Just What Is BandLab Up To With Rolling Stone?

News emerged yesterday that Singapore music creator community and collaboration platform BandLab bought a 49% stake in Rolling Stone. For those unfamiliar with BandLab this might have prompted a ‘What? Who? Why?’ moment. BandLab is the creation of Kuok Meng Ru, the son of one of Singapore’s most wealthy and successful businessmen Kuok Khoon Hong who founded and built the world’s largest Palm Oil business. Unsurprisingly the father has backed the son in his venture and so, yes, Rolling Stone has been bought, albeit indirectly, with Palm Oil money. But the question remains, why?

Kuok Meng Ru has a bold vision and ambition for Bandlab, he sees this as an opportunity to create a full stack music company from the ground up, built around the next generation of creators rather than trying to carve a slice out of the incumbent industry. There is no doubt that the music industries are a complex web of inefficiencies and that if they were being redesigned tomorrow that they would be a far more streamlined, effective and transparent proposition. This on the surface makes the music business ripe for disruption. But unlike fully open markets like the smartphone business, the music industries are interwoven with complications such as de facto monopolies, statutory licensing frameworks and global networks of reciprocal agreements. All of which shelter the business from the full impact of disruption. Change happens slowly in the music business.

BandLab Is Built By Music Super Fans For Music Super Fans

None of this means that change is not happening and that the rate of change will not continue to happen. But the odds are heavily stacked against a single entity aiming to unseat the marketplace with an end-to-end creation-to-marketing-to-distribution solution such as BandLab. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of BandLab. As a life long musician and as a music super fan, it is exactly the sort of platform I would probably build i.e. a musician’s platform for musicians. But the harsh reality is that the majority of consumers (67%) are casual fans and less than 5% create music and upload it to the web. BandLab is a platform full of cool creator tools and community features. It nurtures a creative feedback loop between fans and artists. In fact, it adheres neatly to the principles of Agile Music that I laid out in 2011 and it fits in with the zeitgeist of the death of the creative full stop. But a mainstream proposition it is not. At least not in its current guise.

Kuok Meng Ru wants BandLab to do to music what Flickr did to photo sharing and creativity. But there are many, many more people that create and share photos than create and share music. Soundcloud is arguably the single biggest cloud creator platform, yet the vast majority of its growth happened when it cowed to investor pressure and pursued the listener rather than the creator. As I said last month in a Bloomberg article about BandLab, There’s always going to be far bigger audience of listeners than there is of creators. And unfortunately the vast majority of aspiring creators are not good enough, nor ever will be, to amass sizeable audiences. If BandLab decide to start licensing in established repertoire, or acquiring it unofficially (Soundcloud style), then it can build audience at scale.

Where Next For Rolling Stone?

So, back to the title of this post, just what is BandLab up to with Rolling Stone? Rolling Stone and BandLab plan to open a Singapore subsidiary focused on live events and marketing. For Rolling Stone this means diversifying revenue and growing its South East Asia footprint. For BandLab this means leveraging Rolling Stone’s brand as a short cut to credibility and extending the promotional capabilities of its creator platform. Who will do best out of this deal is hard to say. It’s a tough time to be a news publisher and so when big money comes calling it is hard to say no. But whether this is the right deal for Rolling Stone is another question entirely. My money is on Rolling Stone being sold on in reduced circumstances some time within the next 3 years (5 at the outside) when BandLab either gets bought or refocuses its ambitions.

Have Spotify and Apple Music Just Won The Streaming Wars?

Spotify has just delivered 2 landmark data points: 40 million subscribers and $5 billion paid to rights holders to date. Although the 3 million added in Q3 was down on the 7 million added in Q2 (boosted by a summer pricing promo) there is no escaping the fact that Spotify’s momentum has accelerated rather than declined since the emergence of Apple Music. 2016 is proving to be Spotify’s year. The question is how well the rest of the market is performing beyond the 2 market leaders?

The streaming music market as a whole is experiencing unprecedented growth, with the major labels collectively reporting a 52% increase in streaming revenue in Q2 2016 compared to the same period 12 months ago. Given that total streaming revenues (including YouTube etc. but not Pandora) grew by 44% in 2015 (according to the IFPI) the picture that is emerging is one of, at worst, sustained growth, at best, accelerating growth.

