music

HMV

His Master's Lost His Voice
Spotted in Soho in 2014

A few thoughts on the new difficulties faced by HMV. 

In part this is response to some utter nonsense I’ve read online, and some of the news reports surrounding HMV heading into administration for the second time in five years. 

There are undoubtedly structural problems with how music is sold in 2019, but I think there are multiple reasons for HMV’s failure – regardless of any mistakes or management decisions taken by their owners. 

I’ve tried to examine each of these in turn. 

Music Models 

We’re obviously moving away from a music ownership model to a rental model, although I’m still unconvinced that this is sustainable in the longer term.  

Firstly, it is not yet profitable for the businesses that are doing it. OK – that might not matter for Apple or Google who have vast income streams from other parts of the business that can prop them up, but it does matter for companies like Spotify and Tidal. Indeed, even Apple or Google will shut down a division that simply doesn’t make sense after a while.  

The lack of profitability might be a temporary thing, and perhaps the business models will improve over time. But let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t even begin to attempt to get into the streaming market right now. And will Apple or Amazon at some point stop even selling downloads? (Thank goodness for Bandcamp!) 

However, as I’ve argued previously, the current music rental model simply doesn’t work for a large proportion of the population.  

Consider my father. He buys or gets given one or two CDs a year. In all probability any discs he buys come from a supermarket – for him, the only easily accessible physical outlet for music now. He listens to those CDs a fair amount. But there’s no way on earth that he’s going to spend £120 a year on music. Nor are an awful lot of people. Certainly, Spotify has a free tier, but that’s ad-funded, and my father no more wants to hear ads interrupting his music than anyone else does. The alternative is that perhaps the majority of the population stop purchasing music altogether!  

The most recent RAJAR Midas survey suggest 24% of the population listen to on demand music services, while Ofcom’s Technology Tracker suggests it’s closer to 29%. Either way, that’s 70% of more of the population who don’t use such a service. 

So, we need some level of music ownership. That means an ability to buy music. 

Lazy Reporting 

One of the things that frustrated me was a report that used vox pops of various people standing outside the Oxford Street branch of HMV explaining how they hadn’t bought a CD in years and that they streamed everything now. 

Vox pops are, to my mind, nearly always useless. They are completely unrepresentative of the population, and more often than not, just colour a report to say what they the reporter hoped that they’d say. We never know how many vox pops were gathered and which ones made the cut. Think of it this way, if you stood in the street ahead of election day, asked two people how they were likely to vote, and got the same response: “I’m voting Green!” You wouldn’t then go on air and suggest that the Greens were going to win with a landslide (Unless you were in Brighton). 

Physical sales have undoubtedly fallen as streaming revenues have risen, but the IFPI Global music report 2018 still attributed 30% of recorded music revenues coming from physical sales (CD and, to a very small extent, vinyl) compared with 38% for streaming and 16% for digital.  

In the UK, we know that sales are falling. The BPI says that 2018 saw 32m CD sales down 9.6m year on year. But if 70% of the population don’t have an account with Spotify or its peers, then there still needs to be a way to allow listeners to buy The Greatest Showman soundtrack or George Ezra’s latest CD (the biggest two albums of the year). 

Physical music sales are still worth £2bn, and HMV accounts for 31% of all physical music and 23% of DVDs and Blu Rays. 

So, there are plenty of people still buying CDs. Indeed, I note that recent deluxe boxsets from both The Beatles and Kate Bush are only available in physical form. The streaming versions of both sets have significantly fewer tracks. That said, these are clearly aimed at collector/completists and the cynic might think that the labels are wringing as much cash as possible out of those now distinctly middle-aged fans. 

Most people aren’t streaming their music, and while they don’t buy as much as the keener music fans, these are consumers who still need to be reached – selling rather than renting them music. 

The Vinyl Fallacy 

Hitherto, the best place to buy music has been a record shop. Yes, there’s Tesco. And yes, there’s Amazon. The former has a very limited offering – and no, I don’t really care about the cool vinyl selection your big Sainsburys superstore has. That’s “cool” because it knows its customer. In the DVD aisle you’ll find boxsets of Airwolf and The Persuaders. All of these are because they’re serving a generation that got old, and buys these things for nostalgia reasons.  

The vinyl resurgence is all very well, but while the percentage increases might have been massive (the growth was much smaller in 2018), but they are still dwarfed by CD sales. Don’t just use revenues as your comparator, since vinyl invariably costs more than the equivalent shiny disc.  

A record shop in 2019 can’t really just exist by tapping a niche market like vinyl. Perhaps in a big city like London, but London has all kinds of shops that are unsustainable outside big cities. For example, there are shops where you can buy film processing gear. That doesn’t mean a largescale resurgence in film photography is likely. These places instead serve a diminished marketplace, but there are so few other outlets left that they mop up enough business to survive. 

Music is a mainstream art form, and it needs to survive in a manner that is accessible to all, regardless of their access to big cities. More and more, that probably does mean a combination of Amazon and supermarkets, with niche outlets filling a small hole. 

The Loss of Curation and Serendipity 

The real challenge for the true mainstream audience is music discovery. It’s all very well having a Spotify playlist, but for the “70%” who don’t use a streaming service, they’re probably relying on the radio (90% weekly reach recall), or perhaps mainstream TV shows like Graham Norton or The One Show.  

I’ve long argued that computer algorithms are still no match for a carefully curated shop display or the simple act of stumbling over something you didn’t even know you wanted. (A good radio station and/or presenter of course is massively valuable too.) 

One of the joys of a record shop, is the stumble-upon factor. You look at a shelf of new releases, or a thematic display somewhere, pulled together by someone who likes music. And in there, you find something that you didn’t know existed, or didn’t even know that you wanted.  

