SEVEN (MORE) LESSONS FOR LONGEVITY IN TODAY’S MUSIC BUSINESS

This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Keith Jopling in which he dives into some of the key insights he has gleaned from talking to artists as part of his side-hustle ‘Art of Longevity’ podcast (which you should check out if you haven’t already done so!)

This year I had the pleasure of working with one of the greatest songwriters in history. Bjorn Ulvaes commissioned MIDiA to produce the report ‘Rebalancing the Song Economy’ at a time when the UK government was making a formal inquiry into the economics of music streaming. Bjorn was amazingly articulate (of course he was, check out his ABBA lyrics) on the challenges for songwriters today, but one thing he said really haunted me. During the press interviews (and in his Ted Talk) Bjorn told the world “I don’t think ABBA would have made it today”. Imagine if ABBA hadn’t ever broken out of Sweden?


Meanwhile, as part of the UK inquiry, another great lyricist, Elbow singer Guy Garvey, eloquently told MPs “If musicians can’t afford to pay the rent… we haven’t got tomorrow’s music in place.”


This concern about the artists of today not replenishing those of the past is one of the reasons I have become fascinated with longevity in today’s music business. Longevity has to be the primary goal for any serious artist, yet achieving it in today’s music business means working miracles. The volume of music and the number of artists creating and releasing it makes today’s ‘market’ ultra competitive.


The Art of Longevity podcast is now two seasons in and I’m becoming even more fascinated by how music artists can continue to succeed despite the music industry constantly shifting around them.


What I’ve discovered this time around is that there is no ‘mainstream’ music industry to aspire to at all (something that has changed since Elbow first gained real success with their fourth album ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ in 2008). Chart success for example, does not equate to being in the mainstream. These days most establishes bands can focus their efforts and get a number one or two album but a week later, the world has moved on. Most artists understand this. Success is a relative term best defined by you – the artist – on your terms and no one else’s.


My guests in season 2 were: KT Tunstall, Ed Robertson (of Canadian legends Barenaked Ladies), Fin Greenhall (Fink), Los Lobos, Mew and Portico Quartet. Between them they have amassed 150 years of commercial and creative viability and they are all still going strong – perhaps stronger than ever. The seven lessons learned from my conversations with them are:

  1. HAVE THE CONFIDENCE TO DISRUPT YOURSELF BEFORE THE INDUSTRY DISRUPTS YOU
    The mainstream no longer exists but in the 80s it sure did and in 1987 LA rock band Los Lobos discovered it by accident. Their cover of Richie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’ (the theme song to a surprise hit movie by a first-time director with a largely unknown cast) became a smash number one hit in a dozen countries. How do you follow that? With an album of traditional Mexican music of course! Thing is, Los Lobos knew how much of a fluke La Bamba was for them and that they had little chance of successfully repeating it. So they didn’t try or let anyone convince them it was a good idea.

    When the Danish rock band Mew first had breakthrough international success with their 2003 album ‘Frengers’, they had arrived in a place most bands (especially from non-English speaking markets) dream of: signed to a UK major label and on a European tour with R.E.M. Their next record wasn’t a mainstream follow-up to Frengers however but an ambitious indie-rock opera – a nod to progressive rock that no other band (on a major label) dared make in 2005. The band never entertained any notion of building on the success of Frengers with a more mainstream record. Yet the dramatic and complex follow-up album became a classic and a fan favourite, and ended up presenting the band with its only number one single in their home country, ‘The Zookeeper’s Boy’.
  2. WELCOME IN THOSE LITTLE DETAILS THAT MIGHT CHANGE YOUR DESTINY AKA TRUST YOUR STUDIO TEAM
    Back in 1992, the Barenaked Ladies song ‘One Week’ finally broke the band in the USA and brought them international fame too. Although Ed Robertson had written the song and taken lead vocals duty (including that famous dexterous rap) Ed thought the idea of the record label, to make One Week the lead single for their new album, to be a joke. Then, the record’s producer (Susan Rogers) suggested the drum loop “wasn’t very cool”. Because of Susan’s input, the band changed the drums, a tweak which transformed the song and in effect, the band’s entire future. You need to be receptive to those little suggestions, accidents and tweaks that might turn out to be pivotal.

