Kim Dotcom’s Just Getting Started

Self-styled digital Robin Hood Kim Dotcom’s highly effective PR machine successfully secured him vast media coverage this week for the launch of his new locker service Mega, which as the Register’s Andrew Orlowski correctly points out, isn’t actually anything particularly new or innovative.  But in some ways that doesn’t even matter. Kim Dotcom matters most to media companies now because he is a focal point of anti-media-establishment sentiment.  He’s the plucky start up taking on the fat cats of the media industry.  Except of course that he’s done a pretty impressive job of establishing himself as an fat cat too as this and this reveal. Ironically Kim Dotcom has made his money using the same assets as the media fat cats: i.e. music, movies and TV shows.  The difference being that Kim Dotcom doesn’t finance the creation of the content. But Dotcom’s supporters are willing to turn a blind eye to his play boy ways because it is all done while sticking a proverbial finger up at the old guard

But all this is old news and obscures why the media industries should actually be afraid of Kim Dotcom, very afraid.  Dotcom has the vision for a differentiated consumer experience that no other ‘piracy’ innovator has yet had.  Prior to his much publicized FBI raid and the closure of Megaupload.com, Dotcom was on the verge of launching a new, interactive, multimedia content service called Megabox.  It didn’t happen, but – judicial wrangles permitting – it will, and will likely be built upon the foundations of the newly launched Mega.

Piracy Cold War

To date file sharing (by which I mean all forms of unlicensed content downloading and uploading, not just P2P) has been in a secrecy arms race with the media industries.  Every time the media industries have caught up with file sharing, the networks and services have devised new means of evading policing and enforcement.  Although media companies have always inherently been trapped in reactive mode, unable to set the terms of engagement, this strategy has nonetheless been highly effective at keeping file sharing services on the back foot.  As with the cold war two super powers have expended vast resources staying still, investing heavily in being armed to the teeth.  The net result is that piracy has continued to grow but hasn’t been through any transformational innovation in years.  Also the sites and services have become progressively more complex and sophisticated to use and navigate. Pushing them slightly further away from the mainstream.

But what happens when someone finally decides to innovate the file sharing user experience?  When someone scales down the combat zone investment and focuses instead of delivering a great user experience in the way that licensed services do.  That is when media companies need to start worrying.  As I wrote back in February last year:

The nightmare scenario for media companies is that the pirates turn their attentions to developing great user experiences rather than just secure means of acquiring content.  What if, for example, a series of open source APIs were built on top of some of the more popular file sharing protocols so that developers can create highly interactive, massively social, rich media apps which transform the purely utilitarian practice of file sharing into something fun and engaging?  If you though the paid content market was struggling now imagine how it would fare in the face of that sort of competition.

Kim Dotcom has the requisite combination of vision and balls to take piracy through a user experience revolution.  If he does then piracy will become a vastly more worrying adversary for media companies than it currently is.

Blocking the Pirate Bay: A Tale of VPNs, Proxy Servers and Carrots

Today the UK’s High Court ruled that UK ISPs must block access to the Pirate Bay on their networks.  The idea isn’t a new one, Wippit’s CEO Paul Myers first touted the idea of UK ISPs voluntarily blocking access to P2P sites nearly a decade ago.  In some ways it is intriguing that it has taken so long for media industries to come round to the idea of enforcement via domain blocking rather than going straight after file sharers themselves.  The Sopa / Pipa legislation had many faults but it was markedly more forward looking with its focus on blocking domains than the old school French Hadopi bill which opts instead for the ‘punish your own customers’ approach.

Of course domain blocking itself is beset with challenges and moral dilemmas, but of the tools available to media companies domain blocking can make a pretty compelling case for being the best blend of effectiveness and consume friendliness.  After all, the aim of any piracy enforcement is not just to stop the activity but also to persuade illegal downloaders to become paying customers.  It is much easier to try to convert a file sharer who is getting frustrated not being able to find free unlicensed downloads than it is one who you have just taken to court and sued for damages.