I’m not naïve.  I know that stores sometimes charged for those shelf-end displays or front of store racks, but either way, I can’t begin to think about how many times I just found something I didn’t know I’d come in for just by seeing it on a rack. 

Compare and contrast to every digital offering I’ve used, where the search box is the primary mechanism for digging into their warehouse. Yes, Amazon has more music than I can listen to in a lifetime, but they display it abysmally.  If I know what I’m looking for, I can [probably] find it. But nobody “browses” at Amazon.  

I recall spending many a lunch hour at the Oxford Street HMV browsing film soundtracks looking for obscurities and just seeing what they had. You’d find an Ennio Morricone compilation you didn’t know about or whatever.  

Over on Amazon, I can see what’s selling the most, but that’s about it. They probably have that exact same compilation, but unless I already know about it, I’m never going to find it.  

Maybe Spotify might lead me to it somehow. Maybe not. I find that most algorithmic playlists are far too constrained musically and don’t explore the wider breadth of what’s out there. You like this guitar-based rock-band? Here’s another guitar-based rock band.  

Browsing is one of nature’s delights, and it just doesn’t work on the virtual shelves.

The British High Street 

We all know that the UK high street is changing rapidly. In some parts of the country, they’re becoming ghost towns. When a larger store closes down, smaller stores follow, and shops get boarded up. 

On the other hand, store rents seem to sail inexorably upwards. The high price of rents is often quoted as a reason for store closures.  

It’s never entirely clear to me how this can be. There’s surely a dynamic market, and a landlord you would think would prefer something rather than nothing.  

But inevitably we hear that the real issue is that Britons are spending more money online and no longer shopping on the high street as they once did. Every year, the volume of shopping online creeps upwards, and big brands either fold altogether, get sold to Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, or announce that they closing a number of branches.  

However, there are still some things that don’t quite add up. 

Over Christmas we heard that online powerhouse Asos had suffered from severe discounting across the market, which led to poorer than expected profits.  

And while online sales are indeed rising, reaching 21.5% of all retailing in November 2018, that still leaves an awful lot of sales that are not online.  

This suggests that even with a retailer whose majority of sales are in-store and not online, the growth of online can put the store part of the business into loss even though it still accounts for the majority of sales. Indeed, the volatility of some businesses to even small declines in sales would seem to back that up. Sometimes that’s because they’ve over-expanded and borrowed on the basis of sales that only head upwards. Or maybe it’s because the owners have grabbed a lot of money out the business… 

Anyway, this is just another reminder that next time a clothes brand on the high street shuts down, and you see a vox pop on the news with a contributor saying that, no, they don’t use the high street any more, and that they only shop online for clothes, in fact 78.2% of textile and clothing sales are not online. 

Conclusion 

There are no easy solutions to any of this. I truly hope that HMV continues in some form over the coming years. It’s just one of a narrow set of places that the more casual music consumer can actually buy music. I would hate to be limited to just what my local Sainsburys stocks.  

But we should also be wary of overly didactic reporting that suggests that “everyone” has moved to streaming. While the biggest music fans may well have done, the average consumer does not stream their music. The problem is that high street stores can’t rely on not getting their custom for 11 months of the year, before they pop in December to pick up an Ed Sheeran album. 

There seem to be more structural problems with the retail industry. Rents may be increasing, but many chains have over-expanded, and it would seem that even the smallest fall in sales can lead to dire consequences.  

Being a music snob doesn’t really help anybody. You may be lucky enough close enough to Rough Trade or whoever, and enjoy their brilliant curation. But most of the population doesn’t. London can support such shops. Small towns all over the country can’t.  

I’m not a muso although I do buy and listen to a reasonable amount of music. I have a streaming subscription, but I also buy CDs and mp3 downloads. The first record I ever bought was in HMV. I loved going there on Saturdays examining the singles chart in great detail, and later flicking through the albums. There was an independent music shop on the opposite side of the road that I also enjoyed. But the local department store also had a record section, as did WH Smith and Woolworths. All were part of my Saturday trawl.  

Later I would spend far too much money downstairs in HMV on Oxford Street, or upstairs in the DVD section.  

Just after Christmas I popped into an HMV in Norwich to pick up a Blu Ray of Leave No Trace a film I’d missed in the cinema but which has been popping up on loads of “Best of the Year” lists. I could have streamed it, but the quality of physical media is better, and the disc was actually cheaper than some streaming services. (It’s a fantastic film by the way, and fully deserves its plaudits). 

I will miss HMV if it is to finally leave high streets for good.

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Have you ever wondered what life was like in a band in seventies? Then this is the novel for you. 

I am something of a sucker for books, films and TV series set in the music industry. From Almost Famous (which perhaps is closest in vibe to this novel), to Vinyl and the little seen Roadies, I’m fascinated by a life that I’ve never especially wanted to be part of. This novel ticks all those boxes. 

Daisy Jones & The Six tells the stories of Daisy Jones, an aspiring songwriter, and Billy Dunne, the lead singer of The Six. Told in a first-person style, we learn how the singer songwriter and rock band came together, produced one of the best-selling albums of the period, and then broke up (This is not a spoiler incidentally, as it’s revealed right at the start). 

The novel reads like one of those oral histories that you might read in music magazines like Rolling Stone, cutting back and forth between the relevant protagonists as we follow their lives and experiences.  

Daisy is the daughter of distantly wealthy parents who never seem too worried that their teenage daughter is hanging out on Sunset Strip, becoming the coolest person around, drinking, taking drugs and having sex with whoever she likes.  

Meanwhile, across the country, Billy Dunne is forming a band with his brother Graham amongst others, and trying to make it in the music industry – starting with smaller clubs before eventually getting signed to Runner Records and having some demons to face. 

The novel tells how these two paths collide, and the impact it has on both their lives personal and professional lives.  