    That same year (1992 was a good one it seems) when Los Lobos hauled themselves into a downtown LA studio with six new songs and teamed up with producer/engineer partners Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, the band was exhausted from the previous album and gruelling tour. Yet out of these sessions came the album Kiko, the band’s first genuine masterpiece. Steve Berlin of Los Lobos told me it was by tiny details that Froom and Blake were able to elicit a performance from the band that made the difference:
    “Tchad (Blake) could even take the mistakes and turn them into something that sounded genius. When we got together and listened to the record in sequence, we were all stunned”.
    It was the beginning of a decade of innovation that the team of Mitchell & Blake brought to recording production for Lobos and many other artists. Many of their now highly sought after sounds are available commercially as samples. Those producers and engineers really do make careers.
  3. EARN THE RIGHT TO SAY ‘NO’ AND RECOGNISE WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOUR CAREER
    After Fink made ‘Perfect Darkness’ (album number four) the band had earned the right to say “no”. No to playing small shitty venues. No to rushing out a follow-up record. No to some (of the many) sync offers that came rushing in. It was at that point, after seven years of saying yes to everything, that the band began to realise they had created something of real viability and were in it for the long game. They hadn’t hit ‘the big time’ (that might come later) but they earned the right to make their choices, including ‘no’.
    After the phenomenal success of her debut album ‘Eye to The Telescope’, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall began to feel the pressure from her label to “make another one of those”. In fact, KT began to get the feeling she was picking up a reputation for being “difficult” because she did not want to just repeat her debut. KT was hardly the first woman in this situation and she won’t be the last but, she stuck to her guns. Firstly, how would that be even possible when her debut was a decade or more in the making? KT had to navigate multiple challenges: make the sophomore record she wanted to make and fight off the insistence that she fit the mould of ‘female singer-songwriter’ that had become popular at the time (ironically down in part to KT’s success). In the end, her second album was a somewhat compromised product, with good songs but too much pop polish.
    Be ready to turn down what doesn’t feel right for you, even if those around you think it is.
  4. BE YOUR OWN COTTAGE INDUSTRY
    A common pattern with artists that have achieved longevity is that they tend to get started under their own steam. One of the best things about how the music industry has been transformed by technology, is that you can simply upload your songs onto the platforms and get working your socials, hard. However, is this really just the modern equivalent of the field of dreams approach? Build it and they will come…
    In reality it’s much harder of course. Many of the artists I’ve spoken with on The Art of Longevity gained early success without relying on any institutions at all – neither media or technology. Instead they have literally taken matters into their own hands. So often this is because those artists believe they are destined to make a career in music – maybe because they don’t feel they could do anything else.
    Portico Quartet spent their early years busking along London’s SouthBank. I bought a copy of the band’s very first, self-pressed four-track CD for £5, one of 10,000 sold. Recently the band’s saxophone player Jack Wylie told me:
    “We’d go off to buy big stacks of blank CDs at Maplins and we bought this burner machine that could do eight at a time. I think we managed to do 200-250 a day. As a student, it meant we could make a living without working in a bar”.
    When I ask artists what advice they might pass on to those artists starting out now, most are pretty vexed (what do you say?). So much of success in music is still down to luck. But the point is, you need to make your own luck. With those SouthBank busking sessions, home CD burner factory and the Hang drum, Portico Quartet created enough word of mouth to amass an early dedicated following thousands strong. What followed was a Mercury Prize nomination and so far, an 8 album career.
  5. TAKE YOUR TIME
    British indie wonders Alt-J took 2019 off from music altogether. Their prodigious drummer Thom Sonny Green was recently asked by The Observer if he worried they would be forgotten about. He admitted that he “thought about it every day”. In this day & age FOMO drives everything. The creator equivalent is ‘FOBF’: fear of being forgotten.
    But FOBF doesn’t bother Adele. And it doesn’t bother Jonas Bjerre of Mew. Over 25 years Mew has made seven studio albums which is one every four years. That’s not something Spotify would advocate as an operating model for bands these days, is it? But the truth is – there is no point racing your way to the front of an endless rush of music. The pandemic showed the true colours of many artists. Some quietly went away and took time out to work on their craft or take a break, while others couldn’t drag themselves away from social media and online duets. You cannot make memorable songs by fidgeting and frittering away ‘content’. Well you can, but the more confident way through is to quietly focus on your art. The fans will welcome you back long after the ‘followers’ have forgotten you existed.
  6. HAVE OTHER PURSUITS OF MEANING OUTSIDE OF YOUR MAIN MUSIC VEHICLE
    In life there are four elements: work, family, relationships and you – and a balance has to be achieved. Artists struggle with this balance. Between the intensity of writing and recording and the hard graft of touring, the obsessive element to being a musician makes work-life balance impossible. When bands achieve ‘fame’ (the ‘stratospheric rise to the top’ phase of Brett Andersen’s longevity curve) balance goes out the window altogether. Everything is work hard, play hard and burn out. Some band’s take to it and others don’t but for a while, everything looks amazing – records in the charts, video shoots, press interviews, international travel and a different hotel every night. The rock & roll lifestyle still exists, but expect it to last and you will be heading straight for the crash.

    As Ed Robertson told me: “The best part of the roller-coaster is the ride back down”. Jonas Bjerre of Mew makes videos, film scores and many other types of visual art. KT Tunstall took time out to make film scores (attending Stephen Spielberg’s school to learn the art) and musicals. In this day and age, you need more than just your album-touring cycle to engage your fan base anyhow, so you can invite them in on your other creative projects too. What matters is that you make the time to regenerate, make the art you need to make and that you keep in touch with your fans. Everything comes back around.
  7. GET EVEN BETTER LIVE (AND STREAM IT)
    Yes, it comes back to live once again. Without exception all of the artists so far I’ve spoken with for The Art of Longevity have honed the craft of performance. But the emergence of live streaming has meant a new way to connect with your audience and practice the art of performing music that way, without having to submit fully to a life on the road. Live streaming presents a new way to be creative and to connect with your most loyal fans. It’s a different experience to the visceral contact of a real life show, but the format is here to stay so invent another aspect to your ‘brand’.

    The first seven secrets to longevity are on the Song Sommelier blog. The Season 1&2 archive for the Art of Longevity is on the podcast page

Tribes are the future of fandom (and that may or may not be a good thing)

At MIDiA, we spend a lot of time exploring the fan economy and how new forms of fandom are redefining media businesses. The most significant underlying dynamic is the fragmentation of fandom: the dynamic whereby we move ever further from mass-reach media, where everyone is exposed to the same content, to a world where entertainment exists in a complex mesh of filter bubbles. Niche becomes the new mainstream. Whereas, as Asian entertainment companies have become adept at industrialising fandom in this new paradigm, Western companies are less so. In music, big record labels still have a mindset of wanting to create mainstream, global hits. But the fandom playbook is changing. Global success now depends less on how wide your message can reach, and more on how deep it can go. Mass reach is becoming superseded by conversion, and mainstream is become replaced by tribes.

What do Donald Trump and tribal fanbases have in common?

Tribalism is, for better or for worse, central to how humanity functions, and, of course, underpins millennia of armed conflict. How tribalism can manifest among strident fanbases is simply a lighter shade of the same dynamic that can send countries to war, part of the same sliding scale on which Trump operated. In fact, the tactics of the Trump movement often bore more resemblance to those used by K-pop acts than those used by political opponents.

