Delicious Bookmarks for March 2nd through March 4th

These are my Delicious links for March 2nd through March 4th:

  • THRU YOU | Kutiman mixes YouTube – Unbelievable remixes of music samples from various YouTube videos into really great songs and fascinating videos. This is the poster-project for Remix culture! (hope someone sends it to Lessig)
  • Good design: The ten commandments of Dieter Rams – A great collection of rules on how to design products. While originally meant for physical products (industrial design), I think many of the rules still apply to online products and web design. Some of my favorites:
    – Good design makes a product useful
    – Good design helps a product to be understood
    – Good design is unobtrusive
    – *Good design is thorough to the last detail*
    – Good design is as little as possible

    And some quotes:
    "The aesthetic quality of a product – and the fascination it inspires – is an integral part of the its utility."
    "Things which are different in order to simply be different are seldom better, but that which is made to be better is almost always different."
    (And on a personal note, my late grandma had Rams's Cylindric T2 lighter in her apartment when I was a kid and I always got in trouble for playing with it, but its design fascinated me.)

Crystal Ball for Studio Execs or WWJD?

My dad and I had a long conversation over lunch today (at In-N-Out 🙂 ) about my most recent blog post. He mentioned that the studios are keeping a close eye on what is happening in the music industry as a preview of their own potential future 5 years down the road, and that they are taking preventative measures based on what they see. I replied with two reasons why I don’t think that’s something to brag about. First of all, that 5 years is more like 2 years (if that) and it’s shrinking every day. The pace of technological progress has only accelerated since it first began to disrupt the music industry, and it ain’t slowing down. Secondly, the film industry’s approach to understanding the data has been merely to plot historical events and interpolate a trajectory. They have made no attempt to understand the underlying equation and thus extrapolate the end-result. In high-school trigonometry terms, they are plotting points on the left half of a parabola without understanding that they are part of the graph of y=x^2. How do I know this? Because you can see it in their actions, they are clearly trying to treat a growing number of symptoms with no clue about the nature of the underlying disease.

My dad agreed with me and then said there’s a lot of money to be made by the guy who can show them what the future really holds. Being the giving person that I am, I hereby offer it to them free of charge (and with charts, no less!):

Audience Graph
First of all, your audience is moving from conventional offline distribution channels to new online ones. You may think you have the control to slow this, but you don’t! At this point, you must consider it *axiomatic* that every genie will get out of every bottle. There are over a billion people on the Internet, and it just takes one to put your content on BitTorrent and all your anti-piracy efforts are rendered moot. Content consumption is moving from offline to online whether you like it or not. So, you have a choice: get on-board by giving consumers what they want and keep some of them as customers, or drive them away entirely by ignoring their needs. If you choose the latter, you probably won’t ever be able to win those lost customers back. And even if you choose the former, you will most likely never be able to aggregate the same size audience for a given piece of mass-market content online as you could offline. Mainstream media (or ‘head’) content is a first-class citizen offline, where there is artificial scarcity and so being first in line counts for something. But, there is an (effectively infinite) abundance of content online and what matters most is finding what is most interesting to me.

ARPU Graph
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news, by moving online you can build deeper relationships with that smaller audience and explore variable pricing options to increase the average value of each individual fan (again I reference Josh Freese, who illustrates this point not without irony). However in order to fully engage your most passionate fans and get them to give you more money, you can’t continue to just sit back and pump out passive entertainment experiences with some snazzy marketing around it. You will need to invest in turning your content into 360° entertainment and change your mentality about selling it as a packaged good.

Cost Graph
Yes, I know that sounds expensive. It definitely won’t be cheap and will require you to build out new competencies you don’t have today. But you’ll be able to pay for it (and then some) with all the money you save by getting out of the very expensive mass-market content and offline distribution businesses.

So if you’re willing to become an online-first media company, I think I can promise you’ll return to profitability in 5-10 years depending on how quickly you move to jettison your legacy offline businesses. Now, your shareholders may not be so keen on all these restructuring costs and write-downs, not to mention all the money you’re going to be leaving on the offline distribution table by focusing on getting into the online business while you still can. But, that’s ok because they value the long-term survival of the company over short-term profits. Right? </sarcasm>

Mass-market content and offline distribution are declining businesses, but they are still quite profitable. Especially compared to niche content and online distribution, which are clearly ascendent but still a rounding error to the bottom-line of these major media companies (not to mention the corporations that own them). I believe the decline of the former is going to be a lot quicker than the entertainment industry thinks (because they believe they can control it and they don’t understand the exponential acceleration of technological progress) while the rise of the latter will be retarded by a lack of investment in developing the infrastructure to make it a profitable business. The film industry obsessively spends hundreds of millions of dollars to build the biggest anti-piracy stick they can while watering the online video carrot with an eyedropper. If they were to put meaningful time and money into figuring out how to make legal online content consumption compelling and profitable, it would be more effective than spending a hundred times that on anti-piracy efforts. But they won’t, instead they will continue to do everything they can to prop up dying (but profitable) revenue streams, including stifling the growth of the emerging revenue streams that could one day take their place. And so, the studios will some day (soon) find themselves with not enough offline money and not enough online audience from which to try to make money.

