Thursday, 8 April 2010

Record Companies, Bands and the concept of value

(Image used with thanks)
I've never really believed that telling people not to do things was a good way to stop them doing them. The War On Drugs for example has been pretty comprehensively won. By drugs. We are not a logical economically minded species, so changing how we behave changes how we think, not vice versa. And the simplest and most effective way to change how people behave is to make it worth their while - to give them something of value in return.

The idea of enforced behaviour change is in the news at the moment as the Digital Economy Bill has among its aims the toughening of copyright law online. In fact, this is seen as such a significant issue for the British economy that the government is willing to sacrifice on our behalf such seemingly useful things as Wifi (which will be too great a risk for any business to operate), fast broadband (which ISPs will be disincentivised from investing in as their focus will be on steaming open our digital mail), and internet access as a human right (as anyone who doesn't have a decent understanding of home network security can be disconnected from the internet in punishment for what their children or neighbours do). The opposition agrees that although there are parts of the bill that are even worse, they will let the copyright law stand because of its importance to the UK creative industry.

So let's ignore for a minute the fact that large parts of the UK creative industry, particularly those involved with music, don't agree, and have a look at the value transaction in a music purchase.

Record companies developed their business model through the scarcity of resources required to create and market recorded music: recording studios, musicians, pressing plants, distribution, access to radio stations to promote. These scarcities have changed beyond recognition since 1999. With a few $$s investment in software, any computer made in the last 5 years is a fully equipped recording studio (no extra software needed if it’s a Mac). No music now needs to be recorded onto anything. Myspace and a bit of talent can break a band far better than any radio promotion (not hyperbole – the Arctic Monkeys are the fastest selling week 1 debut in history). The scarcity problems that the record industry fixed no longer exist. Clay Shirky talks about this disappearance of scarcity problems in answer to Murdoch's claim that "Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use" by pointing out that this is only half of the equation:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

In the record industry things are slightly different: most people know how to stop creating in the costly and complex ways of the past, but they still want to charge the same amount of money for the product. Which, like the newpaper industry is freely available elsewhere. But while we are left with a near perfect distribution model, there is still a healthy supply and demand. It's just that the intermediaries, the industrial organisations who previously matched supply with demand, are no longer necessary. Supply and demand in recorded music still have two important discriminators: on the side of the vendor, talent to produce music better than the alternatives, and on the side of the purchaser, convenience to consume that music in the way they want.
(Image by Flickr user Mick Yates - used with thanks)
Talent has always been a scarcity: in fact that is why recorded music was developed - because it was more convenient than using actual musicians. That is a compromise, as having actual musicians play for you is a better experience. But the convenience makes it a worthwhile compromise. However as the creation and distribution of recorded music has become next to frictionless, more people are exposed to more music and demand grows for the scarce experience of live music (witness the growth of festivals - pre-Napster the UK had 2 or 3 major festivals each summer: now we have 2 or 3 major ones each weekend of summer). Now this is crucial in the search for music value, as the musicians who are distributing the most recorded music will be in highest demand for the extremely scarce/valuable live music market. So recorded music is essentially advertising the bit that makes money for performers (with the potential to charge for it if it adds to convenience).

Convenience means portability between devices, and it means always available, and crucially it means participatory and recombinant. Those same computers that record music for free also remix it. So that's another element of value: status ("I created this").
Of course, what that all means is that DRM is the antithesis of value in recorded music. Well let's face it, we knew that anyway, but it is worth bearing in mind as music moves to the cloud (convenient). As Techcrunch pointed out this week, many online music retailers are embedding personal identification in the file so that there is the potential to block cloud uploads of anything that was not purchased online (ripped CDs for instance).

So obviously free music downloads harm record companies, and record companies don't want to be harmed. But no-one cares about the intermediary so much of the BPI PR focuses on the artists themselves. This is all based on the premise that if record labels aren't making as much money then that is bad for the industry. The Guardian have been tracking this closely, and this article lists a range of companies profiting from music even while album sales are falling. While they include Spotify, We7, Nokia, Shazam and Apple, they also miss the more obvious ones: Live Nation, Ticketmaster and O2. What all these have in common is that they are not traditional players in the music market. What they don't all have in common is passing their profits on to musicians. Spotify is useful case study: aside from the slick interface the real stroke of genius that allowed Spotify to scale quickly was to avoid the endless legal wranglings with record labels over payments (at least in Europe - they are still bogged down in the US). This allowed them to quickly access most of the music that you might want to play on the service. And they accomplished this by making sure that those payments went to the record labels rather than the artists, by effectively paying in Spotify stock. This is a cap table for Spotify (from this piece on Techcrunch, which also investigates what price the labels paid for their stock)

Shareholders in Spotify on 10/7 2009
Bolag Andel
Rosello (Lorentzon) 28,6%Instructus (Ek) 23,3%
Northzone Ventures 11,9%
Enzymix Systems (F. Hagnö) 5,8%
Sony BMG 5,8%
Universal Music 4,8%
Warner Music 3,8%
Wellington IV Tech 3,8%
Creandum II LP 3,5%Swiftic (Strigéus) 2,6%
Creandum II KB 2,4%
EMI 1,9%
Merlin 1,0%
SBH Capital (B. Hagnö) 0,8%

Helienne Lindwall in The Guardian suggests that the labels paid roughly 1/1000th of the price that other investors in the service paid. This would certainly have made negotiations on the price per stream simple - they would be kept artificially low to minimise the amount that had to be paid out to artists. Spotify has been removed from the Guardian's Fair Trade Music Business list
So there are grey areas even in the proposed saviours of the traditional music business. And 'value' is very different for fans and artists than it is for the intermediaries. And back to my original point, why won't artificial scarcity (of the kind supported by the Digital Economy Bill) work? Well, apart from it being counter to the way the internet works?
The internet (in its earliest guise as ARPANET) was developed as a peer to peer system. One of its early benefits was the potential to maintain government communications in the event of a nuclear attack on the USA. This is because P2P systems route around blockages (an inexact analogy might be to say that they treat blockages as wounds, which they are able to heal). Although consumer access is nowadays based on a server/client relationship mediated by ISPs, the internet remains a global P2P system.

Other than that it won't work because telling people to change their behaviour doesn't work. It's currently not working in France, where total free downloading is up by 3% since the introduction of strict HADOPI laws last year(chart from Arstechnica, stats from M@rsouin, CREM, Universite de Rennes).

and because potential of the internet combined with the creativity of musicians and developers means that there is plenty of value for anyone who has good ideas and talent. So after this little rant I'm going to quit whinging about the record industry, and celebrate great marketing ideas from those creative folks.


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