Sunday, October 19, 2008

What music companies don't get about the web

A lot of people writing on the web criticise music companies for their antiquated approach to managing digital rights, ie by trying to control them. 'Why can't it be free?' they ask, apparently unconcerned with the impact of such a change on the artists they profess to admire. Experiments in giving away material for free have had an uneven history: Prince is presumably happy to have sold out his O2 concerts on the back of handing out his CD, but Radiohead are less sure. But as long as music companies exist and artists hope to make a living from their creative content, making stuff free can only be a tactical gimmick rather than standard policy. So, perhaps against the conventional wisdom, I would say that music companies are right to be worried about copyright evasion on the internet, right to attempt to prevent it, and right to take action against those who facilitate it.

Which is not to say that I think they 'get' the web. They don't. Over the last year I have been looking at the online presence of a range of artists, from Kate Bush, superstar, Sandi Thom, contemporary minor chart artist, Nick Lowe, cult artist, to Roy Harper, forgotten cult artist. What they have in common is that in terms of the web they are spread all over the place: a My Space page, artist home page, record label page, wikipedia entry, YouTube videos, and fan sites, and they are represented inconsistently in each. For example, when Sandi Thom was promoting her last single on her website and MySpace page, the record label website didn't even mention it. Nick Lowe's latest release, At My Age, didn't have a wikipedia page until I created one. The only good examples of use of the web as a promotional and information tool were for Neil Young and Graham Parker.

But why is it so bad? Partly because looking after the web takes time: somebody has to sit down and update the pages, respond to queries, etc; it isn't clear whether this responsibility should fall on the artist, management, or label, and so in many cases it is done by nobody.

Underlying this is the more basic problem: music companies are used to a B2B (business-to-business) model, where they produced the physical product and handled promotion, but supplied the product to shops to sell to the consumer. Their 'audience' was therefore made up of retailers on the one hand and media on the other. They are completely unequipped for the activity of selling things direct to consumers: this is reflected in the reluctance of record companies to get involvced with selling digital downloads of their songs from their sites: usually, potential buyers are sent to itunes to buy it, letting them take a share of the revenue. Similarly, physical product is sold via Amazon.

Another result is a total focus on the new and exciting. In most businesses, it is much harder to reach new customers than to keep existing ones. The music business is obsessed with selling new artists to teenagers, generally through the singles chart. But that is only part of the market. Why not exploit the older consumer, with more time and money, who might be persuaded, fairly easily, to buy back-catalogue CDs, DVDs and books from an artist they like, or liked?; this is a market which has outgrown the need for things to be free: even a full-price CD is cheap cmpared to other expenses. A sensible music company would make damned sure that its artist profiles covered past as well as present and had links to sell things.

In the past the media, particularly radio, were the best way of reaching out to potential purchasers, but the web provides others. This should, eventaully, change the practices of the industry: it may become economically viable for some artists to sell very small numbers of tracks, as long as they don't cost much to produce and promote. The danger (from the companies' point of view) is that they may have little role, since the artists may be quite capable of handling it themselves.

But it is strange when audiences for broadcast media are declining and fragmenting, that there is a new audience on the web eager for information and opportunities to buy, and they are being ignored or left to the mercies of established players like itunes.

Holly A Hughes suggests, correctly, that artists should see this as an essential part of their brand. I'm not sure I agree about the fan forum, though: I've seen a lot of tumbleweed forums which make you feel that you are distrubing the dead (Sandi Thom's, for one, but even Kate Bush's has gone very quiet in last last year).

1 comment:

Holly A Hughes said...

You are so absolutely right on this. I can't tell you how many hours I've spent trolling around to find info on the artists I like (mostly more, um, mature acts, Lowe among them) who have such spotty web promotion. As a blogger, I depend on being able to find this info on line. Sometimes you can find a shell of what started out as a website, but never was completed, let alone updated -- like the rusting hulk of a car abandoned by the side of the road, really sad.

I personally believe that this should be artist management's job, to hire somebody to be a webmaster. It's just a necessary cost of doing business these days.

I'd add that any artist who really wants a fan base should be sure to have a proper fan forum attached -- an active fan community will basically sell out your shows and do enthusiastic grass-roots album promotion for free. It's a no-brainer.