PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Your can't keep a good tide down!
November 2001 

I nearly said that the Music industry is having another of it’s periodic whinges about anything and everything, and how hard done by they are – down to their last few lines of coke, no doubt. I should of course say that the music industry does nothing but whinge these days, about the terrible and heinous crime of music theft through the internet and anything else that delivers their product without its traditional 900% mark-ups.

All this carefully overlooks the fact that Radio has been broadcasting music for “free” for the best part of 75 years, and that compact cassettes have been around for the past 25 years, providing Napster, AudioGalaxy and Gnutella with a pretty good starting model. 

The real issue seems to be that the portability of “acquired” music is getting simpler and more pervasive as smart media and Sony memory stick devices are starting to get affordable.  Of course, the minidisk format has also been around a while now, too – and entry level PCs come with enough hard drive on them to keep all the MP3 music a “normal listener” is going to be able to handle. But by far the worst part of the news for the industry is the way that fans mercilessly demonstrate that they actually only want the best two or three tracks from an average album.

Let’s pause for a moment and remember where music comes from. It comes from musicians, not lawyers and promoters. Although you could be forgiven for forgetting that in the recent rash of litigation.

Commercial exploitation by the middle men only really started in earnest last century as mass music distribution became “enabled” by (printing) technology.  The publishers came into existence to promote the existence of their “clients” when communication in general was a pretty patchy thing, and limited to sheet music. Although Marie Lloyd in a music hall could do a lot to popularise a tune, the advent of broadcasting made the music business much simpler – and the process now pretty much boils down to “what does it take to get a tune onto the play list”. Outfits like MTV obviously have to beg on bended knees in front of record producers for permission to feature their clients’ tracks and videos, and the commercial radio scene has never been known to “cop a brownie” in return for hyping a new release, has it?  What??! Perish the thought.

At the start of the year, the music industry was saying that CD sales had not been affected by piracy; but now the latest figures are suggesting that it is starting to hurt. So what’s been the music industry’s only real answer to what’s going on the real world? Close Napster – or at least turn into a pale shadow of what it once was. There is now also talk of “fixing” audio CDs so that they cannot be easily copied in CD burners – but there is still nothing that could stop them be ripped into MP3s and Napstered.

And now it’s video industry’s turn, with shares in US video rental are apparently starting to sag, reputedly because of the prospect of “web based video on demand” . Well, I  can imagine that some folks have got more convincing home wideband connections than any we have seen, because VoD only seems to works where the servers are located at local exchanges.

So who believes in the VoD fairy’s ability to chop out the middle man? Why, the film studios, and all this is even before the music publishers (which also includes film studios like Sony and Universal)  have managed to get to grips with any new aspect of earning a bean from “audio on demand”. This may be ironic, because the film industry believes that it can chop out the middleman, while largely the same media industry has been telling the music creatives that they need to have a “middle” tier in the distribution of their wares.

There’s precious little evidence of any effort to evolve in the music industry, so the field remains wide open for the “right” proposition, which isn’t CDs containing 12 tracks for £12, when you probably only want 2 or 3 of them anyway.  The video industry is subtly different – for the film business, the idea of video sales in the form of VHS or DVD is a serious bonus that few ever really thought about until quite recently.

In the climate where there has been a lot of scorn poured on things as prosaic as on-line grocery shopping, and its complete failure to make a dent on traditional shopping practises, the ideas being mooted concerning audio and video distribution make an interesting contrast. On the one hand, the internet is apparently capable of reducing a mighty and well-established industry to rubble in the space of a year, and on the other, the internet is barely able to make a dent.

It’s the oldest story in commerce – “e” or otherwise – cross the threshold on value for money, and people will vote with their feet and anything else they can muster. Being charged £10 for delivery and checkout prices for groceries just ain’t exciting enough.

Most CD buyers have a budget in mind for buying their music, and they’ll probably spend it either all on one CD, or on 20 individual tracks. Just look at the success of pre-pay cell phones for the “younger generation” users.

The music business has wet feet. Will they ntoice when that damp feeling creeps up past their wears, I wonder..?