Monday, April 06, 2015

A Letter To The Music Business

Dear Music Biz,

It's been a good, close, intimate and mostly wonderful 15 years...but I think we need some time apart.

It's not me. It's you. You've changed.

Digital music business, you used to be the scrappy underdog. They ignored you. Then they laughed at you. Then they fought you. You know what comes next: You win.

But somehow you turned into the rich kid from an 80s teen movie. You might be about to win, but nobody seems to like you. 

The venture capitalists are pissed because you don't make any money, and you keep promising that's going to change. 

The artists think you're robbing them, and your PR response and outreach has ranged from tone-deaf to nonexistent. 

The listeners don't want to pay, or worse, they don't even want to come back for free music after a month. 

Even the labels and publishers don't want you to succeed (don't feel too bad about it, they hate everyone).

Worse, it feels like you've stopped trying. Stopped coming up with new ideas, stopped pushing for something better, stopped thinking. When I look at what you've got on offer, it doesn't really look substantially different from what Rhapsody and iTunes launched nearly 15 years ago. 

How can that be? How can we be stuck with the same lame UI, same ordinary feature set, and no improvements? How can all of these different services feel so similar, and all suffer from terrible flaws?

You can tart yourself up with a slightly different interface and say it's a "revolution", but the only thing you've got going for you now is celebrity endorsements, and that is a fickle, transient, and expensive way to live.

There are just a few kinds of companies left. There are small, largely insignificant players desperately hoping they'll come up with some clever way to offer music for free (for themselves or customers or both) and not have to deal with full-on label licensing. Most of these companies are getting by with tiny staffs and budgets, and have niche audiences to match. Nearly all of them will fail. The best possible outcome is to have someone larger, richer, and/or dumber buy them.

Speaking of, at the other end of the scale there are the titans: Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google/YouTube, and for the time being, Spotify. Their current products are all rather uninspiring. Competent, boring, nothing new. But they'll keep dropping prices until all the little guys are dead, and will roll music into a larger digital media package with video, games, books, and whatever else they can think of to further pull users into their hardware and software ecosystems. They've started on this already.

Finally, there's the "old guard" of companies like Rhapsody, RDIO, Deezer, Slacker, and Pandora (you can probably throw a few more in the mix there). If any of these businesses were really successful, we'd all know about it. The services are indistinguishable, with the same mobile deals, same new releases, same pricing, and forgettable marketing. They're all hoping something is going to change, or that they'll get acquired by someone before the titans crush them.

I look at that world, at how little has changed, and I realize there's nothing to do. Nobody wants to build new features or invest in building a great service. Nobody will admit the current economics are unsustainable, but services are still shuttering or selling for peanuts. It costs a lot to build one of these, and a lot to run it, and you can't make a real business out of it in the current climate.

It's not impossible. You know how to fix this: Innovate.

Stop trying to be the same as every other music service from the last 15 years. Stop thinking it's enough to show up with the same millions of songs and label-mandated featured new releases and top artists/albums/songs.

Help people find something good to listen to. Make their lives easier, not more complicated. Give listeners a reason to come back weekly, if not daily. Stop recommending music to me that I already like and already listen to.

Have a point of view. Show some style or personality. Don't be afraid to be for a particular group of people, even if it means you're less for (or even not for) a different group of people. If you try to be everything to everyone, you become even blander than Wal-Mart.

Be smarter about your pricing. Nobody's ever won a market by berating customers for not appreciating their value. There have to be price points between $10 (too expensive) and free (come on!) that will work. Hire some economists, or at least do some real experiments. 

Maybe "all the world's music" is a dumb idea when people only actually listen to 4-5 million songs. 

Maybe letting aggregators monetize your server space and CDN support (without cutting you in) is not the smartest thing in the world.

Think about your marketing. Stop the lazy and ineffective "x million songs for $y each month", the slow-motion-crowds-cheering-"something about music" montages, and the expensive and ridiculous artist endorsements. You might not even need traditional marketing at all. Google didn't. Facebook never ran a TV commercial. YouTube never made a YouTube video.

Hell, somehow Netflix figured out their whole business, and to be honest, they ain't got nothin' you don't got, right? What's stopping you?

I did all I could to help you out, get you on your feet, and give you a good start. Try not to mess it up too much.

It's your life, music business. What are you going to do with it? Be all bitter that no one appreciates your genius? Stand sullenly in the back with your arms crossed watching the video business and say "Psh. I could do that if I wanted to..."? Keep smokin' weed in your parents' basement until they throw you out? Or are you going to grow up and get real?

Yeah, maybe I'm a little disappointed in you, but I suppose there are worse fates than growing up to be a boring employee of a giant company like Amazon, Apple, Google, or Microsoft. You could end up like Tower Records, for example. Or Guitar Center. Or the book business.

I know, you're going to start telling me about your big dreams. I've heard it before. Even assuming you actually follow through on any of it this time, I can't get excited about any of your plans at the moment.

I recognize that's my problem as much as it is yours. So for our mutual good, I'm taking a break.

I'll check in on you from time to time. I hope we stay in touch. I will always have a special place in my heart for you, and every gig I play will have a seat reserved with your name on it. Your tickets are at "Will Call". And if you get your act together, well, maybe...someday...