Although the major label numbers have to be interpreted with caution due to factors such as Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) – see my previous post for much more detail on this – the headline trend is growth. However, headline growth is not necessarily a reflection of how most of the market is actually performing. In fact, a forensic examination of these numbers cross referenced against reported Apple Music and Spotify numbers reveals that the outlook for the rest of the pack is very different indeed.

streaming-market-share-q2-16

At the end of 2015 there were 67.5 million subscribers, by the end of June 2016 that had increased to 83.2 million – a 23% increase from the end of 2015 and a 63% increase on Q2 2015. Spotify’s subscriber count for Q2 2016 was 37 million (including super trialists) while Apple Music was just under 16 million. This gives them a combined market share of 56%, which in itself is not particularly surprising. However, when we look at what has happened to the rest of the pack that things start to get really interesting…

The Rest Of The Pack Is Getting Left Behind

By end Q2 2015 Spotify had 20 million subscribers and Apple Music none. This meant that the rest had 31 million between them. By Q2 2016 this ‘remainder’ had shrunk to 30.5 million. Among this chasing pack there is a diverse mix of stories, with some services showing solid growth, some losing lots of paid subscribers and some disappearing all together. Meanwhile Spotify and Apple Music added 32.7 million to the global subscriber base. Thus over the same 12 month period these two players combined, became bigger then the entire rest of the market in subscriber terms with a 63% combined market share. An interesting side note: Tidal’s reported revenues of $47 million in 2015 mean that it can’t have had more than around 800,000 commercially active subscribers by year end, which means that the reported and ‘implied’ 4.2 million current subscriber count is probably closer to half that.

Streaming revenue followed a similar trend with Apple and Spotify dominating and the rest falling slightly (by 1 percentage point year on year). Spotify paid around $1.6 billion in royalties in 2015 and a cumulative $6 billion by September 2016, implying about $1.1 billion in 2016 already. The amount that Spotify paid to record labels in Q2 was somewhere between $479 million and $622 million, depending on when and how Spotify paid for those 7 million new super trialists it acquired that quarter. Towards the lower end of that range is probably the safer bet. Apple by comparison paid around $220 million. And as with subscriber numbers, the rest of the pack lost revenue.

It’s A 2 Horse Race

When Apple launched Apple Music some less informed observers suggested that it was too late to the party and that there was only room for one big player. The numbers from Q2 2016 show that Apple was far from too late (fashionably late perhaps) and that the rather than being a winner takes all scenario, the streaming market is a 2 horse race. Unfortunately for the rest of the pack it does look like there is only space for 2 leading global players, with Apple clearly having played a key role in knocking Deezer out of 2nd place and racing on ahead.

Still A Place For Regional Leaders

This does not mean that there is not space for other players, there is. Especially regional leaders like QQ Music, KKBox, Anghami and MelOn. But the consumer marketplace only has so much appetite for global scale $9.99 AYCE services. Which is why pricing and product innovation are so crucial if the recorded music business wants a vibrant streaming sector. Compare and contrast with the streaming video market where there is immense innovation with niche services and a diverse range of price points. Music streaming needs the same approach. Tidal may have (very successfully) differentiated on brand and content but it remains fundamentally an also-ran, $9.99 AYCE service. As things stand, the only really serious attempt to play by different rules is Amazon’s steadily emerging streaming strategy. Expect that dark horse to make up ground by playing by different rules. Perhaps even Pandora may be able to break the mould too.

But it is only through differentiated strategies that serious inroads can be made and unless pricing and product innovation occurs (and the labels and publishers need to enable it) expect the streaming race to continue to be a tale of 2 horses.

Pandora Plus And The Mid Tier Opportunity

Pandora continued its steady path towards subscriptions today with the announcement of a revamp of its premium radio offering Pandora One and confirmation of a forthcoming 9.99 tier. These of course have been in the works since its acquisition of Rdio’s assets back in November 2015. In the update Pandora One becomes Pandora Plus and gets new features including: ‘predictive offline playback’ for when signal drops, unlimited skips and unlimited replays. Pandora Plus may have a mid tier price point ($4.99) but it is not a mid priced subscription service, instead it is a premium priced radio service. This is not a revival of Rdio’s $3.99 Select offering nor is it a shot across Spotify and Apple’s bows. Nonetheless it is the start of a bolder streaming strategy for Pandora and it does raise the perennial issue of the case for mid priced subscriptions. Premium radio offerings like Pandora One Plus represent around 5 million subscribers in the US and are an important part of the market. But they are only the tip of the opportunity.

