Music Industry: ‘Product’ Isn’t a Dirty Word

This morning I made a keynote presentation to a Westminster Forum conference on the UK music industry.  Though the focus of my presentation was intentionally gloomy (look out for a post on the key themes later this week) I finished with what I thought was the positive outlook: a call for a new generation of music products.  Regular readers will know that I beat this particular drum with near demented insistency and have been doing so for a few years now.  I used to get strange, puzzled looks but nowadays there is widespread recognition that product innovation is key to the long term health of media businesses.   (Much as I’d love to, I’m not claiming sole credit for the change in outlook permeating media industries).

This morning though caught me by surprise.  A couple of panellists took umbrage with ‘product’ having anything to do with the music industry, that the music industry was about music, not product. In many ways they are right of course, but they also ignore the basic economics of the music industry.   (I say ‘ignore’ rather than ‘misunderstand’ because these particular panellists have been around the music industry long enough to know it inside out and to know exactly what oils its wheels).

Of course the music industry is first and foremost about music. As a musician and a former (small time) recording artist and someone who spends way too many hours each week playing guitar and in his recording studio, I know this as well as anyone.  But product is the beating heart of the recorded music industry.   CDs, vinyl, downloads, apps or subscription services, these are the products which generate the income that allow some artists to give up the day job and focus on making great music.  It is the product wrapped around the music that creates that income that helps support creativity.

Of course recorded music products are not the be-all-and-end-all, and things are changing rapidly, with other revenue streams becoming part of the mix, but many of those are also products (games, clothing, memorabilia etc.).  Live, which incidentally is feeling the pinch of the recession, most of the time depends on the recorded music product as its marketing vehicle.  It doesn’t matter so much whether you choose to give your content away as digital files on BitTorrent (as one artist manager explained they plan to do) or sell it as a CD in a supermarket, both are music products.  And the more of those music products you can get in consumers’ hands, the more chance you will have of selling more concert tickets.

The role of music product in driving live success was underscored this morning when one panellist commented that nowadays there is only a handful of really big rock acts that can headline the major festivals.  The examples he gave were bands who built their success on selling millions of albums in healthier days for the music industry.  Could it be that the slowdown in music sales is moving us away from repeat-multi-platinum artists and thus in turn away from the days of ready-made large addressable audiences for arena tours?  Could the decline in recorded music sales end up dragging down live with it? There are many other moving parts (not least the quality of the artists in the marketplace) but it is an interesting question to consider.

The term ‘product’ seems to have uncomfortable corporate connotations of cynical commercialism for some.  It is an unusual hang up.  Carpenters, jewellers and fashion designers don’t have such hang ups about selling their products.  Some long for the patronage era, when the Prince of Salzburg commissioned Mozart to compose operas for him, or Eleanor of Aquitaine patronized court musicians.  But outside of certain niches (including some classical music), those days are long gone.  To have a paying career as a performing musician usually involves selling music products somewhere along the way.  That doesn’t mean that artists are selling their creative souls to corporate greed.  Indeed there is an argument that creating music-to-order like Mozart did was more of a creative compromise than signing a deal to get your music distributed across the globe.

If Mozart had had music products (other than the occasional sale of dance music score) with which to monetize his creativity he may well have not ended his life in poverty. Creating a set of next generation music products that play to the strengths of the digital age will be crucial to the long term health of the music industry, recorded and otherwise.  Giving consumers products which exceed their expectations rather than just meeting them can only help drive creativity.  Product isn’t a dirty word.