I’m not part of the I-pod revolution

I wish I had an I-pod, being a walker by nature and circumstance I’d love to have a playback device so small and convenient that listening to music on ones travels is painless, not too mention the fashionable aspect of it. I doubt I will get one in the short or medium term, I’m more likely to buy records than hardware to listen to music on, alas that is my musical vice, technology is cool but music is way cooler. So I sometimes hanker for an I-Pod, especially when contemplating a decent walk, but that’s about as far as I’ve gone to date.

The launch of I-Pod’s online store in Australia seems to have bypassed most of the media I follow, which seems rather strange considering how much time and space some outlets have devoted to the lack of a local and usable online store for us lot here, yes there are a couple but they have yet to make any real impact and probably never will, its all about Apple and the I-pod really now isn’t it.

The European and US stores cannot and will not sell to us, due to licensing issues - for those who don’t know.

Over the past decade and a bit I’ve followed the introduction of a variety of digital download sites and business models that sought ways to deliver music via the internet that also had financial viability and credibility for the artists and labels involved. The ones I liked the most came to nothing, those that basically mimick the physical world have become the norm, for now.

I even own a third share in a digital download site – one that will never see the light of day unfortunately or maybe fortunately. A long story, not a very interesting one. All was on track, we had licenses in place and had signed up a few labels to represent their catalogue online, then I got too busy and couldn’t fulfil all my obligations to the crucial setup stage in the time needed and then the coder guy got busy, lost interest and bailed. Leaving us with some decisions to make and due to changes we all were going through in our other business lives the thing floundered and sits partially complete not to see the light of day again, I imagine. Many hours wasted but a good exercise none the less.

In the mid nineties there was a flurry of activity coming out of the US from a number of companies signing up labels for schemes that never really got off the ground. Some of the negotiations’ for the label where I worked at the time I was involved in, due to the fact I wear glasses and know a bit about computers – well it was really the specs, if I’d just had a white coat… The strange upshot of the schemes back then was the term the licenses sought by the various US companies – most were for at least a decade (far too long at the time and very inflexible for the label and artist) and often included kickback and share schemes for the signatory from the label – incentives… nope, blatant bribes. Anyways those schemes disappeared after a while as the sites never eventuated nor did a workable business model, perhaps it was the way the companies went about seeking licenses rather than their attempt to sell music that was the stumbling block. I know we didn’t sign up at the time. Anyways, it was interesting but came to nothing. Quite possibly the dot com crash sealed the fate of most, I guess.

The second phase of activity centred around that upstart of a software company Napster, which is where the revolution really took hold. The beginnings of peer to peer (P2P) file sharing systems that have since liberated some many millions of music fans from the need to stick their hands in their wallets. Also the start point for many a lawyer to make some serious dosh representing copy write holders in the digital domain that resulted and continues to in a multitude of court cases that Napster and other subsequent P2P software houses have faced. Interesting stuff most of it, however for all but those with a lot of reading time and the inclination on their hands a dull subject to follow.

The reaction by the established corporate face of the music industry to P2P was and continues to be ugly and stupidly thought out, tackling the users/fans in many a court case that only furthered the alienation many felt from the powerhouses of the music world.

A business world where the label is always the enemy and the artist the downtrodden, with selfishness being the strongest motivator for the consumer, well maybe selfishness is a bit harsh, perhaps I should say cheapness of people – which is of course the sort of accusation only someone with a vested interest would make. The fan in me is all up for the proliferation of music by any means.

A culture has grown that feels everything on the internet should be free, and music is the cornerstone of the free for all policy that has flourished and solidified itself for at least a generation. I feel that the only industry that ever had the right approach to the internet is that of the pornographers and whilst I have no figures to back my feelings up I do believe that porn and the digestion of pornographic material has increased exponentially since the internet became common place and user friendly, but that’s not my interest or the topic for today. The music industry, the mainstream part, was slow to react and embrace the new and thus lost the battle for the fans before they even started. Now its all about reducing the impact and loss of sales not embracing and creating a new era of business, although that has come, slowly and sluggishly.

