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The Marketing is the Message

Here is an interesting article/interview by Mark Small and Gerd Leonhard on the future of music marketing from the latest issue of Berklee Today.

“There is no recipe. We can’t go to Universal, Warner Music, EMI, and Sony and say, ‘Here is the solution so you can stay in business.’ says Gerd Leonhard. There is an ecosystem comprising content owners, telecoms, advertisers, marketers, artists, and social networks that have to build the solution together.” Leonhard advocates a blanket license and a flat rate that users would pay for unlimited access to, and unfettered use of, digital music. This method, he maintains, would be one of many revenue streams that could support a new middle class of musicians who are not superstars but who can make a comfortable living in the new music economy.

The day following the conference, I met with Leonhard, who shared more thoughts from his latest book, Music 2.0, a series of essays about the emergence of a new music business model driven by the Internet.* He spoke at length and optimistically about the opportunities he envisions for Web-savvy artists who produce their own music and bring it directly to fans.

Out of Control
For the past 14 years, Leonhard has called for a reevaluation of the prevailing logic in the music industry that exercising complete control over the distribution and use of the assets in record label catalogs is the principal way to make money in music. In the digital era, that model is tanking. Leonhard stresses that computers and handheld telecom devices are essentially copy machines that facilitate the sharing of music, text, photos, video, and more on the Web. In his online book The End of Control, he wrote, “Let’s face it, in our increasingly networked world, the vast majority of media content simply cannot be kept away from its audience. Today in our world of Googles, Facebooks, YouTubes, and iPhones, all content is just zeroes and ones, and trying to prevent its ‘leakage’ is simply futile.”

Everyone knows that the vast array of music is accessible for free via “pirate sites,” software applications that harvest streaming music, and via other sources. Users freely download songs, share files, post songs on their Facebook pages, sync them with their videos and slide shows, and more. For copyright owners-especially the major record labels-the genie is out of the bottle, and litigation against users sharing copyrighted music without payment has yielded little more than bad press. The problem of making enough money to continue producing music is most acute for content creators, whose primary business has been to develop superstars that sell millions of records.

Leonhard has long advocated a shift from tight control of products and copyrights. In what he refers to as the “link economy,” the new commodity is the public’s attention. In this climate, he predicts superstar status will be much harder to attain-and sustain-as the marketplace experiences further fragmentation and mainstream artists compete for attention with lesser-known artists in specific musical niches.

“Thirty years ago, 72 percent of the television audience used to watch Dallas or Gunsmoke,” Leonhard says. “Now 7.1 percent of Americans watch American Idol on a good night. That’s it. There is no ubiquitous TV show these days because there are so many options.”

It’s the same in the music industry. It’s much harder for current artists to sell the number of records their predecessors sold simply because there are more artists out there, more competition for people’s attention. A look at the RIAA’s [the Recording Industry Association of America’s] top-selling albums of all time underscores the point. Vintage artists-including the Eagles, Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and several others-dominate the chart. In the United States, the most recent album to sell more than 20 million copies is Garth Brooks’s Double Live album, and it was released in 1998.

Major labels and other repositories of valuable copyright properties may not be wild about the notion that products should take a backseat to audience attention, but they have noted the power of an energized fan base. Leonhard avers that musicians who fully utilize their Internet resources realize that they rather than their CDs are the product, and if they sell themselves properly, they will do well in the link economy.

“In the link economy, the product is the marketing,” says Leonhard. “If you want to promote yourself as a musician, you publish and make everything available on the Web so that people can pick it up and go elsewhere with it. If they like you, they do the marketing for you by telling others and sending links around. In the old days, if you were a star, MTV or the Letterman Show would recognize that by putting you on. Today, your fans recognize your value and send your links to friends, who send them to more people. This is what makes someone a celebrity on the Web. And you can’t buy that; you have to earn it.”

Today, the Web is flooded with content. Anyone with a computer can be a producer. Leonhard contends that this will ultimately raise the bar of artistic quality. “You have to be very good and very unique, and constantly innovate to get people’s attention,” he says. “There are 140 million blogs, and many new ones are created every second. We don’t pay any attention to a blog unless it is good. The same is true with music.”

