My friend Terry McBride was recently interviewed by Carter Smith of Rollo & Grady. Talk about the Future of Music, Nettwerk is doing it now. Here is the interview:
R&G: What made you decide to focus your business on digital products versus physical ones in 2002?
Terry: It was an intuitive thing for me. Obviously, digital had been seeping into our world for about three years and the Napster effect was apparent. Being a small company and working directly with artists, we could really hear and see what was starting to happen. It was a realization that fighting it wouldn’t work; understanding it and being able to grow it was what was going to work. It was a psychological shift for us. It took a few years to get the rest of the company and analysts focused towards that, but that was the psychological shift for me, which means that the company shifts.
R&G: About 80% of your business is from digital sales now, right?
Terry: Yes, that’s correct.
R&G: Why did you drop DRM in 2003?
Terry: I didn’t see any purpose in locking down files; it made no sense to me. People have always been sharing music. Why would I want to stop them? Why would I want to tell them what to do? The way to win was to get them to support my artists, not to force them to do it a certain way. I know I wouldn’t like anyone telling me that.
R&G: You recently spoke about cloud-based servers, mobile applications and smartphones being the future of the music business.
Terry: What’s happened in the last ten years is kind of moot. The next 18 months will determine the future of the music business. It’s a situation where the turnover on phones by the average consumer – now I’m being generous here – is every two years. It’s probably shorter. The smartphones that are starting to dominate the marketplace are specific platforms now open to applications that are being developed outside of the R&D departments of all of the various carriers. Apple, when they opened up their App Store, I think they sold, what, 150 million apps in maybe 9 months. It stunned the world, and Apple is a small player. They might be a noisy player, but they’re a small player within the mobile space. Research In Motion launches their store this month, Nokia is launching Ovi in April and Google has already launched their Android site. You’re going to see millions of applications come onto the marketplace. You’re going to see social filtering of the really good ones, and what’s going to be in there are applications that change the behavioral habits of how you consume music. The need to download music will no longer exist. If anything, it will be a hassle. You’ll have smartphones that can probably handle two to three hundred songs. That’s a gradual download; you’re actually not streaming it. It’s actually on your phone but it’s pulled from some sort of server, whether it’s your own server or a cloud server. To make all of these applications work, you have to have really good metadata, which means that business has to focus its efforts on really good metadata. Rich metadata is going to work with all of these applications. You’re going to see digital maids, digital valets. You’re going to see applications for maybe five bucks a month where you can access all the music that you want, how you want it, when you want it, imported to any device. So why would you want to download? Why would you want to go online to try to find it for free? Besides, something you find free might not work with these smartphone apps. Five bucks is no big deal to have unlimited access. That’s where everything’s going. All of the current arguments and debates are moot. I would even say that the ticker has now started on when the iPod goes away. I think Apple saw that.
R&G: So their primary focus will be to promote the iPhone?
Terry: They’ve been pushing the iPhone more than anything, and when they opened up their App Store, their intuitions were proven right. It is the App Store that has driven iPhone sales.
R&G: Do you think the major labels will sign off on these applications?
Terry: I don’t think they have any choice in the matter. It’s really just a subscription model, but it’s the application. A subscription model has never worked to date because it’s always been a hassle. It only works on your laptop, you can’t port it between devices, and it’s always streaming and always a pain in the ass. Last.fm and Pandora have been nice, but transferring that around has been really difficult. The applications coming with these smartphones will change all that and make it a hassle not to use them. Downloading will seem like a hassle two years from now. It will be like, ‘Download something? Are you nuts? Here, I can instantly access it. Watch, I’ll just type it in and my valet will go find it for me.’
R&G: Your valet, meaning your filter?
Terry: It’s an app. You’ll program your valet to look at what your 20 closest peers are listening to and create something for you to listen to. Maybe you’re a Led Zeppelin fan and all you want to hear is Led Zeppelin today. Maybe something bad happened and you want to listen to Sarah McLachlan today. Your valet will do that for you, and your digital maid will clean up your library for you.
R&G: That will be huge. It will make music consumption easier for the end user.
Terry: I always call it the hassle factor. It’s a hassle right now to be part of a subscription model. It’s even a hassle to download. These smartphones are radically going to change that. I mean, with Shazam you go, ‘What is that song?’ and you can instantly know what it is and instantly buy it, if that’s what you want to do. Slacker is the first one that comes close to being a digital valet. It’s only going to get better. Anyone with a really good idea can actually make it happen. You’re going to see this coming out of garages and university dorms, not Apple and Blackberry campuses.
R&G: You’re a member of the RIAA. What are your thoughts of them monitoring ISP usage?
Terry: Here’s my whole view of this, and this hasn’t changed for quite a long time. Out of all of the sharing of music, who’s making an economic return? Whoever is should then share that with all the people that allowed it to happen, creating a nice alignment of interests to grow any business. A lot of the providers have viewed music as free content, while at the same time paying for the cable content to grow their networks. They’ve been making money off the backs of the artists without any compensation for the artists at all. I think that’s fundamentally wrong. I’ve also said it’s fundamentally wrong to go after the consumers that are using that opportunity. That’s not the right approach either. The phone companies and the cable providers have gotten away with murder in this whole situation.
R&G: What’s your opinion on music blogs?
Terry: I love music blogs because they’re music fans. They’re authentic and passionate about music. They’re no different than me. All they’re doing is spreading the word about stuff they like. The authentic will rise to the top, which is why I like aggregators like The Hype Machine. I think it’s brilliant. It’s a great way of seeing what music fans are talking about versus some other filter. I’d rather the filter be a social filter, and then you can go into niches. Maybe it’s a bluegrass filter or a country filter or a hard rock filter or an ambient filter. Whatever. Those people are really passionate about that music. You know what? That’s what it’s about. Songs are not copyright. Songs are emotions.