There are however two key technical challenges surrounding domain blocking:

  • VPNs: Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications can enable a user to tunnel out of their ISPs’ network, bypassing domain filtering systems such as BT’s Cleanfeed system which will be used to implement the Pirate Bay ban. Although VPNs have well established legitimate business uses, a number of VPN providers, such as BT Guard, are positioning themselves explicitly as tools to evade piracy enforcement. VPN providers may become the next front in the war on piracy, with media companies likely to start subpoenaing their user activity logs.  Some providers have already started putting anonymity systems in place, such as not tracking IP addresses and deleting logs after 7 days.  Proxy servers – which can be used to circumvent domain filters – are another option, often used in conjunction with VPNs.
  • New domains: the most challenging aspect of domain filtering is keeping track of all the new domains.  Earlier this month in Belgium the Antwerp Court of Appeal imposed a Pirate Bay domain block on two Belgian ISPs, a band which covered 11 associated domains.  Within days the Pirate Bay had registered a new domain depiraatbaai.be though that was swiftly added to the ruling and Belgian users now get this message if they try to access any of the Pirate Bay domains.  The Belgian example illustrates how easy it is for new domains to come into play.  Effective domain filtering is an iterative and continual process that can only work well with willing cooperation from ISPs.  Going to the High Court to secure a new ruling every time there is a new domain is simply not viable.

The aim of domain blocking, as with all piracy enforcement measures, is not to turn off the tap entirely but instead to make it so inconvenient for mass market consumers that the activity will become unappealing.  So the technical challenges need not be fatal flaws in domain filtering strategy if the net result irritating inconvenience for most users.

The Pirate Bay has had the unusual effect of creating a centralization of activity for decentralized file sharing.  As networks went decentralized to evade enforcement, the Pirate Bay pulled the Torrent diaspora together to create a nice big juicy target for media companies.  Removing the Pirate Bay from the UK web will have a significant impact on file sharing, at least in the short term.  There are only a handful of other public sites that index torrent files and have a working tracker, though there is a longer list of sites that have indices but not trackers.  If the music industry acts quickly and puts something new and compelling in place to capture the demand of frustrated Pirate Bay users then there is a strong chance that a host of new digital music customers can be won.  But that means a new generation of product.  The 99 cent download and 9.99 subscription have proven patently uninteresting to the majority of digital music consumers (by which I mean people who listen to music digitally and / or access it digitally).

The alternative is the risk of some of those users simply falling out of the music consumption arena (as appears to have happened in the US) with the rest soon being catered for by a host of new unlicensed alternatives filling the demand vacuum.

A carrot and stick approach is always going to be an evolving strategy.  But when the stick changes, so must the carrot.

The Music Format Bill of Rights

Today I have published the latest Music Industry Blog report:  ‘The Music Format Bill Of Rights: A Manifesto for the Next Generation of Music Products’.  The report is currently available free of charge to Music Industry Blog subscribers.  To subscribe to this blog and to receive a copy of the report simply add your email address to the ‘EMAIL SUBSCRIPTION’ box to left.

Here are a few highlights of the report:

Synopsis

The music industry is in dire need of a genuine successor to the CD, and the download is not it. The current debates over access versus ownership and of streaming services hurting download sales ring true because a stream is a decent like-for-like replacement for a download.  The premium product needs to be much more than a mere download.  It needs dramatically reinventing for the digital age, built around four fundamental and inalienable principles of being Dynamic, Interactive, Social and Curated (D.I.S.C.).  This is nothing less than an entire new music format that will enable the next generation of music products.  Products that will be radically different from their predecessors and that will crucially be artist-specific, not store or service specific.  Rights owners will have to overcome some major licensing and commercial issues, but the stakes are high enough to warrant the effort.  At risk is the entire future of premium music products.

D.I.S.C.: The Music Format Bill Of Rights

The opportunity for the next generation of music format is of the highest order but to fulfil that potential , lessons from the current digital music market must be learned and acted upon to ensure mistakes are not repeated.  The next generation of music format needs to be dictated by the objective of meeting consumer needs, not rights owner business affairs teams’ T&Cs.  It must be defined by consumer experiences not by business models.  This next generation of music format will in fact both increase rights owner revenue (at an unprecedented rate in the digital arena) and will fuel profitable businesses.  But to do so effectively, ‘the cart’ of commercial terms, rights complexities and stakeholder concerns must follow the ‘horse’ of user experience, not lead it. This coming wave of music format must also be grounded in a number of fundamental and inalienable principles.  And so, with no further ado, welcome to the Music Format Bill of Rights (see figure):

