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.

12 thoughts on “Music Industry: ‘Product’ Isn’t a Dirty Word

  1. I agree with you, Mark. Those that want to argue the semantics of music as a product need to get a grip.

    The successful folk have more sense to know that semantics is a tool for communication

  2. i agree..there’s no point in having a hang up over words like*product*,but at the same time i’m all for artists or songwriters, or whatever you want to call them, reaching for a different term,if only in the name of style… i’ve witnessed ones keenly overuse terms like *product* or*industry*,and they often come over a bit steely for it…….in the end on matter what the artist calls the work,the big question will always remain…IS IT ANY GOOD?.

  3. I agree also and noticed the same thing a while ago. I wrote a piece about music itself not being ‘the product’ and that distinguishing the two could make it much easier to build business models ( It got all kinds of odd ‘counterarguments’. My point was that music = content, and from a marketing and concept development perspective, what is actually being sold is products that are developed around content (carriers, subscriptions, merchandise, tickets to live shows, etc).

    I think ‘product’ is very ill-defined and a very confusing concept to grab for most in the business… and thus making it an essential topic to discuss and think about.

  4. I think its worth pointing out that to a musician their work, the music, is not a product – it’s art. Its only a product to those who are doing the selling i.e. the record labels, marketeers, etc (though musicians are increasingly expected to take on this role as well). It’s the job of the industry to turn music into a product, not the artist, not just in terms of the means of selling, but creating something worth selling in the first place.

    We have better tools to turn out better and more innovative recordings than ever before, and critically, this can be done much, much cheaper. What is needed is an investment in expertise. We need to invest in young and forward thinking producers and studio engineers as well as investing more in artists at the beginning of their careers – who are increasingly expected to do all the hard work of marketing themselves as well as record, produce and sell their own records – things that they traditionally don’t do best.

    You are absolutely right that a more forward thinking approach to selling music is required, but without something new and exciting to sell its hard to see it making a difference, particularly here in the UK where both the industry and government have underinvested in innovation in the art of music for so long.

  5. Pingback: Music Industry: ‘Product’ Isn’t a Dirty Word | That Eric Alper

  6. Some of this uneasiness may boil down to many musicians simply not understanding business and marketing. If they did, it\’s easy to see there\’s nothing inherently evil about a product. People need money to buy food and they get this money by selling products. Musician needs food too.

    It would be interesting is to see how many musicians out there who take offense to calling their music a product are merely copying the sound of commercially successful bands in an effort to become rich and famous? (by selling products)

  7. We certainly seem to have some consensus emerging here in the comments. We all seem to agree that the music artists create is not product. That is creativity, art, whatever you feel most comfortable calling it. But the stuff that people buy *is* product, whether that be a CD from a supermarket or a personal gig in your front room that you pledged for on Pledge Music. I agree completely with Bas’ view that there is a need for artists to recognize that the music itself is the foundation stone for products rather than the product itself. That view actually strengthens the integrity of music, not weakens it, because music is the art not the product. The product bit is what labels, device co’s, developers etc earn their crust building around it.

  8. Sandie Shaw on Radio 4 this morning would appear to disagree. She said ‘The music business used to call us ‘product’, now they call us ‘content.’

  9. She was actually one of the two unnamed people I was referring. At the conference she argued music had nothing to do with product and then went onto explain that digital services don’t yet deliver the same great experience as CD and vinyl. Which of course is all about product!

    I think some artists get mixed up between the music itself being product and the vehicle in which it is delivered to fans. The history of mass media music (i.e. since the invention of the phonograph) has all been about product. That doesn’t make the music itself product. But the way it gets to music fans is. And any artist that doesn’t like that shouldn’t ever release music onto any format. Because every single format is a product.

    It may only be semantics, but those artists who speak disdainfully of product are either willfully ignoring the realities of their business or are naive.

    As for ‘content’ – my favourite quote on this comes from Andrew Lloyd Weber in a submission ot the House of Lords:
    “The fine wines of France are not merely content for the glass manufacturing business”

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