'Music industry' veteran - former BPI Director of Communications & Development and editor of Music Week - Steve Redmond's guest post...
One day in late September 1987 journalist Douglas Keay stepped over the threshold of Number 10 Downing Street for a set-piece interview with the Prime Minister for Woman’s Own.
As the two chatted, neither of them realised that one seven word sentence would still be resonating through British politics thirty years later - Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “There is no such thing as society.”
For many it summed up the essence of the Thatcherite programme – a selfish individualism prepared to trample over anything and anyone in the pursuit of money.
That interpretation, if you look at the original speech, was not the whole story.
What Thatcher was actually trying to say was the somewhat less remarkable thought that “society” is an abstraction, that “society” doesn’t do or think or feel anything, that “society” is simply a handy collective term and that where decisions and desires and commitment really take place is at the individual level.
The Thatcher argument was that focusing on the big picture of society rather than on individuals means you risk not being able to see the trees for the wood.
Which brings us to the music industry and, more specifically, that obsessively picked-over topic, the future of the music industry.
Last week Warner Music boss Edgar Bronfmann Jr revealed in a conference call that he had fallen out of love with free streaming services like Spotify.
No one should have been surprised. It was clear from the outset that the revenues services like Spotify are able to generate from advertising is simply not enough right now to satisfy the cash requirements of record labels and music publishers. Even worse, time spent listening to free music inevitably displaces time which could potentially be spent listening to paid-for music. In other words, why buy music when you can listen to it for free?
Spotify in itself was never going to be “the future of the music industry,” Yet that didn’t stop numerous pundits and many in the industry describing it as such. As recently as January 27, the BBC asked breathlessly “Is streaming the future of music?”
I noted after Midem the other week the strange fact that it is now at least 10 years since the convention first posed the question, How to make money out of digital music?
Now Bronfman has punctured the Spotify balloon, it is worth remembering that it is not the first saviour of the music industry to fail to deliver us to the Promised Land. Remember:
- Napster to Go
- 360 deals
- Comes with Music
- Starbucks Music
- Bacardi’s sponsorship of Groove Armada
All of them attracted the enthusiastic endorsement of music’s commentariat, that unholy alliance of trade associations, consultants, bloggers and “futurists” who dominate the debate about the music business.
Sadly, the only firm conclusion which can be drawn from this list is that the credibility of a new music business saviour is often in inverse proportion to the enthusiasm it generates among these people.
The search for the one killer app’ that will save the music industry has dominated the headline debate for music now for more than a decade.
To put that into context, 10 years is longer than the average career in the music business. A whole generation of music executives, maybe more, have been and gone while we’ve been discussing The Next Big Thing.
Isn’t it perhaps time to consider whether the pundits have been asking the wrong question. Maybe the reason they haven’t discovered the future of the music business is not that there isn’t going to be a future – I think we can be reasonably certain that there will – but that there is no such thing as “the music industry”.
The music industry is not one thing. It’s a thousand. It’s hugely fragmented by sector (live, recording, merchandise etc) by function (agent, A&R, marketing) and by genre.
But yet the commentariat persists in using a language which describes this series of disparate, competing, often cottage businesses as though it was a monolithic Soviet command economy in which those at the top could rescue us all as long as they made the right decision.
They cannot and they will not. To echo Mrs Thatcher, there is no such thing as “the music industry”.
Which means by definition that any new service billed as “the future of the music industry” cannot help but fail.
It follows that putting such an unrealistic expectation on a new service means it is condemned to fall short.
To paraphrase current Tory leader David Cameron’s withering put-down of Tony Blair: You were the future once, Spotify.
But only if you ask the wrong question.
Spotify is a fantastic service for music fans. It may or may not end up making money.
But what we can be certain of is that it is not the future of the music business.
The future of the music business will be as varied and chaotic as music itself. And it is in that variety and chaos that music and the business which surrounds it will find their strength and vigour.