These might not be real lives, but they feel real, and that’s what’s important. All the way through this novel you feel that Taylor Jenkins Reid knows about the scene at the time. At the very least, she has spoken to people who understand it. I don’t know who Daisy might be based on, but you can certainly believe that there was a wild child like her, living in a cottage at the Chateau Marmont, and hanging out with all the names of the day. 

You also know that LA was the epicentre of a certain type of music of the time, and that bands did indeed feel the need to move there to develop their careers. 

The structure of the novel means that initially it can be little hard to differentiate the characters – they are all giving interviews to an unseen narrator. But everyone here is their own person, and you begin to wish that you could listen to the songs and hear that music that’s being talked about (In fact, you can read the lyrics from many of their songs in the novel’s appendix). 

One slight complaint I have about the book’s structure is that it requires that all the characters have fantastic recollection of the period. Yes, there are some entertaining “unreliable narrator” moments, when two characters remember a key conversation very differently, but considering the sheer quantities of drink and drugs that were being consumed, word perfect recall of some of these conversations is a little bit of a stretch at times. But it’s hard to work around that given the structure’s constraints. If this were a documentary feature, then those gaps might be filled in with clips from the era, but a novel doesn’t have that luxury. 

It’s very entertaining how the novel has to carefully weave between real people from the period and people who might have been around at the time. A venue in LA is real, a presenter of Saturday Night Live isn’t.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this fictional representation of the rise and fall of a band plying their trade in the late seventies. The book is more about relationships of the protagonists than the minutiae of how the industry actually works. But you kind of wish you could have been there. 

Daisy Jones & The Six is published by Random House on 7 March 2019.  Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for my advanced reader copy. 

The Music Industry As Depicted in TV Dramas

We may currently being experiencing peak TV, but even that doesn’t really explain the recent glut of TV series set around the music industry.

A couple of weeks ago, Netflix’s new magnum opus was released – The Get Down from Baz Luhrmann. The series is rumoured to have cost a record amount, at least on a per episode business. And based on the first 90 minute episode that I’ve watched so far, this is sort of understandable.

It’s set in 1977 and seems to focus on a group of youngsters basically discovering the birth of hip-hop. The characters are part fictional and part based on real characters like Grandmaster Flash, who is also an executive producer.

Meanwhile HBO has cancelled the at-first-renewed Vinyl. This also had a lot of weight behind it, with a pilot from Martin Scorsese, and input from Mick Jagger. This was set in a New York record label slightly earlier in the 70s, as they basically started to discover disco and punk. The series mixed fake bands on the fake record label, but was set against the backdrop of real artists like Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.

Meanwhile Showtime’s Roadies, comes from no less than Cameron Crowe, but is this time set in the present day. But even it has callbacks to the 70s, an episode featuring a flashback to one of the crew’s early life when he was supposedly working for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and in particular Ronnie Van Zant. Another episode revisited the tragedy that occurred in 1979 at a concert by The Who in Cincinnati.

It is peculiar that all of these big projects, each backed by major Hollywood directors, should all arrive on the small screen at the same time. In Hollywood lingo, they probably all count as “passion projects” because part of the reason they’re made is that big names, and often, big stars come attached. Networks love the glamour and commission them. But why now, and why all at once?

I suspect that it’s because at a certain level, studio executives are in their late forties and early fifties, and this period has a particular appeal because these people were discovering music then. Plus the music industry was rawer; there were groupies and drugs, and there was an enormous amount of money to be made.

I’m not saying that’s not still the same, but not to the same extent. Sure, if you’re Taylor Swift (who in Roadies, has seemingly performed a concert in space!) the glitz and the glamour is perhaps bigger than ever, but let’s face it, what money there still is in the music industry is far more polarised, the rich getting much richer, and everyone else having to work harder to make a living.

I confess that I’m watching or have watched all these series. Vinyl was probably rightly cancelled as its direction just wasn’t clear enough. While Bobby Cannavale’s coke snorting record exec Richie Finestra was an entertaining and off the wall character, tales of excess only go so far in storytelling. Plus when a character is murdered after a drink and drugs binge, you haven’t really got anywhere else to go. And the series missed a trick in not properly developing its female characters, with Olivia Wilde as Richie’s wife Devon, being particularly underutilised.

I’ve enjoyed Roadies a lot more. It doesn’t take itself quite as seriously, and I suspect presents the dullness of life on the road with a band relatively accurately. I’m not sure who the fictional Staton-House Band are supposed to be analogous to, but there are lots of those white middle-of-the-road bands in the US that basically don’t cut through much beyond the US market. The Dave Matthews Band perhaps? In the final episode, a number of stars playing themselves appear and I found myself Googling an awful lot of them, trying to work out who they are. Cameron Crowe has clearly pulled in lots of favours from lots of friends.

Indeed throughout, the series had a nice line in including real musicians constantly showing up to be support acts for a night or two, and they get to perform a song or two – just enough to get me to tempt me into learning more. The series is probably too reliant on a couple of will-they/won’t-they relationship teases, meaning that the through story struggles a little. But the characters are fun with Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino running the show, while Imogen Poots and Colson Baker mess around. Rafe Spall’s character is a bit one-dimensional, only slowly emerging from a caricature. And while I completely believe that labels do have someone like him constantly running a spreadsheet against tour costs, I’m not sold on the idea that he’d be touring with everyone else. If Roadies gets a second season, it’ll have to work hard to keep his character in the mix.

Interestingly, of the three series here, Crowe seems to have been most closely attached. While Luhrmann and Scorsese directed their respective first episodes, and probably determined the overall direction of their series, Crowe has directed four of his series, and is credited as a writer or co-writer on six of the ten episodes.

Having only seen the first episode of The Get Down, I can’t really determine its direction, but they’ve found a good selection of largely young and unknown actors to populate the series. The show is edited to within an inch of its life, and although that first episode runs to more than 90 minutes, it does fly by.