The case for mid priced subscriptions is clear: $9.99 is not a mainstream price point. It is fantastic value for music super fans, but more than mainstream fans are willing to pay. 9.99 subscriptions will continue to grow solidly for the next few years as the remaining untapped super fans are converted. But once that base is saturated the market needs something more, that’s where mid priced subscriptions come into play, helping unlock the next layer of consumers. Mid priced subscriptions can represent the best of both worlds, delivering large scale and premium revenue.

Mid Price Is No Easy Sell

However, the mid priced market is not without challenges, indeed, of the original wave of mid priced subscription services that came to market Blinkbox is gone, Cur Media is gone, Guvera is all but gone while Psonar and MusicQubed are still in market. The key challenges this market faces are:

  • It is not easy selling to mainstream consumers: mainstream consumers have less disposable income, are less engaged with music than super fans and are harder to convert
  • It is hard to compete against free: while there are on demand free services in the market (YouTube, Vevo, Spotify free) it is hard for mid priced products to compete in value terms. These free services steal much of the oxygen out of the market. $1 for 3 month trials from Spotify and co only compounds this issue
  • It is hard to differentiate: Label licensing constraints mean that the mid priced products deliver far less value than full priced products due to the restrictions imposed on them. Pandora’s INSERT gives the users 100 on demand tracks a month. That is 0.0003% of the 30 million on Spotify for 40% of the price of Spotify, or 1197% of the price of Spotify’s $1 for 3 months trial

Mid Tier Needs To Be Given More Substance

In short, the mid priced segment needs empowering with proper functionality. Mid tier products need more tracks and more on demand playback. Of course this has to be within clear bounds, else the risk of cannibalizing 9.99 tiers is to strong. But there are many other ways to do this rather than creating a painfully restrictive limit on the number tracks that can be played on demand. Here are some examples of how to differentiate mid tier while maintaining genuine user value by delivering more content and more choice in return:

  • Windowed content only (e.g. a 4 week window on new releases)
  • Limit on number of tracks that can be added to a playlist
  • Genre specific subscriptions
  • Strong focus on pushed playlists
  • Cheaper pricing ($2.99 or $3.99 to reflect the changed marketplace)

For mid tier to work, the music industry needs to have the confidence that the $9.99 product is good enough to keep its core customer base, that these users will not jump ship for a product squarely aimed at the mainstream.

After a couple of years in the wilderness it looks like the marketplace is beginning to warm to mid tier once again. In addition to Pandora’s moves, Sony Music and Universal Music quietly launched the £5.99 Now Music app into the UK market earlier this year while MusicQubed’s MTV Trax has been getting large scale TV advertising support from Viacom. Meanwhile QQ Music and Apple Music are both driving scale in China with a price point equivalent to around $2.

$9.99 was always a blunt instrument, a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Now though, while $9.99 adoption is still growing, is the time to have a far more sophisticated approach to pricing. The safe option would be to wait until $9.99 growth slows. But by then it would be too late.

Quick Take: EU Takes A Swipe At YouTube’s Safe Harbour

The EU today announced a raft of reform proposals for copyright, encompassing news, video and of course music. Among the proposals is the recommendation that sites like YouTube that currently operate under safe harbour proposals would have to proactively scan their services for copyright infringing material. This is music to the ears of labels who have been lobbying loudly for this change.

There is no doubt that content identification technology is dramatically better now than it was decades ago when safe harbour provisions were first enshrined in legislation. The fact that YouTube has its highly effective Content ID technology but only uses it post-facto has long been a bone of contention for labels. So this change, if approved and implemented will fix one of the music industry’s big ‘YouTube problems’.

To read the full post on the MIDiA blog please follow the link.