Now whilst the majors and surrounding companies looked for workable ways to sell music on line and continued their fight against the P2P’ers there was a vacuum, a vacuum that the free for all sites filled with legal and illegal material for all to download and share at their leisure. It was a revolution in the truest sense of the word and the repercussions will be felt for many, many years ahead. In fact the revolution has started to seriously impact on other media realms, namely that of the movie industry, which coupled with the proliferation of physical pirating is costing the movie houses in the region of two billion dollars in lost revenue last year alone… mind boggling numbers. But again I am not concerned today with flims, though will say compared to the music biz, the movie houses command way more money and thus power in their fight against piracy and the free for all that is currently sweeping the globe. There tactics emulate those of the music companies, and thus I fear they will also alienate a generation and ultimately pay the price – or we will through less decent movies and more shite ones, fewer in number too no doubt.

Fast forward to the I-Pod, finally a piece of kit that played MP3’s and had the backup of the I-Tunes store for the average law abiding consumer to get out the plastic card and buy up all them songs they desired. The I-Pod itself isn’t the only piece of technology available but its is the biggest and most widely known, thus I am only confining my thoughts and opinions to that particular beast.

We’ve all seen the articles and multiple stories of how successful I-Tunes has become, millions of songs downloaded at a very affordable rate and the consumer was king or queen for that matter. Once more the majors had the upper hand, it seemed, a rightful place to ease the steadily declining physical sales and loss of income they and the lesser companies had had to endure. A viable and fashionable way to find revenue in a music industry that is and was in disarray.

But all was not happy in the world of the large boardrooms, the returns for music companies on selling via I-Tunes didn’t come with the sort of margins that ya average CEO gets all hot and bothered over, in fact if anything the music was too cheap, furthering the cheapening of the actual physical product of CDs and prices fell, once again, and still this didn’t ease the continuing reduction of physical sales.

The music industry tried (belatedly) and is continuing to try and hit back over the small margins they enjoy via I-Tunes, though the only means left to them, asking Apple for more of a slice of the action and pushing for a price rise – something that won’t happen, I’m sure. Accusations came thick and fast from Steve Jobs and the Apple crew accusing the music companies of being overly greedy, as the online sales was no cash cow for them either, they however had the happy margins that the hardware (I-pod) itself to more than offset any loses attributed to running the online stores with such slim margins – took the music types a while to cotton onto the fact that they had openly and willingly (maybe also begrudgingly) entered into the deals they did and are now for the short term at least stuck in. Something I must say the multinationals have excelled in over the past decade – dumb short term decisions that ultimately cost them market share and power over their and their artists own future destiny. It’s all now a rear guard action, one that they will ultimately lose I feel. Apple accuses the majors of being greedy and they counter that with their own claims of Apple doing the same, two children in the sandpit throwing insults and perhaps at some point sand… it all comes back to a plateaux of mud, I’m telling ya.

Outside of the huge players is the Independent sector – a large and significant chunk of the music industry, they were in most cases left out of any negotiations, as per normal and were left with a like it or lump it attitude from Apple. Until I-Tunes Europe that is. There the indies of the UK and Europe fought for a slice of the action and higher margins, which to a degree they managed to gain, crumbs off the boardroom table really, but a start, perhaps. The real action here was the Indies organising themselves and fighting the big players on all sides for recognition and a right to have a say in their collective futures, which alone is a good thing. Not totally a new thing but a significant milestone none the less.

Here in St Clouds, opps, I mean New Zealand under our antiquated copy write laws a consumer here has no legal right to ‘format shift’ music – that is create copies of anything they have already brought, be it for backup or for the I-Pod or whatever MP3 player one has etc. Now all laws are antiquated when it concerns new technology, that is alas the way of legalities, the legal system is slow to react to anything – one of its inherent weaknesses and also strengths. The law should evolve slowly, this I don’t dispute as it’s important, vitally so that when a law is amended or created that it’s done right, preferably first time. Thus time is crucial. This doesn’t of course help matters in the real world, for that puppy marches on regardless of legalities, especially in our internet anonymous age. Increasingly things march on at a rate of knots that the legal beagles will never keep pace with.

So back to NZ, here the I-Pod sales have boomed, as they have all over the globe and with Apples I-Tunes store finally opening in the land of Oz, New Zealand consumers can now legally buy tunes for the I-Pod from I-Tunes. I am still surprised the store opened, I would have bet against one ever opening here as the population size of NZ and Australia combined is not a mecca for any business, unlike the US, Asia and Europe we are tiny in comparison, almost irrelevant one would think – however one must note Australia has been the saving grace of many an artist and record company though the sheer volume of music that continues to sell there. Strangely enough Australia was one of the last countries to see serious sales downturns in the physical side of the biz – weird. I reckon it’s cause they is slow…. being a proud kiwi, I would do.