  • Dynamic. In the physical era music formats had to be static, it was an inherent characteristic of the model.  But in the digital age in which consumers are perpetually online across a plethora of connected devices there is no such excuse for music format stasis.  The next generation of music format must leverage connectivity to the full, to ensure that relevant new content is dynamically pushed to the consumer, to make the product a living, breathing entity rather than the music experience dead-end that the download currently represents.
  • Interactive. Similarly the uni-directional nature of physical music formats and radio was an unavoidable by-product of the broadcast and physical retail paradigms.  Consumers consumed. In the digital age they participate too.  Not only that, they make content experiences richer because of that participation, whether that be by helping drive recommendations and discovery or by creating cool mash-ups. Music products must place interactivity at their core, empowering the user to fully customize their experience.  We are in the age of Media Mass Customization, the lean-back paradigm of the analogue era has been superseded by the lean-forward mode of the digital age.  If music formats don’t embrace this basic principle they will find that no one embraces them.
  • Social. Music has always been social, from the Neolithic campfire to the mixtape.  In the digital context music becomes massively social.  Spotify and Facebook’s partnering builds on the important foundations laid by the likes of Last.FM and MySpace.  Music services are learning to integrate social functionality, music products must have it in their core DNA.
  • Curated. One of the costs of the digital age is clutter and confusion: there is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  Consumers need guiding through the bewildering array of content, services and features.  High quality, convenient, curated and context aware experiences will be the secret sauce of the next generation of music formats. These quasi-ethereal elements provide the unique value that will differentiate paid from free, premium from ad supported, legal from illegal.  Digital piracy means that all content is available somewhere for free.  That fight is lost, we are inarguably in the post-content scarcity age.  But a music product that creates a uniquely programmed sequence of content, in a uniquely constructed framework of events and contexts will create a uniquely valuable experience that cannot be replicated simply by putting together the free pieces from illegal sources.  The sum will be much greater than its parts.

Table of Contents for the full 20 page report:

Setting The Scene

  • Digital’s Failure To Drive a Format Replacement Cycle

Analysis

  • Setting the Scene
  • (Apparently) The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized
  • The Music Consumption Landscape is Dangerously Out of Balance
  • Tapping the Ownership Opportunity
  • The Music Format Bill Of Rights
  • Applying the Laws of Ecosystems to Music Formats
  • Building the Future of Premium Music Products
  • D.I.S.C. Products Will Be the Top Tier of Mainstream Music Products
  • The Importance of a Multi-Channel Retail Strategy
  • Learning Lessons from the Past and Present
  • We Are In the Per-Person Age, Not the Per-Device Age

Next Steps

Conclusion

Sopa Highlights Media Industry Strategic Failings

The controversial US copyright and piracy acts Sopa and Pipa (see this Wired piece for a Bluffer’s Guide on what they are) have been thrust centre stage by Wikipedia’s planned protest black-out on Wednesday.  It has taken an entity the size of Wikipedia to bring the debate out of the confines of the digerati and to the mainstream.   For that Wikipedia deserves great credit.

And the debate does need to take place in the mainstream.  The effects of the bills (if passed, upheld in the face of legal challenge and then successfully implemented) will be felt keenly by mainstream consumers.

However I am not going to add to the already vibrant and detailed discussion about the ethical and constitutional implications of the bills, nor the legion flaws and ambiguities in the proposed legislation. Instead I want to put Sopa and Pipa in the context of wider media industry strategy and response to digital change.

Sopa, Pipa and the Media Meltdown

Back in my days at Forrester I helped develop the concept of the media meltdown to describe the process of media industries responding to the impact of digitization.