Conjouring up The Bronx in 1977 is never going to be easy – or cheap – and a lot of visual effects are used to manage this. But despite upwards of 10 VFX houses being listed in the credits, I’m uncertain that they’ve carried it off. They pictures are graded to appear like stock footage from the time in places – because they mix them with lots of real stock footage. But this means that when we see a city block being burned down (for the insurance), the fire just doesn’t seem real.

Of course things are never real with Luhrmann. He doesn’t do verisimilitude. That means we get at least two dazzling set pieces in the opener – one set in a club, and the other at the eponymous “Get Down.” They’re both excellent.

What all three shows share is excellent music soundtracks, and I say that despite not really being a fan of any of the genres depicted. Indeed the sheer reverence shown towards some of these artists feels a bit forced and fan-boyish. But I am enjoying listening. Vinyl seems least reliant on music, although there’s plenty of it. Roadies presents its music with complete technical assurance, and is superbly sound-mixed. Everyone sounds simply superb. Each episode features a “Song of the Day”, part of the crew’s routine, and these are standout moments acoustically, usually deftly worked into the plot. The music on The Get Down just doesn’t stop. You get a barrage of music almost non-stop. The music “sync” rights for the show must have been massive.

Roadies is on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, and interestingly Kill Your Friends recently popped up there too, the movie adaption of John Niven’s searing novel set in the UK music industry of the mid-nineties. That too was a period of excess, because Napster, Limewire, eDonkey and AudioGalaxy hadn’t quite yet arrived , so piracy was not yet rampant, and people were still buying music to own (as opposed to stealing or renting it).

The film is relatively to the novel, with its anti-hero Steven Stelfox doing literally anything to get a leg-up in the biz. In the book, there are wonderful little chapter intros that seem to be real press-releases sent out to Music Week announcing big money new signings in the 80s and early 90s. We readers, of course, know that none of these signings would pay off. Having over-dosed on versions of seventies American music, it was refreshing to see a British take on affairs. Yes, the excess is endless, but it feels believable while incredibly cynical – nobody actually seems to like music. This level of cynicism would be impossible in any of the aforementioned US series, because there’s too much musical reverence.

I’d like to see Roadies open up its world a bit more, and it’ll probably need some new characters if it gets renewed. But of the three, this is the series I’d like to see more of.

Best-Selling Folk Music… According to Amazon

I have fairly broad musical tastes – it’s why I struggle when people ask me what kind of music I’m into. A couple of weekends ago, for example, you could have found me watching the Pet Shop Boys at the Royal Opera House on Saturday night, and the next day in a field in Hertfordshire at the always excellent Folk by the Oak festival.

Amazon is famed for it’s ecommerce prowess, and I must confess that I make full use of the next day delivery that Prime offers. So I’ve bought music in plenty of genres from Amazon, still mostly preferring CD to download (let’s not even mention “rental” here).

Amazon tries to learn from my buying patterns and likes to send me suggestions of what to buy next. Having bought a few folk albums from them, they naturally like to send me a regular email entitled Best-selling folk music..

It’s awful.

Here are a few genuine emails I’ve had from them so far in 2016:

January

January

Featured are Jame Bay, Adele, Mumford & Sons and Eva Cassidy. Mumford & Sons, I could just about allow as folk, and Eva Cassidy has certainly sung folk, although this album would best be considered jazz. But sorry – not Adele or James Bay!

February

February

Wow. All of these comfortably count as folk music. What’s more, this email is actually telling me about interesting new folk music.

March

March

Well Bellowhead Live is a great choice to be promoting. The Gloaming and Sandy Denny are fine too. But Daniel O’Donnell? Well I suppose I’ll allow it. I mean he’s definitely not Pop and Rock.

April

April

Just in case you thought their algorithms were learning, then fear not, because April saw two Adele albums, a James Bay album and George Ezra. I wouldn’t count any as folk.

June (I can’t see a May email)

June

Again, I can just about allow Mumford & Sons, and indeed Christy Moore. I’m not familiar with Max Jury but he perhaps straddles folk and country. And yes, Simon and Garfunkel I suppose could be folk too – their version of Scarborough Fair is on it after all. Maybe the algorithm is improving?

August (Again, no July email)

August

Ah – we’re back to Adele and James Bay again. But there’s also a Ministry of Sound compilation album no less! An unlikely label to be releasing folk. The album is subtitled “The perfect blend of laid back & acoustic covers.” Well… okay… but… Artists featured include Justin Bieber, Sam Smith, Bruno Mars, Sia, Ella Eyre and Florence + The Machine. So I really don’t think this counts.

I think I know what’s happening here.

Amazon obviously categorises every album they get into multiple categories. They’re effectively trying to add it to lots of categories to make sure every album is eminently discoverable. But that means that the same massive selling albums appear everywhere. And that means when they send an email like this, it makes a complete nonsense of it.

But it does seem that I’m getting two very different types of emails of “best-selling folk.” And very occasionally, Amazon might actually highlight a decent new folk album.

But mostly it wants to alert me about Adele’s older work, which seems entirely unnecessary, and most irrelevant, fine singer though she undoubtedly is.

The End of Digital Downloads?

That’ll teach me for writing this too quickly. I based this on a Digital Music News report which was published Wednesday evening UK time. A few hours later, and ReCode was reporting that Apple is planning no such thing. Of course plans change all the time, and record labels can get angry. So who knows what the truth of it was. But I think the piece stands either way.

On Sunday, after a week or so teasing the internet by turning their website to pure white and closing various accounts, Radiohead released their new album, A Moon Shaped Pool. I was able to head off to their website and buy a download instantly.

I’d given Radiohead some money – cutting out middlemen retailers as it happens – and they’d given me some files that, as long as I’m careful, will be playable for years to come.