If I were the head of a studio, I would stop trying to figure out how to grow the buggy whip business by keeping down the automobile. I would also recognize that transforming my profitable if shrinking buggy whip business into a money-losing automobile business making it up in volume is probably not in the best economic interest of my shareholders. So instead of throwing good money after bad trying to keep the overall buggy whip market from shrinking, I would focus on getting as much share as possible while all my competitors spent their time futilely worrying about the cars. I would ruthlessly cut costs to maintain profitability in the face of shrinking demand. And, I would put all those profits into a dividend so my shareholders would stop pressuring me for growth that isn’t there. Finally, when it’s time to close my buggy whip factory’s doors, I would take all that dividend money I earned and put it into the best automobile company I could find (and then I would be sure to sell that ~80 years later 😉 ).

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The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Music 2.0 [Abridged]

[Updated February 17, 2008. Comments #1-3 are in response to the original full-length post, which can be found here.]

I’ve been marinating on this post for a few weeks now, but haven’t gotten around to it because of some other events I’ll blog about soon. However after only being reminded that the Grammys were tonight by the fact that two people I know were looking to give away their tickets, I felt this was an appropriate night to dig in and get ‘er done.

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That the music industry is currently undergoing a profound transformative change is not news by any means. And, the retrospective analysis of the whys and the hows of this change is well-trod territory at this point. But, I don’t feel there is much clarity, let alone consensus, around what the future of the music business will look like, which I believe is a much more interesting conversation. My personal view is that it will look a lot like Saul Williams, in honor of whom this post is titled.

Saul Williams, Photo by: nsdesigns via Flickr Saul’s latest album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, was produced by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and quietly released in October in a manner very similar to Radiohead’s In Rainbows — with consumers being able to choose between downloading an inferior version for free or paying to download a higher quality version (both DRM-free). Not many people noticed until a few weeks ago when Reznor, unlike Radiohead, posted the sales figures on the NIN blog (which for some unfathomable reason doesn’t have publicly visible archives — but, you can read the original text here) and said he found them “disheartening.” His subsequent interview on the subject with CNET provides a view into the mind of someone who looks at the Internet and digital distribution as basically new tools to propagate the legacy record industry business model.

If that had been all, I would have just chocked it up to music business as usual. But, then Saul jumped into the mix and pretty much blew my mind. In his own interview with CNET in response to Trent’s, Saul basically defined the archetype of my vision of the musical artist of the future, and in so doing illustrated where IMHO the music industry is headed. In contrast to Trent, Saul characterized himself as “extremely optimistic” based on the results of the online promotion. This polar opposite reaction is illustrative of a fundamental difference between the two artists that is best summed up in Saul’s own words:

I think Trent’s disappointment probably stems from being in the music business for over 20 years and remembering a time that was very different, when sales reflected something different, when there was no such thing as downloads. Trent is from another school. Even acts that prospered in the ’90s, you look at people like the Fugees or Lauren Hill selling 18 million copies. That sort of thing is unheard of today. But Trent comes from that world. So I think his disappointed stems from being heavily invested in the past. For modern times, for modern numbers we’re looking great, especially for being just two months into a project.

Williams goes on to talk about the importance to his livelihood of what the record industry has historically characterized as secondary revenue streams, like concert ticket and merchandise sales. The record industry has generally viewed these revenue streams mostly as promotion for their recorded music/packaged good business, in no small part because the artists and their management keep the bulk of the touring revenues and the labels keep the bulk of the record sales. However, touring has now become such a profit center for artists that Madonna now has an event company as a label. And just like how in the late 80’s and early 90’s artists started making songs with the music video in mind to take advantage of the emerging promotional power of MTV, you now have “ringtone rappers” overtly writing music to maximize the extremely profitable mobile revenue stream. By locking out emerging artists and ripping off established ones, the record industry has forced them to make money from sources other than recorded music, thus sowing the seeds of its own destruction. As a result, the new breed of artists now sees recorded music not as a primary revenue stream but as promotion for other revenue streams that go (more) directly into their own pockets.