The media meltdown occurs in three key stages:

  • Stage 1: Audiences take control of their content consumption via new digital technology (think CD ripping, P2P, on demand video streaming, iPads etc).
  • Stage 2: Traditional media industry business models crumble while media companies grapple with denial.  Instead of comprehending that a paradigm shift in consumer behaviour has occurred they think they can turn back the proverbial clock by fighting online piracy and restricting the disruptive threat of legal services.
  • Stage 3: There are two potential conclusions, either the media industries comprehend that user behaviour has changed for ever and that they need to embrace that change with new business models, or they fail.  (For more on the media meltdown check Forrester’s CPS blog and the ever insightful James McQuivey)

Of course as with any analytical framework, this is a generalized world view but it provides a very useful lens through which to view media industry anti-piracy legal activity, lobbying and resultant legislation.  It is immediately apparent that Sopa and Pipa fall within stage 2 of the media meltdown but it would be disingenuous to suggest that the media companies that have lobbied for them – and for other acts such as the French Hadopi act and the British Digital Economy Bill – are in complete denial.  Rather what we have is a distortion of priorities.  These media companies and their industry bodies in particular rightly identify online piracy as a major disruptive threat to their businesses.  However,  instead of recognizing that behaviour shifts have occurred around which new businesses should be built, they reason that turning off the tap on piracy will starve piracy of oxygen, until it withers away.

Digital Piracy Perennially Outwits the Pursuer

As well intended as this thinking is, it is flawed.  Digital piracy (in its many, many guises) is all about innovation and change.  Every time media companies manage to finally catch up with digital piracy – either through enforcement, legislation or technical measures – the pirates have already moved on. Fighting piracy is akin to a game of whack-a-mole, but in this version of the game the moles learn.  Every time one is smacked down another one comes up that is smarter, harder to see and more difficult to reach.

Mainstream Consumers Become  the Effective Targets of Anti-Piracy

The simple and unavoidable fact is that piracy will always move more quickly and more effectively than its pursuers.  Technology improvements can be measured in days, even hours.  Legislation takes years.  This dynamic is one of the key reasons why acts like Sopa and Pipa have such far reaching implications for mainstream consumers: the hard core tech savvy pirates will always find ways of evading the counter measures, the mainstream will not.  Remember how DRM inconvenienced legitimate customers and did nothing to impact pirates?  The parallels here are clear.  Of course there are obvious and important differences between digital content buyers and passive pirates, but there are also similarities.  One of the most important of which is that they are often the same people.  Many paid content buyers also access free illegal content: they blend their content acquisition practices, often using free illegal sources for either discovery or the content they are just not willing to pay for, and then paying for the rest.

Legislation is Fully Necessary But Strategic Priorities Need Rebalancing

To be clear, this is not an apology for piracy, nor is it an argument against legislation – indeed it is crucial that laws evolve quickly enough to keep up with digital change so they can establish the frameworks in which legitimate content business models can prosper and illegal ones cannot.  Instead I am making the case for a rebalancing of strategic priorities and for taking the long view.  Consumer behaviour has changed for ever.  More people are consuming more content across more platforms than ever before, but fewer of them are paying for it.  Making free illegal content harder to get will only weaken consumption and demand unless game-changing legal alternatives simultaneously fill the vacuum.

For example, turning off access to the Pirate Bay and then pointing users  to iTunes will fall far, far short.  Media companies need to get brave, like never before, and quickly so.  They need to start looking at what makes the illegal services so threatening to them and then give legitimate companies licenses to do just the same, legally.  Some media industries get this more than others. For example the TV studios quickly realized the best way of fighting free was with free itself, launching Hulu, ABC.com and iPlayer as genuinely compelling (in fact even more convenient) alternatives to BitTorrent.

Legislators: Compel Media Companies to License to Identikit Legal Alternatives

If the US Congress wants to ensure that Sopa and Pipa are balanced in a way that will help drive digital innovation rather than stifling it in favour of analogue-era protectionism, they should look to baking-in binding innovation commitments from media companies.  To ensure that for every type of illegal service that is wiped out of the US-facing Internet, the opportunity is created for new companies to offer the same type of service legally, with guaranteed licenses from media companies (i.e. without being watered down to irrelevancy with usage restrictions).  Then Sopa and Pipa could become the foundation stones of a period of unprecedented media industry innovation that would finally recast the mould of media business models in the post-meltdown world.  The alternative is media industry failure.  Though they might not realize it, the media industry lobbyists are currently on track for hastening their industries’ demise, not safeguarding their futures.