Just like a contemporary, always-on artist, Trump fed his audience with an immense amount of content, access and engagement, and even did a live national tour. Like some of the most tribal of music fanbases, Trump nurtured a sense of otherness among his supporters – it is them against the world and the system is rigged against them. There is perhaps no better way of strengthening a tribe’s sense of oneness than strengthening its sense of otherness.

Tribalism and the role of us-vs-them

Fandom trades on basic human instincts and psychology, particularly two of the ‘deficiency needs’ in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needsbelonging and esteem (political fandom also trades on a third need: safety). Any kind of fandom depends on people feeling like they are a part of something, and how that something plays a role in identifying who they are. Tribal fandom takes this one step further, distilling this shared identity to an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality. Fans become focused on identifying, not just what makes them, well, them, but also what makes the rest of the world…not them. At its worst, that can be used by politicians, like Trump, to stoke fear against immigrants, liberals, people of colour, or basically anyone that is not part of their tribe. In less severe forms, it can manifest as artist fanbases mobilising en masse on social platforms against something they do not like. The sense of oneness, defined against the otherness of the rest, enables them to feel like the establishment is against them, even when they become the establishment, whether that be becoming the political party in power or the band that sets YouTube streaming records.

This flavour of tribal fandom has been made possible by social media and the broader way in which it facilitates online conversation. Often, social media facilitates a hyper-defensive style of discourse, with the loudest voices winning out, even if they are not the majority. Indeed, the fragmentation of fandom means that the whole concept of ‘majorities’ are becoming a thing of the past. In a political and business environment, now defined by the claims of the Facebook whistle blower, Frances Haugen, there is a growing understanding that a recalibration of social media is required, and ideally before Facebook Meta simply migrates social into the metaverse, warts and all. 

Fandom’s industrial revolution

But there is also vast positive opportunity within tribal fandom. As Chartmetric identifies, what sets K-pop artists from big Western artists is that they convert the vast majority of their audience into fans. There is little wastage. By contrast, big Western artists often have bigger total audiences, but a much smaller share that are ‘fans’, e.g., artist follower and active listener counts. This is simply taking Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans conceptand recreating it on an industrial scale. In fact, you could argue that we are entering fandom’s industrial revolution phase. As this epoch plays out, the most effective marketing and monetisation across all forms of entertainment will be that which focuses on tightly defined tribes, rather than mass market reach. The shift from cultural moments to cultural movements is only just beginning. Politics (e.g., Trump and the Brexit campaign) have learned the tricks well, as has a select group of entertainment companies (e.g., Netflix and Big Hit Music). The coming years will be shaped by everyone else playing catch up.

Adele is Bond and BTS is Squid Game

When Spotify announced that Adele had broken the record for the most streams in one day, with 19.8 million streams, the caveat was that this was true as long as you do not include all of the streams BTS had accumulated in 24 hours for ‘Butter’ in May. ‘Butter’ racked up 20.9 million streams, but 10 million were wiped from the record for ineligibility, thus only counting the first 10 plays per user in any given 24-hour period. While the caveat makes sense from the perspective of countering chart manipulation, it also raises fundamental questions about just how we measure success and whether, what are fundamentally subjective definitions, discriminate, intentionally or otherwise, against certain types of fans and music.

Fandom is fragmenting

We are living in the age of fragmented fandom where niche can feel mainstream, and mainstream can feel niche. Central to this is the shift from cultural moments to cultural movements. In the old, mass media world, most people experienced the same TV shows, movies and songs, with mainstream media promoting a relatively narrow selection of titles to the majority of the population. Now, audiences are fragmented and marketing is more targeted. So, it is possible for something to feel entirely mainstream to the target audience, even though it may not even register for the majority of the population. Whereas big, old-school releases resulted in water cooler, cultural moments. Successful niches become cultural movements, driving sustained engagement and cultural capital among their respective audiences. 

Bond vs Squid Game

Nowhere is this seen better than in the successes of Squid Game and James Bond’s No Time to Die*Bondwas the cultural moment, with wall-to-wall mainstream media support and is close to crossing $500 million in box office receipts. Squid game is Netflix’s most successful show to date with 132 million viewers, but was only watched by a minority of the total population in most countries. Nonetheless, it has become a cultural movement, seeping across popular culture via memes, social posts, fan content and so forth. Bond’s box office receipts translate into about 25-35 million viewers, while Squid Game is estimated to be worth around $900 million to Netflix. Bond was the global cultural moment, but was actually smaller on all counts than the less ‘traditional’ mainstream Squid Game.

A similar dynamic is at play when comparing BTS’ Butter with Adele’s Easy on MeEasy on Me was the cultural moment, with the massive initial wave of listening soon dropping off, while Butter was a cultural movement, which sustained throughout the first 6 days of release at pretty much the same level. Adele was Bond, while BTS was Squid Game – perhaps no coincidence that their nationalities match too. 

Adele was still the bigger success, but only if measured by the way the music industry wants it to be measured, i.e., discounting all those extra BTS Army plays. But what if a 13-year-old BTS fan simply wants to listen to the track 20 times in a day because they love it so much, while an older Adele fan listens to her tune a couple of times in the evening after work? The way we measure success inherently suggests the former behaviour is invalid, while the latter is more valid. The system favours casual listening over super-engaged listening. Listen, I am fully aware that the BTS Army is renowned for caning BTS tracks 24-hours a day in their thousands. But the risk is that the baby is getting thrown out with the bathwater.

Converting success metrics

So, why does this all matter to music? Quite simply because, just as in the TV and film industry, traditional metrics are still used to measure success – even if the old units of measurement have progressively less relevance. Music charts especially so. Since the advent of music downloads, the music industry has continually revised its definitions for ‘sales’ in order to try to make the old ‘cultural event’ measures work for a world that is increasingly shaped by cultural movements. The industry and media both like being able to talk about ‘sales’ and platinum releases – it is convenient short hand. But, if a platinum certification from 2021 is not equivalent to one from 1991 then does it really serve any purpose?

