Welcome To The Post-DIY Era

I recently took part in the True Music Forum in Madrid, an event organized by Boiler Room. I was on a panel that explored whether DIY is now coming of age with a host of high profile artists, most of them urban artists, bypassing or twisting the traditional label model and still achieving stand-out success. On the surface, these look like golden years for DIY, and in many ways they are, but much of what is happening at the top end of the scale has little to do with DIY. Streaming is transforming how artists view recorded music income and is making it possible for artists to pick and choose what label capabilities they want. But more often than not, it is a variation of the label model that succeeds rather than a replacement of it. This is the start of the post-DIY movement.

Madrid True Music Forum, March 8th-28

The First Wave Of DIY

Firstly, to be clear, DIY is alive and well, better than it has ever been in fact. With labels increasingly only signing artists once they have seen them build up following and ‘a story’, it is becoming increasingly common for artists to spend the formative stages of their careers ‘DIY’, releasing their own music, managing their social campaigns, making their own videos, booking their own tours etc. Added to that, the combination of streaming, direct-to-fan platforms and social apps have combined to make it possible to build niche audiences on a global scale. So it is now possible for a new tier of artists to exist, a tier of artists that may never dent the charts (for whatever they may be worth these days) but that can build solid, sustainable careers by engaging their fans directly. Stalwarts like Bandcamp and CD Baby have never had it so good, while a whole crop of new entrants, such as the much hyped BandLab is emerging to drive the market forward. And of course, Soundcloud, for all its financial challenges, provides artists with a platform to engage massive audiences globally without need for any middleman whatsoever.

DIY Versus Empowered Superstars

That is the DIY movement that will go down in history as one of the most culturally significant legacies of the Napster market shock. An organic, grass roots musicians’ revolution. Now though, we are seeing the emergence of a more commercially minded take on DIY, one that draws on the practices of its predecessor but that combines them with the big label model to take full advantage of the best of both worlds. This new breed of superstar DIY artist enjoys the benefit of fiercely held independence with world class distribution and marketing. They are taking the tools of DIY but not all of the ethos. The superstar DIY artist typically builds a strong brand and buzz (and often, but not always, a big live following) and then uses that as a platform to strike a deal with a major label (or a major label subsidiary company) to get the benefits of major label scale without giving up control (nor masters). This can take various forms, such as:

In each scenario the artist retains large amounts of control (or at least more than in a traditional label deal) but gets the support of world class, global infrastructure and marketing. The artists picks the services s/he wants, like an advertiser does with a full- service ad agency. The label services and standalone distributor models have been around for some time, but now they are being used by business savvy, super ambitious superstars in-the-making. And the artist gets to retain an aura of authenticity and independence.

For those artists that want to push the needle even further, streaming services are emerging as an additional weapon in the armoury. Chance the Rapper revealed that Apple paid him $500,000 to become the exclusive streaming partner for ‘Coloring Book’, following hot on the heels of Frank Ocean’s Apple Music exclusive for ‘Blonde’. Apple is setting itself up as a modern day equivalent of the Medici – the medieval Italian family that was a driving force in the Renaissance through its patronage of artists such as Rafael, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Some time or another, Spotify will follow Apple’s lead. The superstar artist fits this streaming-service-as-label model best because an artist with big potential is going to deliver much better ROI for streaming services that are eager to drive market share and differentiation via original content.

Hip Hop Is Setting The Innovation Bar

Urban music, and hip hop in particular, has become a hotbed of artist-led business innovation. Although hip hop has always had stronger commercial sensibilities than other genres, streaming has brought the business innovation to the fore, ranging from the original hip hop superstar businessman Jay Z and his Tidal service, through Frank Ocean’s Apple Music released ‘Blonde’ to Stormzy’s streaming record breaking streaming success.  And the innovation is happening at the grass roots of hip hop too. As the brilliant Kieran Yates noted on the Boiler Room DIY panel, many UK Grime artists are now signing publishing deals before label deals as a) this can often mean bigger advances in today’s indie music market, and b) there is a perception that this means giving up less control, which in turn empowers the artist to strike a better deal with a label, or label-owned company. This also opens up a world of opportunity for independent music marketing agencies etc who can become part of new, agile teams.

Streaming has been continually rewriting the rule book for many years now, but we are entering a period of even faster change, with many of the more fundamental effects being the indirect consequences, such as the rise of post-DIY. It would be wrong, however, to think of this as a ‘death of the label’ narrative. Because the labels (majors and indies) are being smart enough to be as flexible and agile as artists need them to be. Artists are changing and labels are changing just as fast to meet their new needs and terms of reference. Perhaps, the best way to capture the approach of the new era of post-DIY artist is to go back to Jay Z’s classic ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ lyric: I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man!

 

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.