So in Australia since the launch of I-Tunes, only last week, the retail and music companies have struck back to protect the physical side of the business by doing what? Dropping their prices – fucking muppets! May as well just raise the white flag now guys, is all I can think. Just like how DVDs were priced too cheaply and now have lost any decent retail price the continual discounting of music is a lose/lose scenario for them with a vested interest. There were better strategies to employ before dropping ones pants, but pants have fallen and been cast aside and the world moves on under the assumption that they the consumers were cheated by profiteering music companies for years, a perception that with each and every action taken by the large players only seems to be confirmed in the eyes of the fans. This alone is a sad thing, as a multi national can weather a few years of losses, the small players can’t. Hell I could have run my business for almost a decade on what universal NZ lost last year alone… but I digress.

Whilst the proliferation of download sites and equipment to play MP3s and all the other file formats has nearly matched the demand from the consumer for cheap and readily accessible music (look at the way mobile phones have prostituted music to justify even more technology that most neither need nor want on the humble handset) the ultimate winner has and always will be from this point on be the consumer – which alone is not a bad thing. I would hazard a guess and say more people are being proactive in their musical choices than ever before – a wonderful side effect. The industry however has missed their chance to find the right means to consolidate their profits and ownership of the very product that is theirs by right. They now play second fiddle to just about all the other vested players and all the merging and rationalisation in the world will not give them the clout or return them to the glory days when profits were easy to find and consumers were waiting eager for their next release.

The future for the industry of pre-recorded music has never seemed bleaker, yet from this will come I believe new business models and ways for the artist and canny music company to do well. I am not sure what or how this will happen yet, I am sure it will happen. In the meantime we’ll see more rationalisation and redundancy in the big camps and less players able to stay in the game from the little guys.

As a species music is a universal necessity for us all – I reckon and history seems to back this up. Its hard to distance oneself from music, its is everywhere and with the advancement in recording technologies and the dramatic reduction in computer hardware and software prices more people than at any other point in time have the means to create their own music – means where one doesn’t need any real musical knowledge to crank out a killer tune, it helps but isn’t essential, unlike the bare minimum needed to play an instrument, now one can create with only a passing knowledge of a software package with as little skill as one needs to master copy and paste. Of course the adage is and will always be, just because one can doesn’t mean one should.

Interesting times we live in, exciting one could say, but not really. The exciting times, I feel, are yet to come. We get the painful time of change. As things are trialled in the real world, some will succeed and others will fail and only time will tell what lies ahead for the business of music. One things for sure, music shall go forth and accompany us on our adventure of life, that alone is comforting.

I firmly believe music is life and that’s a beautiful thing. Well it is for me and for all the ups, downs and disappointments I have endured as being a bit player in the business of music my love and passion for this medium has never abated, if anything it only grows with each passing day – I am a sad sad man and happily so.

Tis going to be an interesting week here, the radio ratings come out, Firday I think, something I always look forward too – doing a radio show an all, however my real interest is in the ups, downs and turnarounds of the various stations, a couple of which I follow very, very closely indeed. Ratings are arse of course, but that doesn’t mean people don’t take notice nor that they aren’t of passing interest for many. I know I expect one lot I dig to further enjoy an upswing in the number stakes, further confirming they have made the right choices and another I feel with see the opposite, further confirming my suspicions that the decisions they have made over the past couple of years were very short sighted and just plain stupid. We’ll see soon and I know I will if I’m right feel smug for seconds, maybe minutes and then move on with my life.

The past two days I have rediscovered the Fall and am revisiting many classics I have not bothered with for many a year, I am awash in Mark E Smith’s “ah’s” and this makes me smile a lot, ah.


Anonymous said…
Ah, the Fall. I've been working my way through the pretty damn wonderful BBC Peel Sessions box, and the key tracks from Fall Heads Roll are all fantastic. You gotta hear Blindness if you haven't already. Best English band ever.
Bob Daktari said…
I need that box set...

I had some dealings with the Fall at work for a while, was cool in a nerdy fan type way. Mark had forgiven Roger Sheppard (Flying Nun) for some past naughtiness ah
Anonymous said…
Saw Roger yesterday shopping in the Chaffers New World.
Simon said…
What a great post Simon.

That "Fall in a Hole" must worth a buck or two now!