All of this would be a minor inconvenience if it were simply a ‘currency exchange’ issue, e.g., understanding what a million sales in 2021 was versus 2020. But it is not just that. The current measurement frameworks are biased towards artists that fit better in the traditional artist model than the new, emerging one. Including all BTS Army plays is probably as wrong an answer as discounting half of them. But a solution does need to be found, one that better captures the impact of a song on its fans. Perhaps a blend of measures that incorporate number of listeners, number of listens per listener, and total number of listens. (Also, there is a strong case for treating lean-back plays differently than lean-in plays – both in terms of charts and royalties). Each measure would be useful in its own right, which implies there may not be a single measure anymore. But, given the fragmentation of fandom and the growing diversity of fan behaviour, that is probably not a bad thing. The days of trying to measure every artist and every release by the same metrics will eventually become a thing of the past, however inconvenient that may be.

*Why did James Bond go grey? No time to dye…

Adele’s success will be measured in cultural impact – not sales

Adele is something of an anomaly in the modern music business, a throwback to how things used to be. These days even the biggest artists struggle to get mainstream attention for their new releases in a flooded market that is defined by more releases than ever before, and the ‘always on’ artist who is continually releasing new music and talking to their audience. Adele, though, follows the old model of landmark releases every half a decade and, up to now, she has managed to make it work by creating a cultural zeitgeist that the world opts into at scale. But the world has moved on a lot since her 2015 release, 25, and the nagging question is whether she can do it again with 30 in the much-changed music world.

Adele’s album releases act as chapter markers for the evolution of the recorded music market. Back in 2008, when 19 was released, it was still a sales (physical and downloads) and album dominated world. 90% of global revenues were from sales, while streaming was just 2%. With each half-decade release, the music world had moved on. Indeed, it could be argued that the biggest risk was with 25 in 2015, when streaming was already more than a fifth of revenues, and physical sales had fallen by 44% from 2008. Yet the album still managed to rack up 22 million sales and, in turn, became one of the biggest selling albums of the millennium. Adele bucked the prevailing industry trends.

Streaming does not favour albums

Fast forward to 2021 and the world has shifted even further, with 65% of revenues coming from streaming, and sales accounting for just a quarter. This is a dramatically different music world from the one in which 25 was released. Streaming will be the main way in which success is measured. Yet, just 15% of people listen to full albums on streaming services, so either Adele pulls an Ed Sheeran and has her entire album dominate the most streamed song charts (a possibility, but not a probability), or she has a few really big songs that rack up big streaming numbers. And to do that, she has to perform like a streaming-era artist.

Competing with streaming-era artists

Right now, Adele has two songs on Spotify with a billion streams. Compare this with Travis Scott who has three songs, two of which are more than 1.5 billion. Or Ed Sheeran, who has five songs, one of which is about to hit three billion (Shape of You). Heck, even Marshmello has three one billion stream tracks, of which one has 1.5 billion. No offence to Marshmello, but Adele will be expecting to have bigger cultural impact than him. It should be achievable (assuming that the music is strong enough), if for no other reason than the fact that there are three quarters of a billion more people streaming than in 2015.

Cultural impact will be the truest measure of success

But even if she does catch up on streaming figures, that probably is not how we should measure Adele’s success. In today’s world of fragmented fandom, fandom is defined by cultural movements rather than cultural moments. This is a dynamic that is intensified by the fact that media is also far more fragmented. Audiences are spread more thinly across a much wider range of platforms, shows and apps. It is simply much harder to create cultural moments. But that is exactly what Adele’s team will be planning to do. And given the current media buzz, she looks on track to do so once again, supported, as ever, by a simple but clever marketing campaign.

Recently, Adele has become much more visible, using Instagram and Facebook Live, pushing herself back into the public consciousness and even playing into meme culture. Beyond the music itself, it will be the continued use of social media, coupled with meeting the eager demand of traditional media that will determine whether 30 can become the sort of cultural phenomenon that 21 and 25 were. The fact that she still sings from the heart and is so relatable gives her an authenticity that is so often thin on the ground with today’s pop stars.

Creating a cultural moment

So, the success of 30 will probably be best measured in terms of whether there is a genuine cultural moment. In short, how long will Adele’s music and her team be able to maintain global interest and relevance? Success may be more about whether, two months down the line, we still have memes flooding TikTok and James Corden doing skits. This will say as much about how the world is responding to her music than how many streams she clocks up. And, of course, I have not even mentioned sales – not by accident. These metrics are just not going to be the way to gauge her success anymore (even considering the industry’s obsession with artificially boosted ‘sales’ figures with ‘sales equivalent streams’).

Adele has always been something of an anomaly, finding success through the power of her music rather than by playing whatever the latest marketing game is. Of course, expect every contemporary marketing card to be played (especially TikTok). But it will be through cultural impact, not streams, that we will truly understand how loudly her music still speaks.

Did July 1st 2019 mark the end of Spotify’s music creator dream?

On July 1st 2019, Spotify announced that it was closing its system that allowed artists to upload their music directly to Spotify. The move came in the wake of fierce opposition from record labels who had let Spotify know, in no uncertain terms, that they were not going to let it compete directly against them. They were not about to let their partner disintermediate them. When Spotify launched its artists direct tool, moves had been made on the heels of its 2017 Cloud DAW and collaboration tool, Soundtrap, and formed part of a clear strategy of becoming a music creator powerhouse. Even after the label enforced volte-face, Spotify additionally acquired music skills marketplace, SoundBetter, in September 2019. But now, with news emerging that Spotify has just sold SoundBetter back to its founders, it is beginning to look like the strategy was already dead in the water before the original deal.