In Conversation With Boinc’s Adam Kidron

Here is the video of my conversation yesterday with the CEO and founder of the forthcoming music service Boinc.  We discuss a number of things, including:

  • the state of digital music
  • Facebook’s potential impact on the space
  • reestablishing value in music
  • addressing the emerging market challenge

Adam also shares his vision for the music industry annd his concept of ‘creating an API around the entirity of music’.

Take a look and let me know your thoughts and comments.

MOG to Launch in the UK: First Take

[Please note that this post first appeared on the Forrester Consumer Product Strategy blog.  Over the coming month or so I will be migrating all of my activity there.  I will soon be posting new information here for you to amend your feeds and subscriptions. Thanks]

Mark Mulligan[Posted by Mark Mulligan]

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US music subscription service MOG is set to launch in the UK by the end of the 2ndquarter off the back of a 2nd round of investment totaling $10
million.

As I posted earlier in the month, the music subscriptions space is going through an important period of transition.  It took much of the last decade to realize that the 9.99 premium rentals model was only ever going to appeal to a niche of music aficionados, and though global premium music subscribers total 8.25 million, we’re still no closer to mass market appeal for premium subscriptions.  And yet we have a host of new entrants including, MOG, Spotify Premium, We7 Premium, Sky Songs, Virgin Media etc etc.

So what’s changed? Well, both a little and a lot.

The niche audience is getting bigger. Firstly, the appeal for premium subscriptions is still a niche addressable audience of tech savvy music aficionados, but that audience is growing. It’s still far from mass market (and never will be) but it’s a more attractively scaled base now.  A few million per major music market perhaps. For a company like MOG that’s plenty enough addressable market. Also improvements in consumer technology and connectivity make it easier to deliver a high quality on-the-go cloud based experience, a crucial asset.

New routes to market. Perhaps the most important change though is that numerous new channel partners are emerging that can help shoulder the to-consumer cost.  ISPs, mobile operators, device manufacturers, even brands all are becoming realistic partners for subsidizing premium subscriptions, in turn reducing the price point to an extent where appeal is much broader.  The music industry is waking up to the fact
that a recurring household music purchasing relationship is much more valuable and secure than ad hoc individual spending and illegal downloading.

MOG has an additional crucial asset: the service is inherently social.  Regular readers will recall that I posted about the concept of ‘putting the crowd in the cloud’, that social interconnectivity in cloud based services will become a crucial component of music discovery and engagement. MOG joins those dots.

Those assets alone though may not be enough. If MOG is to steal serious market share in the UK it will do well to investigate the unique
range telco partnership opportunities that the UK presents due to the government’s strong(ish) stance on making telcos partners in tackling music piracy. A subsidized MOG service from BT, integrated into their IPTV boxes and xBoxes, for example, would be a really enticing prospect.

(And a sign of the times, MOG is being talked about as a potential ‘Spotify-killer’….whatever happened to being an ‘iTunes-killer’…they’re still the ones that own three quarters of the premium digital music business…)

‘Music As Free’ – What You Think

I’m going to do something I’ve never done before, I’m posting the highlights of the comments from a blog post.  The quality and the quantity of the comments was such that they deserve extra attention.  In fact the quantity is part of the reason I’m doing this summary: they added up to just under 8,000 words(!) so for those who don’t have the time to trawl through them all, this is for you.  For those who do have the time I heavily recommend reading them here

I’ll be writing up a follow up piece to my original post soon, addressing some of the recurring themes in the comments.

In the meantime, here are the comments.  I’ve tried to keep a balanced representation of opinion and they are largely chronological.  There are some real gems in there too.

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Your nostalgia for a golden past is wrong-headed because there was never a golden age in the first place, except for a small minority of superstars

———————————————————————————————————-

As an artist, it’s my choice whether to give my music away or try to force the common public to pay for it.

Do I deserve to be forced to? No.

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If everything is for free then how do artists make money. Why should art be free but not anything else?

———————————————————————————————————-

Music doesn’t have to be free to be fair to the consumer, it just needs to be sensible.

———————————————————————————————————-

A strange thing happened to me this morning. I had to get a new car battery and you know what? The guy from AAA wanted me to pay him for it!!! I said to him, “How are you gonna build any brand equity this way?!?! I finally caved in and paid the guy. Unbelievable!