At the end of the same interview with CNET, Williams also talks about how, even with Reznor’s backing, they couldn’t find a label that could wrap its head around what Williams was trying to do. It basically boiled down to the fact that none of the labels’ marketing departments had a promotional formula set-up for a black alternative artist. While defying the ability to be pigeonholed into a particular genre is to be admired artistically, it’s apparently not so desirable in the record industry. Because it’s a packaged goods business with high fixed costs (advances, studio time, sample clearances, mastering), relatively low variable costs (pressing and shipping CDs), and extremely high opportunity costs (promotion and shelf-space could be going to that Rihanna record that’s a lot more likely to sell), the model only works if you can aggregate a substantial audience around any given product. The marketing formulae the labels use are designed to predict and maximize the probability of aggregating the largest possible audience. And black alternative acts just don’t cross that bar.

But, the cost structure of digital distribution (mostly the even lower variable costs and the diminimus opportunity costs) lower that bar considerably. 154,449 people downloaded Niggy Tardust (of those, only 28,322 paid) in the first 3 months with no paid promotion, that’s almost 5x what Williams’ self-titled first album has done in nearly 4 years since its release. So it’s not the fact that no audience exists for a black alternative artist, it’s the fact that audience isn’t big enough to make money from CD sales. But it’s apparently plenty big for Williams to make a living from touring, merchandise, and other revenue streams. Last weekend I was over at Ian‘s and we were talking about the Yeasayer album, which I only recently discovered but Ian told me was a blog favorite of 2007. We agreed it was an album that probably wouldn’t have even been made 10 years ago (or if it was, would have resulted in the sacking of whatever young A&R exec snuck it through). But through the magic of the interwebs, these guys are now going on tour and selling out shows in LA and SF.

As we all know, the Internet has the power to unite people around a common interest, creating substantial audiences where little to none was thought to exist before. The result of this is that the tens of discrete genre-based marketing formulae Hollywood has relied on to program popular culture through mass media for the last 50 years are being atomized into a spectrum that represents the fluid reality of cultural tastes. For those of you familiar with calculus, it’s like the labels’ marketing departments are trying to do integrals by adding up the area of boxes under the curve and the web has just shown up with a graphing calculator.

Yes, Saul Williams isn’t even a blip on most consumers’ radars today, and artists like Trent Reznor, Ghostface Killah, and Robbie Williams, whose management has publicly objected to EMI’s stated aim of cutting the conspicuous excesses for which the record industry is infamous, are still dominating the charts. But at this point, there are more and more Saul Williamses and fewer and fewer Trent Reznors coming up everyday, and so the shift in the balance of power is only a matter of time. While Doug Morris is frantically trying to figure out how not to be the Shmoo (and Rio Caraeff is frantically trying to keep Doug Morris from sounding like a moron), the artists the labels wrote off as not viable in the legacy system are out there pioneering a new system in which they are. Back in the day, Overture decided to ignore small “tail” publishers because the margins sucked and Google decided to instead find a way to make the margins better, which resulted in AdSense and Google ultimately being able to come after Overture’s core “head” publisher business with margins that were that much higher. Christensen calls it the low-end disruption, and it’s an economic force of nature. Like Ian sez:

Environmental forces are easily ignored. Do so at your (or your company’s) peril.

So, what will the music industry of the future look like? I think it will be many more artists individually making less money on average than today, but collectively making a ton more for 2 reasons:

  1. The diversity of choice that will be available to consumers means more of them will find more things they enjoy more passionately and engage with more deeply resulting in them being willing to spend more money
  2. The decreasing importance of the recorded music revenue stream will spur innovation in exploitation and business models in a way that was impossible with the labels trying to protect their packaged goods cash cow

I firmly believe music will be a profitable business in the future, just not as profitable as it is now (but a hell of a lot more sustainable). If you love making music and you’re good at it and work hard, you’ll be able to make a good living — not an MTV Cribs living, but an upper middle-class living — and your music will touch more people who will identify with it in meaningful ways. If you love making music but don’t want to work as hard or aren’t that great, you’ll still be able to get some recognition and maybe even some money on the side of your day job. And most importantly, if you love listening to music, you’ll have an exponentially wider variety to choose from, a greater chance of finding artists you really like, more opportunities to engage with those artists in myriad new forms, and a real feeling of value from the time, energy, and money you spend. Sounds like a pretty bright future to me.

In case you couldn’t tell, this is an area that really fascinates me and one I will continue to explore on this blog. In the meantime, those interested in following my research in realtime can check out my ‘media 2.0’ del.icio.us stream.

Photo by: nsdesigns via Flickr