Watch Out Access, Liberty Media Is Building A Full Stack Music Company

liberty-full-stackAccess Industries’ full stack music company has, ahem, company: Liberty Media. With a combined market market cap of $37 billion John Malone’s Liberty group of companies is by anyone’s standards is a serious player. In the world of media and telecoms it is one of the biggest. Liberty grabbed the headlines this week with its $2.7 billion acquisition of a 15% stake in Formula One, with an option to acquire the entire company, possibly by year’s end. It is a typically bold move for a company that makes a habit of acquiring companies and consolidating markets. Over the past 11 years Liberty Media and Liberty Global have spent around $50 billion on acquiring companies such as UK TV operator Virgin Media, Dutch cable company Ziggo and (indirectly via a holding company) major league baseball team Atlanta Braves. So far so good, but where’s the music angle I hear you ask. Well, just a few weeks ago Liberty made a bid for a certain Pandora Media to add to its already extensive collection of music assets.

Read the full post on the MIDiA Blog here.

Just How Well Is Streaming Really Doing?

All of the three major record labels announced strong streaming music revenue growth in the 2nd quarter of 2016. On the surface it is a clear cut success story, but as is so often the case with music industry statistics, all is not quite how it seems.

The Global Streaming Market

First of all, let’s look at the global picture. According to the IFPI’s Recording Industry in Numbers (RIN) 2016 edition record label streaming revenue grew by 45% in 2015 reaching $2.9 billion, up from $1.9 billion in 2014. But even that number requires a little due diligence. The IFPI restates its historical numbers every year to reflect the current year’s exchange rates, which can, and does, overstate things. Indeed, a quick look at the 2015 edition of RIN shows that streaming revenue was reported as $2.2 billion for 2014. So on a non-adjusted basis (i.e. without restating the numbers) streaming revenue actually grew by 31%.

Spotify’s Contribution

31% is still impressive growth but the plot thickens when we factor in Spotify’s contribution to those label revenues. Spotify’s total royalty payments were $1.9 billion in 2015, of which around $1.4bn were label payments, and of those around $1.1 billion were royalty payments (i.e. minus advance payments such as Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) paid in anticipation of future growth). That $1.1 billion was up 85% from $610 million in 2014. As the IFPI numbers only represent payments in respect of actual royalties (i.e. minus advance payments) the Spotify label royalty payments can be considered as a share of that global total. That share was 39% of all label streaming revenue in 2015, up from 28% in 2014.

This results in 2 interesting points:

  1. Spotify’s share of the global music subscriber total was 35% in 2014 and 37% in 2015. So the label royalty payments over indexed in 2014 and under indexed in 2015. The fact that 2015 was a big year for heavily discounted promotional offers such as $1 for 3 months most probably plays a key role here.
  2. If we remove the Spotify label royalty payments from the equation, label payments from other streaming services grew by just 10% from $1.6 billion in 2014 to $1.8 billion in 2015. Not exactly the most robust of pictures for the wider streaming market place.

major label streaming

So much for 2015, let’s look at where we are now. All three major labels reported strong streaming growth in Q2 2016. Together they reported $918 million, up 51% from $607 in Q2 2015. That growth generated $311 million of new digital revenue. At the same time, and as a direct consequence, download revenue fell by 24% from $925 in Q2 2015 to $705 million. So streaming is now nearly as big as downloads were 12 months ago. The net increase in combined digital music revenue was $91 million, or a combined digital growth rate of 6%. Solid growth, but not far from treading water. This is a transition process, not a transformative growth process.

Universal Is The Big Streaming Winner

Each of the 3 majors had differing streaming experiences. Universal was the big winner, growing its share of major label streaming revenue from 38% in Q2 2015 to 42% in Q2 2016 (boosted more than other majors by ‘embedded’ independent label revenue). UMG’s streaming revenue grew by more than 60% while Sony and Warner grew by an average of 42%. However, it is important to note that UMG’s reported streaming numbers may be skewed more by currency restating than the other majors, so this share increase might be slightly on the high side.

Sony Music meanwhile lost share from 35% to 33% while Warner Music, which was most coy about its streaming revenue in its reporting, also saw a fall from 26% to 25%. Warner’s and Sony’s loss was Universal’s gain. An interesting side note: Sony was the only major that saw growth in physical music sales over the period. Yet more evidence of the Adele effect?