———————————————————————————————————-

The profits labels experienced years ago were inflated….Those days are over…

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Record labels and artists are just as guilty as consumers for not being innovative and either going along with it blindly because the got a deal or because the same old prehistoric fat cats that have been exploiting artists for decades are still there and refuse to give up the excess they are used to.

———————————————————————————————————-

Not everyone fits the profile of an indie band. If every person on the planet wants to work for free, maybe the people in the music biz will join in. In the meantime, everyone needs to buy food, provide shelter, and take care of their families.

———————————————————————————————————-

It seems like the music business is disappointingly LAST to realise that giving something away for free isn’t the end of a relationship

———————————————————————————————————-

Composers and songwriters do not have “add-on services.” They do not have advertising revenue….not everyone fits the newcomer “indie band” model that can sell T-shirts and CDs at their next concert.

———————————————————————————————————-

$0.99 for a song is a ridiculously good deal for something you want, can keep forever and play on all your personal devices.

———————————————————————————————————-

Good tunes aside, everyone who wants my stuff for free should also want to pay – UPFRONT – for the cables, gear, time, talent, etc that went into the music they like.

———————————————————————————————————-

Q. EVERYBODY GETS PAID FOR WHAT THEY KNOW AND HOW THEY EXECUTE. WHY SHOULD MUSICIANS BE TREATED ANY DIFFERENTLY?

A. Because if people CAN pull it, they will.

———————————————————————————————————-

People are happy to pay McDonald’s, tobacco companies, and anyone else their hard-earned money to kill them slowly and break their bank, but to pay for something you enjoy, that does all of the things that art does for us, if you can steal it, why bother?

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Frankly, anyone should be happy to assign a reasonable value to the work of those responsible for creating the soundtrack of our lives. I know I do. The Music Business is indeed an incredibly tough one to survive. Thank goodness for those willing to stay the course.

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I believe piracy in general does the industry more good than bad and my livelihood will depend on this fact, since I’m getting in the music promotion business

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As far as giving away 200 digital copies online to sell 20 – that makes perfect sense to me – much more so than giving a plugger or publicist $2k!

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We are all learning. That’s why we’re blogging about this topic. But so far, I’ve only gleaned that you gotta be well established in order to devalue your main craft and make a living at it.

———————————————————————————————————-

I mean look, you believe free stuff is the way to go, too…
That’s cool if you pay my bills. When I can afford to be a philanthropist, I will.

———————————————————————————————————-

I’m not in favor of free music, but when it comes to 30-second snippets and other promotional tools (even a CD if a band WANTS to give it away), I believe they ought to be very, very free.

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Why the ‘Music As Free’ Argument Just Doesn’t Hold Water

Regular readers of this blog will know that I take a pretty hard line on the idea that music can ‘just be free’ and that I take a fair share of flak for my position  (see my previous post here for background).

Numerous sites, forums and discussion boards pride themselves on their ‘everything should be free stance’ and argue that only money grabbing cynical artists would ever take the side of record labels in the piracy debate.  This is patently not the case.  Last week’s statement on tackling piracy from a 100 UK artists illustrates that artists care about this.  They understand that if people stop buying their music and download it for free that they simply won’t be able to be professional musicians anymore.  I for one used to be a struggling recording artist, many years ago.  I never made enough money from music sales to give up the day job, but I would have loved to be able to.  Not so that I could be rich, but so that I could spend more time doing the thing I loved: making music.

It is easy to argue that if consumers want music for free that the industry will simply have to adapt and develop free business models. But we don’t like our favourite artists because they or their record labels are good business people.  If the music industry proves inflexible enough to adapt to a free model and many professional artists go back to their day jobs who has won?  If the music business (in whatever guise it may evolve – i.e. it doesn’t have to be record labels at the centre of it) locks into a race to the bottom, ultimately less money will filter back to the artists.  That means that fewer artists will get contracts, and artists will have shorter careers.  Many more aspiring artists than today will never make it out of their MySpace page or their day jobs.