This is essentially the same kind of transaction I’ve been conducting when I buy music, since I was a child.

But we are in the early 21st century, and it’s all about streaming. So if I hadn’t chosen to spend £9, how else could I have listened? Well, there’s Apple Music or Tidal. The new album is available to stream on both platforms.

Notably though, it’s not on Spotify.

No skin off my nose, as I don’t pay for a premium Spotify subscription, and only every rarely listen to the free service.

But if I was a different – probably younger – listener, I might be a bit miffed. Because if I have a Spotify subscription, I’m unlikely to have either an Apple Music or Tidal subscription as well. Why would you pay twice for access to the same music?

And therein lies my problem with streaming services – they don’t always deliver. Indeed, Radiohead has reportedly been removing some of their other music from Spotify as rights return from their old label to the band itself.

So in that context it was interesting to read a report that suggests that Apple will phase out digital download sales from iTunes within the next two years. The US and UK are likely to be first!

[Update: Apple has quickly denied that it is planning to stop selling downloads according to ReCode.]

The thinking is this:

  • Download sales peaked a couple of years ago and are now falling.
  • In their place is rapdily growing subscription revenue, so why maintain a dual economy?

The article also mentions some Apple specific issues around matching music incorrectly, and “orphan tracks.” Those are a bit of a red herring though since they’re software issues that Apple could quite easily solve if it really wanted to.

iTunes Song Downloads

If download sales are in decline, then why should Apple bother continuing to support them?

But look at this larger picture chart of music industry revenues:

Infographic: Rise of Digital Music Stops the Industry's Decline | Statista

While digital overtakes physical, it doesn’t show a healthy overall picture, and that’s because streaming revenues don’t make up for losses from physical and downloads. Growth is actually coming from other revenue areas.

Special offers aside, the cost to a consumer of a streaming subscription is $120/£120 pa. Yet the average amount spent by British consumers on music currently is less than £40 a year.

By removing the option to buy, Apple is banking on a good number of current downloaders stepping up to become subscribers, yet for the “average” person, that involves a 200% increase in their music spending!

Well, good luck with that.

But my main issue is the one that I started with. Music rental removes my control over my music.

  • If EMI goes out of business tomorrow, my EMI CDs are still safe.
  • If Radiohead decides it doesn’t want to be on Spotify, my Radiohead CDs and downloads remain available to me.
  • If Spotify goes bust, I still have access to my music library.
  • If Apple Music puts its subscription rates up tomorrow, and I can’t afford the new price, I can still listen to all the music I own today.

It’ll be interesting to see how the music industry reacts to this story.

YouTube v Radio

Since Phil Riley, Chairman of Orion Media, suggested it, I thought I’d have a look at what’s happening here.

YouTube has just published a strong blogpost penned by Christophe Muller, Head of YouTube International Music Partnerships, essentially defending their payment structure to musicians, saying that they do compensate rights holders fairly, and that perhaps radio should take a closer look at itself.

I think it’s a slightly scatter-gun argument, so it’s perhaps worth examining the various elements of what Muller is talking about.

But first a bit of background. What you need to know is that Universal, Sony and Warners, three of the major record labels, all have upcoming renegotiations of their agreements with YouTube.

YouTube is also phenomenally successful. It offers a simple, free, proposition for consumers to listen to music. Some reports suggest that more music is listened to on YouTube than Spotify and Apple Music combined. Users can build playlists, and plenty use the video streaming site as a de facto audio streaming site, not actually watching the videos all the time.

According to the FT:

Last October, Jimmy Iovine, the head of Apple Music — and the former chief executive of Interscope Records — told the Vanity Fair New Establishment conference that YouTube was responsible for 40 per cent of all music consumption but generated only 4 per cent of the industry’s revenues.

Set against YouTube are the paid-for streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. These pay more to the labels, but there’s a limit on who’s willing to pay for such services.

Spotify recently said it had 30m paid for users, while Apple Music has reached 13m. But those numbers are drops in the ocean compared to the wider music-consuming marketplace. Those are global numbers, yet more people listen to music radio in the UK in a given week than those two combined.

Of course, there are many more paid-for services, but it puts these numbers into perspective.

And with YouTube having over a billion users, it’s estimated that as much as 35% of its traffic is music.

With physical sales and downloads declining in revenue, the only real growth for pre-recorded music (I’m excluding “live”) is coming from those subscription services. So the labels are obviously looking at YouTube and thinking that it’s not paying its way.

That explains why YouTube is coming out on the defensive. But what about the radio charges?

Like radio, YouTube generates the vast majority of our revenue from advertising. Unlike radio, however, we pay the majority of the ad revenue that music earns to the industry. Radio, which accounts for 25 percent of all music consumption in the US alone and generates $35 billion of ad revenue a year, pays nothing to labels and artists in countries like the U.S. In countries like the UK and France where radio does pay royalties, we pay a rate at least twice as high.

I’m not going to defend the US rights situation. I do think it’s iniquitous. But it’s worth noting that US broadcast radio does pay the songwriters. It’s the performers who don’t get paid. And it’s also worth noting that performers are compensated on satellite radio and on streaming services such as Pandora.

Beyond that, it’s worth noting that the share of revenues that artists, songwriters and labels get, is something else entirely. When you hear about an artist receiving a cheque for a relative pittance from Spotify plays, it’s worth examining what Spotify actually paid out, and how much – or little – of that found its way to the artist.

But with radio, the truth is that it does provide valuable promotion. Simply put, if radio was just leeching off the music industry, then why would labels work hard to employ pluggers, send their biggest stars to do interviews and to a greater than ever extent, agree to often appear at stations’ events – e.g. Radio 1’s Big Weekend or Capital’s Summertime Ball.