The Role Of Advanced Payments

But perhaps the most important element of the majors’ streaming reports is the difference between royalty payments (i.e. money earned for music streamed) and total streaming revenue (i.e. including advanced payments such as MRGs). Spotify states rights payments are 70% of its revenue though its 2015 accounts show royalty payments as 82% of revenue due in large part to advanced payments. Using this benchmark advanced payments represent around 16% of all label payments. Applying this to the label reported numbers we can extrapolate that $145 million of all major label streaming revenue is advanced payments.

Why does this matter? Because this is the major record label’s streaming reality distortion field. They get streaming revenue regardless of how well the marketplace actually performs. If a streaming service pays an MRG of $30 million but only earns $10 million the label still gets $30 million. So in that scenario the label’s view of that part of the streaming music market is 3 times better than it actually is. If the music service wins, the label wins, if the music service loses, the label still wins. This disconnect between how the market performs and how the label performs is one of the festering wounds of the streaming music market. And its revenue impact is massive. In fact, advanced label streaming payments were 158% of the $91 million that digital music revenue grew by in Q2 2016. Yes, that’s right, advanced streaming payments accounted for all of the digital music growth, and more.

Streaming Will Continue To Grow, But Haunted By Advanced Payments

So where does all this leave us? The streaming market is without doubt entering a phase of accelerating growth and is doing enough to counter the resulting decline in downloads to contribute to a combined total recorded music revenue growth of 4% for major labels in Q2 2016. But growth is not quite as stellar as the headline numbers would suggest, with the single most important factor being the impact of advanced payments distorting the bigger picture and crippling cash flow for streaming music services. Expect more impressive growth throughout the remainder of 2016 but also expect streaming music economics to continue to be fractured.

What Frank Ocean’s Bombastic Blond Moment Tells Us About The Future Of Artists And Labels

When frank-ocean-blond-compressed-0933daea-f052-40e5-85a4-35e07dac73dfFrank Ocean’s latest album ‘Blond’ dropped, it did so like a nuclear bomb, sending shockwaves throughout the music industry. In one of the audacious release strategies of recent years Ocean and his team at 360 fulfilled the final album contractual commitment to Universal Music by ushering his breaking-the-mold visual album ‘Endless’ onto Apple Music.  Featuring collaborations from the likes of Sampha and James Blake and set as a loose soundtrack to art house visuals, ‘Endless’ looked like the sort of digitally native, creative masterstroke that would win plaudits and awards in equal measure. But no sooner had Universal executives started daydreaming about Grammys then along came what turned out to be the ‘actual’ album ‘Blonde’, self released by Ocean (Universal contractual commitments now of course conveniently fulfilled) and, for now at least, exclusively available on Apple Music. You can just imagine seeing the blood drain from (Universal CEO) Lucian Grainge’s face as the full magnitude of what had just happened came into focus. In truth ‘audacious’ doesn’t even come close to explaining what Ocean pulled off, but where it gets really interesting is what this means for the future of artist careers.

Artist-Label Relationships Are Changing

Quickly sensing the potential implications, Grainge swiftly sent out a memo to Universal staff outlawing streaming exclusives…though voices from within Universal suggest that this diktat had been in the works for some time . A cynic might even argue that it was politically useful for Universal to be seen to be taking a strong stand ahead of the impending Vivendi earnings call. As the ever excellent Tim Ingham points out, in practice Universal could put a streaming exclusives moratorium in place and still have a good number of its front line artists put out streaming exclusives. This is because many of the deals these artists have are not traditional label deals where Universal owns all the rights. And that itself is as telling as Ocean’s bombastic blond moment. Not so much that Universal is probably the major with the highest amount of its revenue accounted for by licensed and distributed works, but that any label’s roster is now a complex and diverse mix of deal types. Artists are more empowered than ever before, and thanks to the innovation of label services companies and next generation music companies like Kobalt, labels have been forced to steal the disruptors’ clothing in order to remain competitive.