One of the counter arguments used by commentators is that having a MySpace page is an ends in itself these days.  No, it is a means to an end, and the VAST majority of artists see it that way.  If an aspiring artist doesn’t get signed to a label / publisher / agent they’ll remain one of those many tens of thousands of artists struggling to stand out from the crowded pack on MySpace.

The majority of artists just want to play their music to their fans and to be able to make a living out of doing so.  Most artists with record deals won’t and don’t make much money out of it, but they get to do what they love, and we get to enjoy their music.  But that model breaks down if people stop paying for music, whether that be buying CDs, downloads, gig tickets, ring tones etc.  And yes, of course, ‘feels like free’ models can pick up the slack, but they won’t do the job on their own, and they certainly won’t do enough whilst illegal free services continue to dominate.

But rather than try to persuade you with my words alone, please take the time to read this blog post from an artist that just felt the impact of file sharing (note this was recently reprinted in the UK’s Guardian by UK Music).  This is the pain of a real life artist and reveals the fallacy of the music ‘must be free’ argument

http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=62653487&blogId=485944356

Why UK Artists are Taking a Strong Stance on Music Piracy

Yesterday 100 UK based musicians got together in a behind-closed-doors meeting to thrash out their differences and agree on a position on file sharing.  This was done in the context of a deadline next week for submissions to the UK government on suggested provisions for tackling file sharing.  It also comes in the week that Lilly Allen closed down her ‘anti-file sharing’ blog after just three days because of the vitriol that came her way as a direct result of starting it.

After a reportedly heated debate the artists agreed on a statement to “alert music lovers to the threat that illegal downloading presents to our industry” and voted to support a plan to send two warning letters to file-sharers before restricting their broadband speeds that would “render sharing of media files impractical while leaving basic e-mail and web access functional”.  There is obviously a distance between this position and the record label position of termination of access on the third strike, but it still represents a massive change in artist opinion.  Compare and contrast with Travis’ Fran Healy stating that file sharing was ‘brilliant’ back in 2003, hot on the heels of Robbie Williams having said it was ‘great’ earlier in the same year.  (It’s worth noting that the Featured Artist Coalition of which Williams is a member was a part of this week’s meeting).

So what’s changed?  The decline in music sales can now be seen as a fundamental market realignment rather than the blip it looked like at the turn of the century and artists are beginning to get worried.  Many might not have seen much money from their labels once costs had been recouped but they recognize the marketing and talent development value that labels bring and that without them they wouldn’t be able to sell as many gig tickets or t-shirts.

It worth keeping a sense of perspective on this though.  Are we to believe that these 100 artists suddenly coalesced around this issue just as their paymaster record labels are nearing a pivotal stage of their lobbying efforts?  Probably not.  Also Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien said that the meeting got “quite emotional” and “a little heated at times” which suggests that there was strong diversity of opinion and that this statement is not a definitive representation of all artist opinion.

However, the fact remains that these 100 artists did attend and did bury their differences to deliver a powerful compromise statement at first time of asking.  This illustrates their collective recognition of the urgency and seriousness of the situation.  So even though artists and record labels will always have differences of opinions and agendas, they’re beginning to recognize that they have a lot of common ground. Together they can start to educate the marketplace that music cannot just be free.  Somebody somewhere has to pay else the investment in artists ultimately dries up.  It’s easy for a file sharer to say that music should be free and that labels and artists and labels are greedy, just in the same way it’s easy for a burglar to say that the owners of a nice house are greedy once he’s stolen from it.

A wholesale revision of music business models and practices is both necessary and is beginning to happen, but that is not an excuse to allow file sharing to go unchecked until that process has run its course.  Of course compelling and differentiated legal services are the best way to fight piracy, but there also needs to be a clear legal framework and, even more importantly, a shift in consumer mindset.  Most file sharers wouldn’t dream of stealing a CD from a music shop, but don’t hesitate to download tracks via BitTorrent.

If this shift towards artists being seen to take a stance against file sharing helps to start the requisite change in mindset then that will be a true achievement, more so than if they influence the legislative process.