As for the charge that YouTube pays music rights at a higher rate than radio? Guilty as charged. But there is a mighty difference between radio and YouTube. Radio selects what it plays, and listeners get little choice in the matter – tuning in to hear the tracks in the order the station has determined.

Radio certainly is a promotional vehicle in that you don’t get precisely what you want when you want it. On the other hand, you’re introduced to music and discover music as a result of radio.

If I want to hear some Bruce Springsteen right now, I could turn on Radio 2 or Absolute Radio, and perhaps, after several hours of listening, it’s just possible that I’ll hear a single track.

YouTube on the other hand is an on-demand service. It’s like Spotify in that regard. You choose what you want to listen to. If I want to hear Bruce Springsteen, I can cue up most of his biggest hits before you’ve finished reading the end of this sentence.

YouTube, as with Spotify, is used as a direct replacement for buying music. Radio exists alongside as it has always done. There are more stations available, but actually less time being spent per person listening to the radio. Radio shouldn’t be considered the “villain” of this piece from the music industry’s perspective.

Let’s get back to that YouTube piece:

Instead of talking about a “value gap,” we should be focusing on a “value shift;” if the ad revenue currently spent on radio instead flowed to online platforms, it would double the current size of the music business.

Well good luck with that. A couple of days ago, the Advertising Association in the UK announced the value of advertising in the UK. Advertising in the UK has now reached £20bn of which £8.6bn is spent on the internet (43%). Compare this with £592m or 3% of advertising spend on radio.

I’m not sure quite how much money YouTube would to see further “shift” from radio to the internet.

Yes, I realise that they were thinking of the US market where radio gets closer to 10% of the ad spend, while TV is still bigger than digital (at least, it was predicted to be at the start of 2015). But there as everywhere else, digital will take a larger bite of the advertising pie, at the expense of “traditional” media including radio.

I think Muller is driving at the idea that £1 spent on radio advertising delivers less to music rights holders, than £1 spent on YouTube. Except that advertising goes from medium to medium. That shift is already happening – internet spend has gone from 0% to 40% in less than 20 years. There should be plenty of money floating around already!

The lines are blurred now; where once there was paid-for music you owned, and free music you listened to on the radio, there are now paid-for and free music streaming services. Consumers stopped buying CDs or mp3s and started paying for subscription services or using ad-funded free services. These services launched “radio” stations that might allow the skipping of songs you don’t like. It’s all very different.

Yet radio is the key discovery mechanism for music, and provides validation. Most people do not want to spend hours trawling through new music blogs looking for something new. Radio still does that job.

Incidentally, Radio 4 has just broadcast an interesting two-part series The Business of Music. The two episodes have been edited together to make a single episode in Radio 4’s Seriously podcast, and it’s well worth having a listen.

Sell Me Personal Use Music Rights

I like making the odd video, and invariable, I prefer to use music on the soundtrack. Given that I’m not about to commission my own music for my little projects, I have two choices. I can either use a music track I already know, or I can go to a music library and for a relatively small amount, buy the rights to use a piece of music for my video. As long as it’s for personal use, the costs is usually pretty low.

Now here’s the thing: I much prefer to use music that I already know. Certainly there is good music to be found in some of the online libraries, but you really have to hunt for it. And it becomes quite a big procedure relying on the library’s categorisations to hunt down the sort of thing you want.

If you use music you already know, it’s a lot easier. You simply pick something from your own music library, that you’ve heard on the radio or whatever. If you don’t already have it, you buy a digital copy for 99p and away you go.

Except, you don’t have the rights.

If you upload the video to YouTube, Google will probably monetise your video for you, correctly sharing any revenue with the rights owner. But it may not, depending on what agreements it has with the appropriate rights owner. If Vimeo spots unlicensed music (and it’s a bit more hit or miss), it simply doesn’t allow it.

And these issues can vary by territory.

What would be great would be to be able to licence music I’ve actually heard of for personal use. So no monetisation by me of the video on YouTube, and no commercial use. But just so I can put some music I’ve heard on my little video. I’d be happy to be a few quid for this – more than the 99p the track would cost me from a download site. I’d happily include a licence code that could be checked. Artists and rights owners make more money (more than they’ll make from advertising on a video that will in the scheme of things get very few views), and I get to feel good about using music legally.

How about it?

NB. I did write about this previously, but the intervening few years, the problem remains, and I’ve not found a solution.

Amazon Prime Music – Filling A Hole

AmazonPrime

Back over the summer, Amazon launched its Prime Music offering in the UK. Anybody who pays Amazon £79 a year, for it’s free next day delivery service, and video streaming service, now also has access to more than a million tracks and hundreds of playlists to stream via the web, Fire TV or a mobile app. I’ve been using it on and off since it launched and thought it was worth writing about.

“A million songs you say? That’s a bit rubbish compared to the 30 million that others like Spotify and Apple Music offer?”

Well it is, and it isn’t.

But I don’t think this is really competing with those services. If you are subscribing to one of them you’re paying three times what the UK average consumer is used to paying for music on that subscription alone.

When it launched, it was noticeable that music from Universal was notably missing. But Amazon has subsequently done the deal and added some of their catalogue to its Prime Music offering.

In any case, this isn’t a full service as Spotify and Apple would offer. It’s an “enough” service. You’re already paying for it if you have Amazon Prime, so it’s just a free bolt on to you as a user.

If you need some more convincing, look back at my piece explaining how the average UK consumer spends less than £40 a year on music. Spotify Premium or Apple Music are not mass market offerings. Those companies might like them to be, but in fact they mostly appeal to a subset of the universe of people who listen to music.