Streaming Exclusives Represent Another Option For Artists

Just as labels had started to successfully co-opt the label services marketplace by launching their own – e.g. Universal’s Caroline – or by buying up the competition – e.g. Sony’s acquisition of Essential Music & Marketing – along come streaming services giving artists another non-label route to market. In truth, the threat has remained largely unrealised. Exclusives on Tidal have most often proved to be laced with caveats and get out clauses (e.g. Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ arriving on iTunes 24 hours after landing ‘exclusively’ on Tidal). Chance The Rapper’s (in name only) mixtape ‘Colouring Book’ and Ocean’s ‘Blond’ are exceptions rather than the rule. So all that’s about to change now right? Not necessarily…

Album Releases Require More Time Than Apple Probably Has

As anyone who works in a label will tell you, releasing an album is typically a long, carefully planned process with many moving parts. It’s not something you do in a couple of weeks (Ocean started building the hype and expectation for his latest opus a year ago). If, for example, Apple was going to start doing exclusives routinely, even if it just did 20, that’s still a new exclusive to push every 2 weeks. That might work, at a stretch, for music service retailing promotional pushes but is far short of a fully fledged album release cycle. Which means that even for just 20 exclusives Apple would have an intricate mesh of overlapping release campaigns. This is something that labels do with their eyes closed but would it require new organizational disciplines for Apple. Not impossible, but not wholly likely either.

In practice, exclusives are likely to be limited to being the crown jewels of streaming services, their most valuable players, creative playmakers if you like. Even for Netflix, that pioneering exemplar of the streaming originals strategy, only spends 15% of its $3 billion content budget on originals and probably won’t break 20% even by 2020. What Apple and Netflix have in common is that they are using exclusives as a customer acquisition strategy, achieving their aims by making a big noise about each one. But if you’re releasing exclusives every week or two the shine soon wears off. And suddenly the return on investment diminishes.

Streaming Exclusives Are Unlikely To Turn Into A Flood

None of this means that we won’t see more artists striking streaming exclusives. We will, regardless of what labels may actually want to happen. And most of those will probably be on Apple – the service with bottomless pits masquerading as pockets. But the trickle will not turn into a flood, a fast flowing stream perhaps (see what I did there) but not a torrent.

Although they might not realise it yet, Kobalt might find themselves hurting more than the majors from this latest twist in the Exclusives Wars. Kobalt has probably done more than any single other music company to drive change in the traditional music industry in the last 5 years, showing artists and songwriters that there is another way of doing things. But Frank Ocean has just shown that there is now new another option for established artists looking for options at the end of a label deal.

Most importantly of all though, is that streaming exclusives (and indeed label services deals) work best when an artist has already established a brand and an audience. Most often that means after an artist has had a record label recording career. Apple cannot be relied upon to build anything more than a handful of artist brands. One of the founding myths of the web was that it was going to do away with labels and other traditional ‘gatekeepers’. Now, decades later, labels still account for the vast, vast, vast majority of music listening. Make no mistake, a momentous value chain shift is taking place, with more power and autonomy shifting to the creators, but that is a long journey and ‘Blond’ is but one part of this much bigger shift.

Introducing The Future Music Forum

fmf-sync-logoThis September MIDiA will be participating in the Future Music Forum (FMF) in Barcelona. We’ve been involved with the FMF since its inception and we think it’s a great, intimate event that combines forward thinking presentations with informal but highly productive networking. And of course it is in sunny Barcelona!

This year I’ll be doing the opening keynote: Music Rebooted: How Emerging Technologies And Gen Z Are Changing Music For Good. In this presentation I will be looking at how audiences are changing, talent is changing, content is changing, and all at an unprecedented rate. How what used to work doesn’t and what does work won’t in the future. Technologies as diverse as VR, Musical.ly and Snapchat are transforming what success looks like and writing new rules for success. So, just as you thought you were getting your head around how to make the economics of streaming work now you have to change the entire way you look at what music looks like and what it means to fans.

In addition, MIDiA’s Paid Content analyst Zach Fuller will be moderating a panel: Social Media Influencers / Music Industry’s New Talent Pipeline. In this panel Zach will lead a discussion exploring how millennial audiences now rely on social media platforms to capture their experiences, communicate with others, and find information used to make purchasing decisions (among other things). He’ll look at how marketing with social media influencers is one of the most cost-effective and powerful ways that brands can reach millions of consumers on Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube.

FMF runs from the 20th of September to the 21st, with an additional Synch Summit running alongside starting on the 19th. We hope to see you there.