Monkeying Around With Mobile Music (Updated)

Today the triumvirate of Universal Music, UK broadcaster Channel 4 and UK mobile operator Orange announced a Pay As You Go (PAYG) mobile music service called Monkey.  The service is aimed squarely at younger consumers, which matches the demographic of PAYG users and Channel 4’s audience.  The underlying principle of the service is that it has a low barrier to entry: it utilizes the voice network rather than data network and is thus available across all handsets and does not require any application download.  Instead consumers simply dial 247 to listen to playlists streamed at 64 kbps.  Most of the more sophisticated behaviour, such as playlist creation, music discovery etc., is expected to happen online, using a cloud based player, where tracks will be streamed at 128 kbps.  Playlists can also be shared using widgets for major social networks and via text.

So what impact is this offering likely to have?  It’s clearly aimed at enticing young consumers away from file sharing and the positioning point is effectively ‘free music when you top up your phone’.  I think there is a risk of worst of both worlds here.  Firstly, I don’t buy into the argument that streaming reduces file sharing penetration.  It may cause file sharers to download less from P2P networks, but it’s unlikely to entice them away from them as they’ll still want music for their MP3 player, to burn onto CD for their friends etc.  Granted, Monkey steps closer to being a replacement in that it has a portability story (of sorts) and it has a sharing story (of sorts).  But it doesn’t provide true portability (what do you do when you’re underground for example) and it only offers partial catalogue.

The killer point though is that it uses voice minutes and the cost of calls is 20p per minute.  So it will cost about 70p to listen to a single and an entire 10 pound top up will give you about 1 album and no time left for talking.  So consumers are paying the same amount as an iTunes single download (even more for an album) but only getting a low quality analogue audio stream.  (And what happens when somebody wants to call them when they’re listening over the voice line?)

*Orange just called me to clarify their press release.  The press release reads:

  • “Monkey customers can access the service on their phones by dialling [sic] 247.”
    and
  • “Calls cost 20p per minute”

However, following my phone call from Orange it transpires that the per minute pricing applies to voice only and not music calls, even though this isn’t actually explained in the release.

Also another interesting detail emerges: the service is actually a limited mobile music service, not an unlimited mobile music subscription, hence the careful use of the term ‘access to music’ in the release.  Customers are only allowed to listen to 600 minutes of music per month on their phone (again not in the release), which translates into 14 albums.  If you take a 30 pounds top up, that then translates into 2 pounds ten per album listen, so if you listen to an album, say 3 times in a month, that’s 6.30 an album.  Which isn’t far off the cost of a standard album, but of course you don’t get to keep it after you’ve finished listening . The ’3 listens’ cost drops to 4.20 for a 20 pound top up, 2.10 if you just take a 10 pound top up.  So still far from free, even though they’re being told it’s ‘free’ music,  which in turn reinforces conceptions that music is a free commodity (thus further undermining perceived values of music).

The additional fact that Universal will make some releases available here before anywhere else is a brave move and underlines the major’s persistently adventurous product innovation.  It will certainly be a key asset for demonstrating consumer value, but it will need careful positioning alongside premium products.  How, for example, would a high-end 15 pounds a month subscriber to Virgin’s unlimited MP3 subscription service (also in conjunction with UMG) feel if they realized they were getting new releases after the lower end Monkey customers were?

The other interesting sub text here is the underwhelming success of Comes With Music (Universal and Orange are both key UK partners for Nokia).   Is this picking up where CWM has failed to do so?  As I’ve stated here many times before, I am a firm believer in the CWM model and I believe it is the best tool that the music industry currently has for fighting piracy.  It is a genuinely compelling alternative to file sharing as it has a viable portability and ownership story.  Unfortunately it’s been hindered by channel issues, marketing problems and limited consumer awareness and understanding.

When I asked how Monkey would be positioned alongside CWM, UMG’s Rob Wells said Monkey was aimed more at younger, lower end consumers and Orange’s Pippa Dunn said that Monkey was for PAYG customers whilst CWM was for subscription customers.  Orange’s positioning is clean and elegant, but it’s a shame that CWM is effectively being marginalized as a high-end proposition.  That is not its sweet spot. Indeed the strong CWM association with the 5800 illustrates Nokia’s understanding that CWM is best positioned at younger, lower spending consumers and that it does not stand up as well when held up against higher end digital music offerings.  Also, from a broader music industry perspective CWM needs to be reaching younger consumers.  I hope Monkey doesn’t distract from that.