I’ve been intrigued to see how Amazon’s offering is developing. Two weeks ago, the new Adele album, 25, was released to fanfair of publicity and primetime TV exposure. Notably, the album is not available to stream on either Apple or Spotify’s streaming subscription services. On the other hand, another album that will likely be a big seller ahead of Christmas is Enya’s new album, Dark Sky Island. That album is available to stream on Spotify, but perhaps more interestingly, Amazon.

For the most part, Amazon’s one million tracks are slightly older fare – albums mostly having been out a year before they reach Prime streaming. There are a few other newer albums on the service too like new ones from “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” and, er, One Direction.

And then there’s this week’s big new release, A Headful of Dreams by Coldplay. That too can be streamed on Amazon. It’s also seemingly on Apple Music, but is not available to stream on Spotify (possibly because Spotify won’t offer different catalogues to premium and free users). [Update: Seemingly, Coldplay’s new album will be available on Spotify from this Friday, 11th December]

Amazon is making quite a big deal about all four, so I imagine that there’s some kind of marketing quid pro quo going on.

[A little side note here on Adele.

Some have suggested that Adele is just being greedy not making her album available on Spotify et al. She has in past spoken pretty naively about the amount of tax she pays, which doesn’t come across well when you’re a multi-millionaire. But I think she’s entirely within her rights to get people to buy her album for a tenner rather than stream it for tuppence. She is the minority of artists who have the clout to demand this, alongside the likes of Taylor Swift. Kudos to her if she can get her own way.

The other slightly daft comment I’ve heard is that this somehow forces people into “ye olde” ways of buying a CD and ripping it.

Er. No.

Yes, the CD is getting distributed in hundreds of stores, including places like Tesco Express where you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see music, but it’ll also sell a bucket-load on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play, all of whom will let you instantly download or stream the album without you ever having to go near a shiny disc.

In any case, there are still an awful lot of people who listen to music, but don’t subscribe to a streaming music service, or even use a free one. And they buy Adele albums as her gargantuan sales show.]

Back to Amazon Music.

30 million tracks is a ridiculously large number. So is one million. That’s still a lot of music. In fact it’s a scary amount of music. That means that it’s interesting to see how much curation is coming into play with all the music services these days. Because unless you are a real “muso,” there’s nothing scarier than that empty flashing box at the top of the screen asking you what you’d like to listen to.

Most of us have no idea what to type, apart from a handful of very obvious artists.

So like Apple, Amazon has pre-populated dozens of playlists for you start with.

And when you consider that some popular radio stations play as few as 400 unique tracks across a month, you’ll understand that a million tracks is actually quite a lot of choice even when you dive down into your preferred genres of music.

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My main criticism of the service so far is accessing the music. It is true that there are perfectly functional apps for iOS and Android, with the latter not requiring you to download it from Amazon’s own store rather than Google Play as the do with the Amazon Video app. They’re functional rather than wonderful, but you get offline downloads and it merges purchased tracks with Prime Music that you “add” to your library.

But curiously, if you use a Fire TV, you’re mostly limited to playlists. I’ve yet to discover a good way to navigate around their offering, looking for individual albums within the Fire TV interface. If it’s there, it’s not intuitive.

The one thing I can’t try is listening via the Amazon Echo. Having recently had a chance to play with one a little, I’d actually love to buy one of these devices. But Amazon has yet to deign to release them outside of the US for reasons that aren’t really clear, since just about all the rest of the hardware, even their ill-fated phone, made it to the UK.

For me, the most useful aspect of Prime Music remains the automatic digital copies Amazon has of at least some of the CDs I’ve bought from it over the years. It’s not complete – indeed today, there are still plenty of new CDs that don’t come with Amazon’s AutoRip. But it at least gives me an immediate subset of my audio catalogue which can be supplemented with the Prime offering.

In the end, is this as good as the other streaming services? No, of course not. It was never designed to be. But if your household is already paying for Amazon Prime, then I can imagine a lot of people very happy to dip into Prime Music now and again.

Not Predicting the Mercury Music Prize

Here’s an oddity.

Music Week has published a list of albums that Google Play Music says represent the volume of streams that albums eligible for the Mercury Music Prize have achieved.

So they’ve looked at acts that released albums between September, 9 2014 and September 25, 2015. The official shortlist is published in a couple of days.

Google Play Music says it’s not trying to predict the outcome of the nominations but is looking at what’s popular on its service. But I find the list a little curious.

I should say up front that I’ve only personally listened to one of the shortlisted albums (Jamie xx). But the list seems very heavily skewed. So I thought I’d add the album release dates to the list. Here’s what you get.

ArtistAlbum% of StreamsRelease DateEligible Days
Bring Me The HorizonThat’s The Spirit24.16%11 Sept 1514
Jess GlynneI Cry When I Laugh17.95%21 Aug 1535
FoalsWhat Went Down11.33%28 Aug 1528
Years & YearsCommunion10.32%22 Jun 1595
James BayChaos & The Calm8.62%23 Mar 15186
The LibertinesAnthems For Doomed Youth5.29%11 Sep 1514
Krept & KonanThe Long Way Home5.02%3 Jul 1584
Catfish & The BottlemenThe Balcony4.69%15 Sep 14375
Mumford & SonsWilder Mind4.16%4 May 15144
Florence & The MachineHow Big, How Beautiful, How Blue3.28%29 May 15119
Jamie xxIn Colour2.63%29 May 15119
Everything EverythingGet To Heaven2.56%22 Jun 1595

A couple of things immediately jump out at you. The sum of the percentages comes to 100% (100.01%, but that’s rounding error). So these percentages are within the universe of these albums only. I imagine this is to hide the relative sizes of these albums to others.

It also seems very curious that the albums released most recently have the highest percentage of streams. That’s The Spirit apparently achieved a quarter of all streams, yet was only available for two weeks. Whereas Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind has been out for a good 6 months yet only got 4%.