The future of what music companies will be

Spotify’s music creator strategy was both bold and sound. It was making a bet that the music companies of the future would not simply be on the business of recording and releasing signed artists, but would instead participate in the creation of music further up the chain – just like they currently participate in distribution further up the chain. The assumption remains valid and, indeed, there is much to see in the market today to point to a future where the distinctions are blurring between what is a label, distribution platform, creator tool or streaming service. BandLab is most of those things (with 30 million people signed up to its platform), while AVID (maker of ProTools) launched distribution last year, as did Canadian creator tools company LANDR. The value chain shifts are happening. But not only that, 2020 started the unprecedented process of large institutional investment into creator tools companies, such as Native Instruments, Splice, Output and iZoptope. The creator tools space is white hot. So why is Spotify backing away?

Podcasts get the attention

The answer probably lies in focus. When the labels pushed back against Spotify’s artist ambitions, Spotify had to find a new big bet, which was – of course – podcasts. Since that point, Spotify has focused its investments, with a raft of acquisitions of both companies and talent. It even rebranded its creator strategy to encompass podcasters. The sale of SoundBetter is a clear implication that podcasters are now the centre piece of Spotify’s creator strategy.

A return could still be on the cards

Spotify can still be, and may yet be, a powerhouse for music creators. But, for now, podcasts are where the energies are focused. Besides, the sheer volume of creator tools M+A activity is such that Spotify may well feel that it would not be able to get good value for money if it was to go on an acquisition spree. Perhaps Spotify will return to the space 3-7 years from now. That will be when the current private equity owners have finished building up their acquisitions and start looking to sell them, enhanced and transformed for the new market dynamics. It will also be when Spotify may feel powerful enough to take on the labels again.

Whatever the longer-term future may hold, right now SoundBetter returns to the market as the sort of tool that encapsulates what the next wave of creation is all about, and it may feel that it can now finally deliver on its initial promise.

Live streaming’s second growth phase

Live streaming erupted in 2020 in the wake of the pandemic. As the year progressed, the market transformed rapidly from a bunch of bands playing guitar in their bedrooms to highly produced, ticketed shows with tens of thousands of viewers. New companies flashed into existence while older ones dusted of their websites and rode the new wave of demand and enthusiasm. Everything was going great – and then along came real life. COVID restrictions began to ease, vaccination rates rose and real life concerts were back. It almost did not matter that they were not yet back in full effect, because even a gradual return had caught the imagination of artists and their managers. Suddenly, the prospect of looking their fans in the eyes made sulking in front of a camera in an empty venue seem a whole lot less appealing. With the sting taken out if its tail, it would be easy to imagine the live stream sector going back into its pre-COVID shell. But it has not. Instead, the sector is laying foundations for longer term growth, as shown this week by Deezer’s investment in Driift, and Dice’s acquisition of Boiler Room.

Competition from IRL

Revenue from ticketed live stream concerts surpassed $600 million in 2020, and the market trajectory in Q4 20, combined with the pandemic outlook, suggested that the market was going to push on past $2 billion in 2021. But with IRL concerts and festivals making their comeback, the number of ticketed live stream concerts slowed in Q1 21 and only started meaningfully picking up again mid-way through Q2 21. Also, average ticket prices started to come down, likely in response to softening demand among audiences who were eagerly anticipating real concerts once more. Live streamed concert audience penetration stopped growing in Q2 21, but retains a solid base (as the data in a forthcoming MIDiA report shows). But IRL was always more likely rather than less likely to come back, so live streamed concerts were always going to have to plan for a hybrid future (by which I mean both hybrid concerts and co-existing alongside IRL concerts). If there was a surprise, it was just how quickly artists were willing to jump the live stream ship. 

The hype cycle

If 2020 was the Peak of Inflated Expectations in the hype cycle and the start of 2021 was the Trough of Disillusionment, then we are now in the period of slow, steady consolidation, where the real market is built out of the rubble of over-zealous hype. With so many investments made in 2020, there was always going to be a consolidation opportunity for those players with a sound, longer-term view. Mandolin, widely acclaimed during 2020, recently acquired indie focused platform NoonChorus. Then, this week, the next-gen ticketing platform, Dice, acquired long running dance music live platform Boiler Room.

Consolidation

While Mandolin’s move was straightforward consolidation, Dice’s is more disruptive. 2020 catalysed growth for Dice, with a neat positioning as an alternative to the big traditional ticketing companies that empowers venues with more control, as well as being the ticketing company of choice for many live stream concert providers. But with the acquisition of Boiler Room, Dice has just taken a leaf out of the playbook of the big, traditional ticketing companies – expanding across the value chain. However, as much as Dice will try to position the move as otherwise, it is now competing directly with many of its clients. Other next-gen ticketing companies focused on live streaming could be forgiven for seeing this as a great opportunity to differentiate and compete.

Investment

‘Value chain creep’ was already a defining feature of the live streaming vendor space in 2020, with many companies attempting to do multiple parts of the process rather than specialising. This looks great in investor presentation, but for artists and managers, it simply replaces the old boss with a new boss who looks just like the old boss. A number of companies forged a different path, focusing instead on producing high quality shows for artists. One such company was Driift, which this week received a strategic investment from Deezer, that had already previously invested in DREAMSTAGE. Deezer’s moves reflect an understanding that audio streaming and live streaming represent a strong overlap opportunity. Indeed, Deezer WAUs are more likely to watch live streamed concerts than other music service WAUs.

Long term, steady growth

2021 will go down as the year of adjustment for live streaming, following a year of exceptional circumstances in 2020. COVID catalysed secular growth but boosted figures higher than the natural level of the market at this early stage. The coming years will be characterised by steady continued growth, with hybrid and ‘pandemic proof’ solutions for venues, such as Live Nation fitting 60+ venues with Veeps capabilities. The live music sector did not experience the dramatic transformation wrought by streaming. Instead, the sector had to wait for the pandemic’s impact and the resultant COVID bounce for live streaming. Expect more investments and more consolidation as this market begins to set itself up for long-term, organic growth. 