Kanye West, Leonard Cohen And Death Of The Creative Full Stop

When Kanye West started tinkering with ‘The Life Of Pablo’ he triggered a minor maelstrom of chatter among the music business and his fans alike. From a month after the album had been made available exclusively on Tidal, Kanye started changing track names here, adding lines there, re-mastering here, giving guest vocalists more space there. Cynics might argue that the changes started to happen just after the Tidal free trial period ended for fans who’d signed up to access the album. But the changes carried on months after and doubtlessly will continue to do so. As intriguing as Kanye’s tampering may be though, the really surprising thing is its exceptionality – why in these digital days, where shelves of physical products are a dying breed, do 99.99% of artists and labels still allow themselves to be constrained by the straight jacket of the album, turning everything into a creative full stop?

The Long And Windy Road Of Hallelujah

imgres-5In his excellent podcast series ‘Revisionist History’, Malcolm Gladwell – he of ‘The Tipping Point’ – focuses one episode on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Nowadays ‘Hallelujah’ is widely recognized as a masterpiece but it went on an epic journey to acquire that status. ‘Hallelujah’ starts out as a mediocre track on a 1984 album ‘Various Positions’ that Cohen’s label CBS refused to release and is instead put out by indie Passport Records. The release, as Gladwell puts it, “barely makes a ripple”. The magic in the song was all but invisible at this stage. But Cohen doesn’t see that 1984 recording as the end of the story, in fact it is just the start. Over the following years playing live he tinkers, tampers and reworks ‘Hallelujah’, slowing it down, making it twice as long, changing verses and making it even darker.

Finally, John Cale sees Cohen playing a reworked version at a gig and there is enough magic in it to compel him to ask Cohen to send him the lyrics so he can record his own version. Cohen then faxed Cale fifteen pages of lyrics (reflecting just how much tinkering he had done) and Cale “went through and just picked out the cheeky verses.” His recording of ‘Hallelujah’ is the first of the song as the world knows it – in part because it ended up on Shrek. The magic is finally released, or as Gladwell puts it Cale “cracks the code of ‘Hallelujah’”.

imgres-6Cale’s version appears on an obscure Leonard Cohen tribute album put together by a French Music magazine ‘I’m Your Fan’ which by pure serendipity ends up in the CD collection of a woman who a certain Jeff Buckley is house sitting for. He hears Cale’s version, is blown away, and performs his take on Cale’s take. A Colombia A&R exec hears Buckley performing it, is equally blown away, signs him up and records it in what would prove to be Buckley’s only – but highly influential – 1994 studio album ‘Grace’. Buckley’s version becomes the defining version of ‘Hallelujah’ and connects it with the world.

The Pseudo-Permanence Of Mass Media Was A Historical Anomaly

‘Hallelujah’s tale may be an exceptional one yet it also applies to all songs. Singers and bands reworking old songs into their live performances is no new thing, they like to update the songs to make them match where they are now as people, performers and songwriters. But only rarely does that then translate into a new recorded version. And this is the problem with record media. It creates an entirely arbitrary creative full stop. This though, isn’t the natural state of things.

The pseudo-permanence of mass media is an artefact of the distribution era, of the time when people were conditioned to believe that everyone could own their favourite music, movies and TV shows for ever. But of course nothing last for ever, especially not recorded media. Vinyl scratches and warps, cassette tapes degrade, DVDs and CDs lose their reflective quality and crack. And then to compound matters, these physical formats die out as products. So the ‘permanence’ was only ever transient. Nonetheless it ossified the creative output.

imgres-7Until Edison invented the Phonograph in 1887, music, with the exception of the highly regimented genre classical music which was ossified in musical score – though reinterpreted by conductors, was an ever evolving thing. Folk songs morphed out of all recognition as they passed down the generations, jazz musicians would tear apart songs with their own interpretations, blues numbers would ebb and flow like the Mississippi delta with each subsequent interpretation. No one ‘owned’ the music in the moment and no one ‘knew’ the correct performance of it because there was no ‘correct’ official performance. Radio and the phonograph changed all that. But now, with streaming there is no need for this arbitrary ossification of music. Music can return to its living breathing roots rather than imitating a museum piece in a glass case.