That means either those most recently released albums have achieved astonishing playback in a short period of time, or someone has only sampled data from the very recent past, and unsurprisingly, the newest music got streamed the most.

If you chart these figures it becomes a little clearer

It’s by no means a perfect relationship, since popular albums will do well, but it’s clear that the most recent releases get the most plays.

In other words, Google Play Music used a very recent sample to determine its list, which hardly seems a fair way to produce a list as it skews the data towards recent releases that have lots of buzz.

Oh, and of course the Mercury Music Prize is judged on slightly more than popularity, or (I would hope) albums with the biggest marketing budgets. But hey, any PR is good PR right?

[Update 16 October: In completely unsuprising news, the actual Mercury shortlist looks nothing like this list, with only Florence & The Machine and Jamie xx appearing on the real list, and five of the shortlisted albums not having charted at all, which is probably part of the point of the awards.]

Super-serving Men 20-44

Today we finally heard a few details* about the relaunch of Xfm as Radio X. The much mooted re-branding sees Chris Moyles take over breakfast, with Vernon Kay on mid-mornings and Johnny Vaughan on drive.

Jon Holmes will move to weekend breakfast, when Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs (and The Voice) will have a show. While I’ve not seen the full schedule, it’s clear that some people will be staying and others going – Eddie Temple Morris will be taking his long-running The Remix show to Soho Radio for example.

The station will also be going onto the national D1 DAB platform – albeit another mono station – where it’s replacing Teamrock.

Re-brands are never easy, since audiences hate change. A quick glance at Xfm’s Facebook page shows that. But Global know what to expect – they’ve re-branded much of the UK’s commercial radio output over the last few years, as they built the Heart and Capital networks.

But sad though it is for those who love the station as it is now, something really had to be done with Xfm. Essentially it has been a bit of a basket case for a while, not getting to a million listeners in a while, and suffering especially in the London marketplace. And it’s notable that the small Paisley FM licence has been handed back to Ofcom.

That’s not to say that those that listen don’t love it. They don’t want changes as they like it as it is. But with lack of investment and a resurgent 6 Music becoming the “cool” station, it couldn’t easily carry on as it was.

One place that Xfm has actually always done well in is the advertising community. Advertisers love being involved in cool brands. And over the years, despite poor listening figures, Xfm was able to captialise on that. The audience may be small, but it was passionate and otherwise hard to reach. So like those strange magazines that seem like bastard children of Nathan Barley’s Sugar Ape, selling virtually no copies but being very profitable, so was Xfm able to get by. But following its threatened closure, it was 6 Music that had the kudos. And that’s what Global needs to get back.

It’s been reported that Moyles want’s to double Xfm’s audience. To be honest, that should be achievable considering the starting point. And it doesn’t actually have to do as well as 6 Music in audience terms to be a success. The BBC can’t take advertising, but Radio X can.

The wider question is what this means for its target audience. The press release for Radio X says that it will be “a completely new national music and entertainment property for 25-44 year old men.”

Well that’s essentially the same demographic that Absolute Radio is already targeting and has been for many years.

And there’s there the forthcoming version of Virgin Radio, from UTV and the Virgin Group in the new year. We are again promised a service that will target 25-44 year olds.

That’s suddenly a lot of stations all targeting the same people.

But just because you’re targeting the same audience, it doesn’t mean that the music will be the same. The Radio X press release says they’ll be playing: “Florence And The Machine, Mumford And Sons, Blur, Arctic Monkeys, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, The Maccabees, Radiohead, Nirvana, The Smiths, Royal Blood, Kasabian, Catfish And The Bottlemen and Kings Of Leon.”

Except that all bar five of those artists appear in the top 40 most played artists on Absolute Radio according to Comparemyradio. And of the remaining five:

– Absolute Radio plays Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds more than any other service on Comparemyradio
– Absolute Radio is the third biggest player of The Maccabees and Royal Blood
– Absolute Radio is the fifth biggest player of Nirvana after stablemates Absolute Radio 90s, Absolute Classic Rock, Kerrang! and Planet Rock

Only Catfish and the Bottlemen haven’t been on Absolute Radio is the last 30 days. But then, of the stations Comparemyradio measures, they’ve only had a handful of plays on TCR and Radio 1 period. (Note that Xfm isn’t currently monitored by Comparemyradio).

In other words, this isn’t going to be an entirely unique sound.

And as a commenter on Digital Spy noted, there is some disparity between the a station who’s character of service claims its targeting 15-34 year olds, and one who’s commercial aim is to target men 25-44.

So Global is starting over. From the characters of the presenters in the key drive slots, you’d imagine that speech will be as important as the music they play – and that’s ever more true amongst an audience that is perfectly able to find music on its own without the help of a radio station.

To go for a full rebrand would suggest that they feel the need to leave the Xfm brand behind. It just isn’t cool and can’t regain that coolness. I think what’ll be important is how they market the station. Global isn’t scared to spend a lot of money on marketing and we’ve seen big and bold commercials for the Heart and Capital brands. Radio X will be harder. For example few stations truly advertise nationally on television, even if they’re national brands like Global’s because it’s very expensive to do that. I would imagine that much of the Radio X budget will go towards its FM sites in London and Manchester. While both are highly competitive radio markets, it’s the obvious starting point (and the ad agencies are in London which is important). But digital marketing will also be key for this audience.

Anyone looking for Moyles to repeat what he did at Radio 1 would be foolish. That audience has moved on. I wouldn’t expect to see anyone too worried at Radio 1. But it will be interesting to see what Bauer does to combat the threat, particularly to Absolute Radio. It does have its successful Absolute Radio Network to support it, but this probably represents the biggest direct competition the station has had in its history. I wonder if there will be any marketing budget released to compete a bit.

* Incidentally, Global really needs to redesign its corporate site. It’s just dreadful for navigation, and not remotely responsive in design.