Kanye just obliterated the creative full stop

Kanye just obliterated the creative full stop 

Kanye West knows how to stir things up, not least in making us rethink what music is and nudging us away from considering it as linear and static. First there was his announcement that Life of Pablo was a “living, breathing, changing creative expression”, and now there is his Donda Stem Player – which we wrote about here last week. Transformational change does not normally happen in one big wave, but instead is triggered by disruptive outliers, things that, at the time, might look like inconsequential edge cases, but act as the ice breakers for the paradigm shift that follows. Digital entertainment in its wider sense is entering its lean inphase, where audiences participate with content, whether that be simply commenting on a YouTube video or creating your own TikTok video. Given simple but powerful tools, it turns out that the consumers like to be creators too. First it was pictures and video, but now it is audio’s turn, and Kanye’s Donda Stem Player could prove to be a pivotal step in that journey.

Formats do not need to be how they have always been

The future always looks much more like the past. The Model T Ford looked more like a horseless cart than it did a 1950’s car. Change takes time. Digital entertainment business models have undergone dramatic change, but the content itself much less so. We think of TV shows, movies and music as being clearly defined things that have always been thus, but, in truth, they were defined by analogue technology in the 19th century. Now that linear TV schedules, radio and CD players are entering their final phases, there is no need for the traditional formats to continue to dominate. Creatives who argue that a 45-minute drama and 3.5-minute song are simply the best formats, do so because that is all that they have ever known. Yes, they work, but that does not mean that other formats cannot also work. Just look at the album. Many artists still like the creative construct, but just 21% of music streamers regularly listen to albums on streaming services. Music fans have already decided that this format is not part of their future.

Fluid audio erases the creative full stop

The Donda Stem Player, made for Kanye by Kano, takes this concept and runs with it. This, as my colleague, Kriss Thakrar, identifies, is fluid audio, and it fits into the Agile Music that we first identified back in 2011. Analog entertainment formats were inherently creative full stops. When an album was recorded, it was done – final. It did not matter if the artist’s creative vision had moved on, as the songs remained the same. This seems entirely natural, but until the recording era, this would have appeared as a creative anathema in popular music. Before recordings, a song was never the same twice. It only existed as a live performance that was played in the moment and survived in the listener’s memory. Songs evolved and changed. Whether that be centuries of evolution in European folk music or decades in American blues and jazz. Then recording came along and songs became petrified – the stuffed animals of creativity. 

Kanye took his first swipe at the creative full stop with his continual updates of Life of Pablo. Not everyone got it. Many fans simply wanted it to sound the way it did when they first heard it. It takes time for people to get their heads around change – quite literal change in the case of Life of Pablo. Now, with the Donda Stem Player, Kanye has obliterated the creative full stop. Donda will never sound the same twice, and that is now literally in the hands of his fans.

In some respects, making a piece of physical kit looks to be quite a retro move in this digital era, but the subtle, yet crucial idea here is to make the Donda Stem Player an actual instrument. It is the ultimate form of creator culture, by turning songs made with instruments into an instrument itself. How very meta!

Back in 2015, I published my book ‘Awakening’, which was part history of the digital music business and part vision for the future. Some of my predictions did not age as well as I would have liked, but some of them are still looking good. One of them was the DISC concept. I proposed that future music formats needed to be:

Dynamic

Interactive

Social

Creative

I mainly aimed this at the digital realm, and we are already seeing it happen, whether that be TikTok lip sync videos, Facebook Audio Studio, Clean Bandit’s Splice sounds pack, or apps like Voisey and Trackd. But I also suggested that it could apply to physical formats in order to free music of its smartphone chains. One theoretical proposal was for pieces of art that would enable to the user to change the songs by walking between them, triggering a vocal part here, a drum beat there, etc. It is not a million miles away from the Donda Stem Player.

A lean in future

The entire music world is not suddenly going to go from static streams to interactive widgets, but change is a coming. In a year from now, we may look back on the Donda Stem Player as being a fun gimmick, but if we do, it will be because we have not yet found the Model T Ford, rather than the underlying principles being wrong. Of course, the majority of music listening will most likely remain lean back and static, but not all of it will. As audiences lean in ever further, more of them will want to create as much as they consume, just like they do with social video today. There is one thing we can be certain of – the future of music creativity and consumption is changing, and Kanye just played his part, again.

Labels are going to become more like VCs than they probably want to be

When you are in the midst of change it can be hard to actually see it. Right now, the music business is undergoing a consumption paradigm shift that is changing the culture and business of music. Streaming may be well established and maturing in many markets but the market impact will continue to accelerate as behaviours continue to evolve and bed in. Whether it is the rise of catalogue or the decline of megahits, everywhere you look, the music landscape is changing. So it is only natural that the role of record labels is going to change too. They have already of course, but shifts like label services deals and JVs are not the destination, instead they are preliminary steps on what is going to be a truly transformational journey for labels. 

Record labels often like to compare themselves to venture capital (VC), taking risks, investing in talent and sharing in the upside of success. While that comparison is flawed, its relevance is going to increase, but not in the way many labels will like. 

Firstly, where the comparison breaks down: VCs invest money early in a company’s life and then earn back if / when a company has a liquidity event (e.g., it sells, it IPOs, a new investor buys out earlier investors). But record labels invest and then take money immediately. As soon as the artist is generating royalties, the label is earning a return, it does not have to wait until some distant time in the future. What is more, even after the label no longer has an active relationship with the artist, it continues to earn. So a record label basically has a perpetual liquidity event. Which means its risk exposure is lower than a VC. Even if the artist flops, it will have recouped at least some of its outlay. VCs can be left with nothing if a start- up fails.