No I won't do it again
I don't want to pretend
If it can't be like before
I've got to let it end
I don't want what I was
I had a change of head
But maybe, someday
Yeah maybe, someday
I've got to let it go
And leave it gone
Just walk away
Stop it going on
Get too scared to jump
If I wait too long
But maybe, someday
I'll see you smile as you call my name
Start to feel and it feels the same
And I know that maybe someday's come
Maybe someday's come again
So tell me someday's come
Tell me someday's come again 
No I won't do it some more
Doesn't take any sense
If we can't be like it was
I've got to let it rest
I don't want what I did
I had a change of tense
But maybe, someday 
I'll see you smile as you call my name
Start to feel and it feels the same
And I know that maybe someday's come
Maybe someday's come 
If I could do it again
Maybe just once more
Think I could make it work
Like I did it before
If I could try it out
If I could just be sure
That maybe someday is the last time
Yeah maybe someday is the end
Or maybe someday is when it all stops
Or maybe someday always comes again

("Maybe Someday" by The Cure, lyrics by Robert Smith)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My last music job

As has been reported, Sony is shutting down its Music Unlimited subscription service and replacing it with Spotify, which launches on the PlayStation 4 today. With Music Unlimited shutting down and the new service live, it is time for me to leave my position at Sony and move on.

This event was the culmination of the last 3 years of my professional life. This was by far the most difficult and challenging job I have ever had in my career, and the most challenging of the many, many music services I have helped build, launch, and operate.

For a variety of reasons, I will not be discussing it in detail. Suffice it to say that it was quite an experience.

These last 3 years were exhausting, but I remain grateful for the opportunity. I traveled to London, Tokyo, Stockholm, and other amazing places. I met some remarkable, wonderful people.

During the last few months in particular, I endured many ups and downs, and learned who my friends really were.

I'd like to believe I have emerged from this gig if not exactly unscathed, at least slightly wiser, seasoned, and confident, with a better understanding about who I am and what I do.

My immediate team deserves special acknowledgement: Rebecca Carpenter, Nick Dedina, Maryann Faricy, Clane Hayward, Danielle Machado, Jon Pruett, and Seth Schulte all did an incredible job with very little.

Also thanks to Al Fuentes, Takashi Hodama, Brian Kurtz, and Sarah Lemarie for program management support -- the other half of what made the business run.

どうもありがとうございます to our colleagues in Tokyo: Yasuhiro Habara, Tohru Kurata, Satoshi Kobayashi, Yuki Hashimoto, and Itsuki Asanuma. Thank you for your hospitality and hard work.

I also extend my heartfelt thanks to my supervisor Mike Aragon, for his unflagging support.

And finally, thanks to my good friend Thomas Muer for bringing me in to Sony.

For the first time in many years, I do not know what I want to do next. I am pretty sure my next job will not be in the digital music business. This isn't the first time I've left a digital music service, (by a long shot) but it may be the last. After more than 15 years, I am ready for a change.

For now, I am taking some time off. I have a few plans. I want to finish some music of my own. Practice guitar. Travel and visit some friends and relatives.  Work out and rehabilitate my shoulder. Read. Catch up on all those TV shows I keep hearing about. Get bored. Perhaps even spend more time writing here.

I will miss seeing my colleagues every day, and I expect I will eventually feel some loss at being out of the digital music game. For now, I'll savor the victories my team had, put my feet up for a bit, and listen to some records.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tidal: Nothing New

Tidal, the streaming music service Jay Z just bought, has "officially" launched. The overblown video they provided is a good example of some of the problems with today's music business.

Here's a bunch of artists talking about "a new world", "changing the course of history", "last stands" and "human art" and other stuff that sounds really good, if a bit incoherent (like some of the artists themselves, I suppose).

And yet, it says absolutely nothing about what Tidal is, or why their involvement matters, or what they are actually going to do to change things.

So to be clear: Tidal is just like every other digital music subscription service launched since Rhapsody 1.0 hit the world 15 years ago. It's got the same features, apps, limitations, rules, and catalog as Spotify, Rhapsody, RDIO, Deezer, Beats, and everybody else. Their plan for differentiation? Exclusive content and artist partnerships. Just like everyone else.

Tidal does have one difference: instead of $10 per month, you'll pay $20 per month (if you want the special "lossless" audio option)...and Tidal even offers the same $10 per month pricing if you don't need lossless streaming. They even call it "Premium", just like...well, you get the idea.

It leads one to believe the deals and business model behind Tidal are also not substantially different from any of the other music services, which means prospects for long term survival are not good.

Lossless (or HD or high quality) audio is not a new idea (or even a particularly good one) for streaming services.

I'm trying to figure out why that's revolutionary. There's been no disclosure of how Tidal's going to use that extra money to compensate artists. For all you know, it's going right into Jay Z's pocket (or the pockets of the other artists who are "part owners"), or for jet fuel or crazy salaries.

Or for paying fees to the artists standing uncomfortably on this stage listening to Alicia Keys talk.

For all the talk of empowering artists and creativity, apparently that money is not going to pay licensing fees for other artists -- The Haxan Cloak is claiming Tidal's very video is using his music without compensation or permission. The irony...

So we're left with one thing: Tidal is "special" because some artists are part owners. It is then difficult to take any of their previous comments about the "problems" of the digital music business seriously: They're offering the same product, with the same pricing, deals, economics, and features, as everyone else. But suddenly it's OK because they are the ones at the helm.

In the end, this is a commodity with some really expensive marketing wrapped around it:
Tidal is the SmartWater of digital music services.

It's also part of the current vogue of celebrity endorsed/powered/designed/owned services, including the Dre/Trent Reznor Beats (and future Apple service), Neil Young's Pono, and the various crazy things people like Will.I.Am, Lady Gaga, and more have been paid to do by hip companies like HP and Intel. For the next few years at least, celebrities will be able to leverage their star power and rep for advisory positions and paychecks to lend new services legitimacy.

I wish them all the best of luck.