Conceptual Innovation Versus Experimental Innovation

There is a very important cultural reason why the creative full stop needs consigning to the waste bin of history: it curtails creativity. In his podcast Gladwell outlines two key types of innovators:

  • Conceptual innovators: they’re the ones who create in an instant, and often burn bright and short. They’re the ones we most often think of as geniuses.
  • Experimental innovators: these are the ones who continually iterate, changing, tinkering, for ever looking to perfect their work.

Both groups have creative geniuses within them. Pablo Picasso was a conceptual innovator, bursting onto the scene and transforming the art world in an instant. Paul Cézanne though, an equally important artist from the same era, was entirely different, he would create endless different versions of paintings, often not finishing or even destroying them. He was on a continual journey of creative discovery, he was an experimental innovator.

Recorded media forces experimental innovators into the confines of conceptual innovators. Which means that so much great music was never allowed to find its true greatness, instead being bound to a recording long before it was ready to be. During his updates to ‘Life Of Pablo’ Kanye wrote “Fixing Wolves 2day… Worked on it for 3 weeks.”  He’s an experimental innovator, a perfectionist. The irony is that the album he continually hones is called ‘The Life Of Pablo’, which quite probably refers to that archetype of the conceptual innovator Picasso (Kanye even said once “My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso or greater.”). So a more appropriate name for the album would have been called ‘The Life Of Paul [Cézanne]’

Agile Music

images-1Back in 2011 I wrote a report entitled ‘Agile Music: Music Formats and Artist Creativity In The Age of Media Mass Customization’ – you can still download it for free here and you can watch my Midem keynote here. In it I made a case for bringing audiences into the creative process and for the death of the creative full stop; for music to become a living, breathing entity that artists can continually edit and evolve. Almost exactly 5 years on and virtually no one, Kanye obviously excepted, is doing this. Why? Because artists and labels still have static audio files as their reference points. Yet there is simply no need for this to be the case anymore. Sure, there has to be caution – if every single track changes all the time audiences would oscillate between apoplexy and utter confusion. But with moderation and clear context, Agile Music can reclaim music from the orthodoxy of the physical format that somehow still dictates the streaming environment. As more artists and labels embrace the approach, brace yourself for ‘Hallelujah’s becoming the norm not the exception.

Quick Take: Sony Music UK Buys Ministry Of Sound Recordings

Leading UK indie Ministry of Sound Recordings today announced its sale to Sony Music UK. While this is undoubtedly another case of a big major swallowing up a smaller indie, there is a much more important angle to this – surviving in the streaming era. Ministry of Sound is unusual in that it is a label with a relatively small catalogue, instead its business is built around compilations. In doing so it has built an incredibly robust and profitable business. No mean feat in the current climate. But Ministry’s core strength has also become an Achilles Heel with the onset of streaming.

Ministry licenses music from other labels to build its compilations. This approach works well in a sales model where proceeds are split between the respective parties. But in the context of streaming, any money generated by plays of tracks on a compilation go to the label that owns the track not to the label that curated the compilation. This is why Ministry compilations have been conspicuously absent from streaming services and it is also why Ministry ended up in conflict with Spotify when the streaming service initially refused to take down user playlists that replicated Ministry compilations and that used Ministry artwork.

At the time, the Spotify case raised the still-to-be-answered question of just how much curation is actually worth. Spotify and Ministry settled their differences but the underlying economics remain, and meanwhile Spotify also upped its curation game. Ministry thus faced the double whammy of increased curatorial competition and an inability to make streaming pay. Enter stage left, Sony Music.

With its co-owned Now brand, Sony is as good a fit as Ministry could find in a major. Sony for their part are getting one the most valuable compilation brands and immediate dance music culture credibility. Sony also has big digital plans for Now, which Ministry will no doubt slot into nicely. On top of this, because Sony own so much catalogue themselves, they can make the economics of compilations work in the streaming environment.

The fact that 25% of music subscribers still buy compilation albums show that however a good job streaming playlists might be doing, there remains a big demand for compilations, even within the core of streaming music aficionados. Curated playlists will continue to gain importance but compilations are going to live alongside them for a good long time to come. And all the while the distinction between what constitutes a playlist and a compilation will continue to blur.