But where the label / VC analogy works best, is when looking at how the role of labels will evolve. VCs are typically earlier-stage investments so start-ups use VCs as launchpads for future success, a means to an end. Labels will likely have to start getting used to the same dynamic. Ever more artists are going their own way, launching their own apps, labels, using D2C sites. But the reason why record labels are around (despite artists being able to create their own virtual label from a vast choice of services – see chart) is that artists still need someone to build their audience (at least in most instances). The investment and A&R support help too, though those services can also be tapped into ad hoc from standalone companies.

This value chain dependency is what has helped labels to stay relevant despite dramatic industry shifts. But the next stage of this evolution will see a cohort of artists viewing labels as accelerators rather than long-term partners. They will use labels to establish their fan bases and then engage with them on their own terms, sometimes with labels, sometimes not. This is of course already beginning to happen, but it will become an established and increasingly standard career path.

Major labels like to think of themselves in the business of creating superstars. But as the very nature of what a superstar is dilutes, more artists will simply see labels as a launch pad. Start-up Platoon positioned itself as an artist accelerator and was bought by Apple. In many respects it was ahead of its time, pioneering a model that labels will increasingly find themselves filling, even if it is not their preferred role. 

Labels as artist accelerators

The repercussions will be massive. Labels, especially majors, will often over invest early to establish an artist. The business model depends on recouping the investment on future earnings. But with ever more artists looking to retain their rights, the labels only have a finite window in which they can monetise those rights, unless they negotiate term extensions. What this means is that labels are becoming a utility for many artists, a stepping stone while their brands are built for them. Like it or loathe it, savvy, empowered artists will increasingly see labels as the launchpad for future independence, and in this respect, labels are becoming more like VCs than ever.

As disruptive as this paradigm shift will be, record labels will find a way to adapt, just as they have to streaming, TikTok, label services, distribution etc. The difference here though is that this may represent a complete recalibration of the role that record labels play in the music industry value chain. This will mean a riskier, more limited role for labels, which in turn will make them more like VCs than they may be comfortable with. Turns out that modelling yourself on VCs can be a risky business in itself.

Emerging markets may be about to change the superstar business

The traditional recorded music business was all about selling units, which naturally meant that the most important markets were not the most populous but the wealthiest. Throughout the late 20th century this created a ‘global’ market that was dominated by North America, Europe and a few others. This is why (among other political reasons) Japan became the biggest Asian music market, rather than China. 

Today’s music business is different. Streaming (particularly via ad-supported and bundles) can monetise large-scale audiences in lower per-capita GDP markets. Suddenly population size matters, and emerging markets become the world’s largest addressable music audience. The emerging markets opportunity has the western music and investment sectors salivating, but there is another layer many have missed: this shift is going to change how western record labels operate, not least by challenging the very notion of the global superstars which they trade in.

Anglo repertoire’s traditional dominance

Prosperity drives prosperity. Where music sales did well, music businesses did well. The music business did best in the US, as well as to a lesser degree in the other big English-speaking markets. These countries also benefited from English being the most exportable language for music. By the start of the 2000s (and excluding the US), of the top 10 music markets, domestic repertoire represented more than half of sales in only Japan and France. Anglo repertoire dominated the global music market and was extending its reach. Most countries across the globe were seeing their domestic repertoire shares falling year-on-year as we entered the new millennium. This of course meant less money feeding back into the local scenes, which meant more opportunity for international superstars to dominate. It was a cultural vicious circle. And then piracy happened.

A decade of piratical wilderness hit domestic repertoire hardest in many countries. For example, in Spain, the best way to keep track of domestic artists was ‘la manta’ chart. Literally ‘the blanket’, referring to the guys who would unfold a blanket on the street corner full of counterfeit CDs. So many local music scenes in lower-income emerging markets essentially remained largely organic and local for a decade. Then came along streaming, and suddenly artists can find their audiences in ways previously unimaginable. In geographically large countries like India and Brazil, touring the country was not a realistic option for most artists, so streaming enabled them to reach across their countries, and beyond, in an instant. 

Streaming, cultural catalyst for local scenes

Streaming’s cultural impact on local scenes was actually first seen at scale in Europe, with German, Dutch and French rap scenes fast emerging that found massive domestic popularity but that rarely export. In the old model, the lack of ‘exportability’ meant no record deal which meant no local scene. Streaming changed that. Another early milestone was the rise of Latin American music, especially Reggaeton. Although some Latin American artists have broken through on the global stage, the most important impact has been the rise of both domestic and regional superstars. This is the future that we are entering.

To expect emerging markets to lap up Anglo repertoire just because they are now streaming not only smacks of cultural imperialism, it also misses the underlying fundamentals of how music scenes and consumption are changing. The steady rise of Anglo repertoire up to the early 2000s has been replaced by a rise in local and regional music. Globalism is becoming replaced by internationalism, homogeneity with diversity. All of which means that global Anglo superstars will feel the pinch. The superstar business was already facing the headwinds of fragmenting fandom, so emerging markets are an accelerant to a pre-existing trend, along with multipliers such as the growth in the number of artists, releases and personalised recommendations. 

Build from within, not from without

None of this, however, necessarily means western labels cannot prosper in emerging markets. After all, they have the resources and expertise that decades of global success bring. They will need to shift their mindset from looking for export markets to territories where they can build new, domestic talent-centred business. A smattering of joint ventures from the western majors in Asia and Africa suggest the first steps are being made, but to succeed these strategies will have to be seen as the central plank of repertoire strategy for emerging markets, not a supporting strand. 

However, the western majors should not assume they will be able to out-perform local and regional labels. In Japan and South Korea, the western majors are minority players, having been unable to unseat the dominant local ‘majors’. Interestingly, both countries are long-term exceptions to Anglo repertoire dominance. Both are high per-capita markets with large economies that can sustain thriving domestic music businesses. Also, Anglo repertoire does not import as well to these markets (despite endless western acts trying to ‘break’ Japan), with international repertoire stuck at around a quarter of sales in both markets at the turn of the millennium. Now in the third decade of the millennium, it is South Korea that is exporting music to the world, from ’Gangnam Style’ through to Black Pink and BTS. This shows that global superstars will still be a long term-feature of the music business – though fewer will be Anglo artists. 

