peaked. I don't believe so, and still believe that it's a viable promotional and communications tool with some room for growth. I'm a big fan of Twitter and have personally seen this and my Big Picture production blog grow by over 100% since I've been using it as a promotional tool.  If you're not using it, what are you waiting for?
Follow me on Twitter for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Check out my Big Picture blog for discussion on common music, engineering and production tips and tricks.

10 Low-Cost Hi-Tech Promotion Ideas

It's about time for another book excerpt, so here's one from Chapter 4 of Music 3.0: A Survival Guide To Making Music In The Internet Age. This one outlines 10 ways that you can promote yourself without spending much money.
Never leave promotion to someone else. You always must be actively involved in at least an oversight level to be sure that not only are you getting promoted, but that it’s something that’s beneficial to your image as an artist. This even includes having a publicist, since she takes the cues from you. Especially don’t depend upon a record label, particularly in these days where so few people do so many jobs. It’s up to you to develop the strategy or it might not get developed at all.

That being said, here are a number of very low-cost M30 ideas that you can do to get your promotion started.
1) Set up both a MySpace and Facebook page, then be sure to stay active. It won’t do you much good if you just set it up and never update it. The only way it’s worth your fans visiting is if you remain keep the updates coming as often as possible.
2) Every time a friend request is exchanged between yourself and another MySpace or Facebook user, send them a note back thanking them and ask if you can include them in your group of friends outside of MySpace or Facebook. Ask them to “Please reply with your email address if that’s OK.”  This is a great way to build your tribe, but make sure they can easily opt-out if it’s not their cup of tea. It’s not too beneficial to have all those MySpace and Facebook friends if you can’t contact them outside of those sites.
3) Always have a “Press” section on your website that contains:
   * high resolution color and black and white photos 
   * logos
   * biography
   * quotes from the media
   * links to any interviews
   * scans of just 3 or 4 of your best press clippings
   * scan of a promo flyer and poster
   * web ready graphics and banners

Having any of these tools easily available will increase the chances of getting media coverage. It’s a fact that the easier you can make it for a writer or an editor, the more likely you’ll get covered.
4) Backlinks are important. Anytime you are mentioned in a club listing, on the site of a band you’re playing with, or anything else, make sure that it links back to your site.  People won’t do this automatically, so make it standard operating procedure to ask.
5) Encourage fans to tag you and your content on sites like Flickr, blogs, Digg and Stubleupon, then make that data available on your site. 
6) Even though you may have a presence on MySpace and Facebook, you still need a website. It’s still the best place to gather your tribe and communicate with them. Make sure that you follow Figure 4.7 for the best website experience for your fans.
7) Engage your fans.  Ask them questions. Polls and surveys are free (that magic word again) and easy to set up with sites like PollDaddy and Surveymonkey.
8) Develop a press release mailing list of music writers and editors from any local and regional newspaper, magazines, specialty papers, radio stations, on-line radio station, music blogs (especially) that covers the type of music that you play (later you can do national and international when you grow into it). Remember that it doesn’t do you much good to send something to a magazine that specializes in metal if you’re a folk singer so don’t even think about anything out of your genre. Once the list is complete, send out a short email for any major gig, event, or song release, but don’t make it too frequent or you won’t be covered - ever.  Include links to your website and an offer for a free press pass to a show. About once a month is a good frequency. If you get a mention, be sure to send an email or even a hand-written note to say thank you.
9) Create your own YouTube channel. Make sure to post new videos frequently and encourage fans to post as well.
10) Create a special “Insider” email list for a few fans, key media, tastemakers and bloggers for pre-announcements who love to know things first…and like to tell others.

There are a more excellent tips on marketing, promotion and sales in the Music 3.0 guidebook.

Follow me on Twitter for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Check out my Big Picture blog for discussion on common music, engineering and production tips and tricks.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Singer-Songwriter Meets A Suit

Here's another of those hilarious animations that illustrate an all-too-real situation in the music business, this time showing the interaction between a female singer-songwriter and a record label suit. For those of you new to the music business, you'll be shocked that everything you've heard can be true. For those of you who have been around for a while, it will be all too familiar.

Follow me on Twitter for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Check out my Big Picture blog for discussion on common music, engineering and production tips and tricks.


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