Show Me the Money
So if musicians loosen control of their copyrights, what sources other than the proposed flat rate on Internet users for access to music could provide income? According to Leonhard, there is a $1 trillion worldwide advertising economy, and Google took in $27.1 billion of it last year. Projections are that in five years, Google’s share could rise to $200 billion. If licensing agreements can be forged with the powerful search engine, the fees could pay musicians for a lot of “free” content. “If Google was authorized to play on-demand music, someone could see my name and play my song,” says Leonhard. “Google would agree to pay a percentage of the revenue from every ad on the page with my song. The fee would be paid to a rights organization like ASCAP or BMI to be divided between all the artists whose music is played. Google can track everything that’s been played, so all artists could be compensated. The technology is in place to do this now. This system is currently being used in China and Denmark.”

It is important for agreements to be made sooner rather than later. When radio began broadcasting music during the 1920s, songwriters demanded a share of the money generated by programming featuring their compositions. ASCAP negotiated for compulsory licenses and radio began paying writers. But there was no provision at the time for a fee to compensate the recording artist if he wasn’t the songwriter. Even today, American radio stations, unlike European broadcasters, pay a fee to the composer or songwriter but not to the recording artist. Radio ad revenue currently yields about $20 billion annually, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that this was a missed opportunity. This situation should be kept in mind as new agreements are made. Half the world now uses cell phones, and a tremendous amount of music is downloaded to handheld devices. In a recent address at Berklee College of Music, Terry McBride, the CEO of Nettwerk Music Group, described the role smart phones already play in the sale of music.

“Musicians need to push for legislation to require issuing licenses for use of content on the Web,” says Leonhard. “Right now if you have a video that gets a million plays on YouTube, you don’t get a dime because there is no license or agreement. Through revenue share, every click, forward, download, [or] video play on the Web would get monetized.”

Fifty Ways
Too many musicians believe that playing gigs and selling CDs or digital copies of their music are the primary ways to make money. “We have to do away with that mentality, because there are 50 other ways a musician can get paid,” says Leonhard. “In the new music economy, you need to build an audience and energize them to act on your behalf and forward your music virally. Later, they can become paying customers. Don’t ask them for their money first. Once fans are sold on you, you’ll be able to ‘upsell’ them special shows, backstage passes, webcasts, a live concert download, a multimedia product, your iPhone application, a premium package for $75.

“When musicians start thinking of themselves as brands, like Nike, they will see that they have more assets than just the zeroes and ones that people can download. Other assets are their creativity, the way they express what they experience, their performance, and their presentation. As a musician and composer, you stand for something. The Web allows you to publish things that showcase who you are and what you do. In 10 minutes of clicking around on your site, people will be able to understand who you are if you’ve put enough out there.”

Even in a time when many have predicted doom and gloom in the music business, Leonhard is optimistic. “Current developments are good news for the artist-provided he or she is good. You have to be different, unique, and honest; have a powerful persona; and know your brand. If what you are doing is real and you are forthright, people will pay you. It’s all about the creator and the person who wants the music. Musicians of the future will do well if they can view themselves as more than someone who wants to be a star and sell a lot of records.”

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Comments

6 replies
  1. Jeff Smith says:

    I am very leery of a users fee for accessing music. It reminds me of when record companies went to the CD format, it drastically lowered their manufacuring costs, yet they raised the pricing structure above where vinyl and cassettes had been. Pure greed, and they dug their own grave, but not without raping customers and artists for almost two decades with the CD format.

    I suspect that the telecom and ISP giants are the new villians and that their profit margins on delivering “free” content are as obcene as the recording industry was in the past. I think that they should absorb the cost of the blanket licensing that is needed for the next music business model. They are the gatekeepers that are collecting all the money for our access to the internet and it’s content. Unfortunately, like all big business, they can never be satisfied with just a reasonable profit like most other businesses, they need to make mega-profit. I predict the gov’t will have to get involved and force the issue. I am opposed to a user fee because I already pay good money to access “free” content now.

  2. Roger Thornton Brown says:

    I have long advocated internet providers paying a fee for music downloaded via their services but not a flat rate fee. Radio operates on similar basis to the one I imagine, where artists are paid a fee based on the number of plays. Digital media makes this process even easier.

    I don’t think artists should compete for people’s attention any more either. Music and musicians are no longer the commodity they once were. Music is increasingly consumed as background noise or as a lifestyle accessory it is not the end in itself that the whole thinking about promoting artists and CD, or download supposes.

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