The outlook will thus be defined by:

  • Fewer Anglo global superstars
  • A rise in non-Anglo superstars
  • The rise of regional superstars
  • The rise of local scenes and domestic artists

It is an exciting time for music culture across the globe and we are most likely entering what will be the most culturally diverse era the global recorded music business has ever known.

If you are interested in emerging markets themes, then keep an eye out for a free report MIDiA will be publishing next week. Watch this space!

How Bandcamp could really fix the music business

“A thought: has streaming become the place to address consumers and the likes of Bandcamp the places to engage fans? i.e., fans and fandom inherently matter less on streaming because it/they are a minority.” 

I recently posted this tweet questioning whether streaming has become the place for finding fans, while Bandcamp is the place where fans really are. Some of the resulting conversation got me thinking that there are several related but disconnected industry dynamics which define today’s music business but are second-order effects of streaming’s rise rather than how anyone planned for things to pan out. If someone could join the dots between them then we might just have the makings of a solution to many of the problems artists face in the streaming song economy. And perhaps that someone could be Bandcamp…

When being empowered does not feel as empowering as it should

One of the great ironies of this era of empowered artists is that the empowerment only extends so far. Sure, they can choose whether to work with a label, whether to retain their rights, which distributor to use etc., but the vast majority are beholden to streaming. Streaming is where they build and find their audiences; streaming metrics are the success currency that drives or helps shape most of everything else that happens in their careers. Yet the economics for most middle class and independent artists do not add up. Even the ability to get bigger live audiences thanks to streaming does not help pay the bills for most emerging artists as they are still in the stage of their careers where they lose money touring. This is of course why Bandcamp has resonated so strongly in recent years: it is the place where artists bring the audiences they are building on streaming to a place where they can earn meaningful income. 

Streams or fans?

This discover on Spotify / monetise on Bandcamp flow works well enough, but it is like bottom-trawling fishing: most of what you catch you discard. But there is more to it than that. If labels and artists are investing their marketing efforts in driving streams as the way to find audiences and build fan bases but few listeners actually convert, this means that the streaming platforms are benefiting much more from that marketing spend than they are. Add to that the fact artists cannot build direct relationships on most streaming services (excepting, as always, Soundcloud and YouTube), then the question becomes: what are artists building on streaming apart from streams? Of course, there is always the unicorns and rainbows hope that they might blow up on streaming – but artist careers cannot be built around the hope of winning the lottery. What is pointedly not being built is, you guessed it, fandom. Audiences may fall in love with the music on streaming and they may follow the artist etc., but they build their fandom elsewhere, going to Google, Wikipedia, Instagram, forums, articles and the like to really get to know the artist.

Bringing it all together

Make no mistake, streaming does an amazing job of helping people hear new music and it does a pretty good job of helping people discover new music (there is of course a massive difference between hearing a new song once and really discovering new music). But the missing bit is nurturing fandom; feeding curiosity, enabling connections with others, facilitating self-expression, getting beneath the skin of an artist. A certain scale of audience is needed to turn Bandcamp into truly meaningful income for artists and right now too much of that responsibility lies with streaming. This is where Bandcamp has a ‘go big or go home’ opportunity.

What if discovery, consumption and fan building could all happen on Bandcamp, not just e-commerce? Apart from a little editorial, right now Bandcamp is not designed as a destination but instead as the place people go to buy stuff. Imagine if Bandcamp was also a place to listen to music, discover cool new artists (based on users’ stated preferences and behaviour to deliver personalised recommendations) and learn about those artists. A place for bands and alternative singer-songwriters. A place to reclaim the essence of ‘independent’ from major label-owned ‘independent’ artist platforms.

Of course, there is a tension: if Bandcamp suddenly starts doing streaming, then it puts sales at risk – the very essence of its market proposition. But Bandcamp doesn’t need to play by the streaming rule book. It doesn’t need to license the majors (or even the big indies); instead, it can build a completely new model with smaller labels who are open to creating something new. 

For example, a listener might be able to stream the songs from an album twice before then having the option to pay to unlock the album for unlimited streams using pre-purchased credits. Effectively creating a full streaming catalogue that can be unlocked one album / EP / artist at a time, rather than ‘simply stream before you buy’. This would combine the best of both worlds: streaming consumption and sales income for the artist. Once you start thinking about things in this way, the possibilities light up the horizon.

A fan accelerator

So now we have Bandcamp driving discovery, consumption and commerce. But it could do more still: it can become a fan accelerator. By combining all these assets and ensuring artists can always talk directly to their fans and know exactly who they are (opt-in emails, names, DOB, interests etc.) artists would be able to build fan bases like nowhere else. But rather than simply provide the tools to artists, Bandcamp could help them with guidance, support and fan roadmaps. Not all artists are one million follower artists; some might only ever be 100 follower artists. Using its data and expertise, Bandcamp could help artists understand what the right path is for them. For some, it would be providing the tools to get to 10,000 followers; for others, it might be how to truly engage 100. 

This might sound like common sense, but too much of the music business is shaped by over-inflating artists’ expectations, trading on unrealistic dreams. The first chapter of the independent artist economy was about establishing them as a serious force in the music business and getting platforms to scale. The next chapter should be shaped by independent artist tools and platforms shouldering a duty of care to their customer bases, to help them plot the right paths for them. There are as many different models for success as there are artists. Success needs redefining for those artists that will never hit it big, nor may ever even be able to give up the day job. Finding those ‘100 true fans’ can still be success; it just needs measuring differently.

There are plenty of other directions this could go in, and there are plenty of other entities that could go in this direction. What matters is that the siloes the industry finds itself with are broken down and that fandom and creator remuneration do not fall between the cracks. With new foundations, we could truly see the emergence of the empowered artist.