What Hi-Fi (UK) - - First Test -

Mu­sic’s in trou­ble. With phys­i­cal sales wan­ing and stream­ing short on profit, most mu­si­cians are strug­gling to make money. But a new ini­tia­tive could mean that, be­fore long, all of us will be danc­ing to a dif­fer­ent tune

BBC Mu­sic is plan­ning to put out an app in 2016. “So what?” you may say. “We don’t need an­other mu­sic app.” In­deed, but this one is not aim­ing to be the next Spo­tify. It is in­spired by Ap­ple Mu­sic’s Beats 1 ra­dio ser­vice. We think this gives us a glimpse at the fu­ture of the mu­sic busi­ness.

The prob­lem

Mu­sic dis­tri­bu­tion, as it stands, faces a ma­jor prob­lem: it is un­sus­tain­able. Phys­i­cal sales are in de­cline, even with all the pos­i­tiv­ity sur­round­ing the come­back of vinyl. Dig­i­tal down­loads have been steadily fall­ing since 2012.

Stream­ing is clearly the way for­ward, but none of the ser­vices is mak­ing enough money to sur­vive in the long run. Rdio is dead, can­ni­balised by Pandora. Qobuz re­cently went into re­ceiver­ship. Even Spo­tify, the most ubiq­ui­tous of the lot, is mak­ing heavy losses.

The mas­sive record la­bels hold the copy­rights and so are bet­ter placed to weather the fi­nan­cial storm, yet they too are feel­ing the pinch. But it’s worse still for the mu­si­cian who de­pends on stream­ing ser­vices to pro­vide a steady trickle of in­come. If that stream dries up, it is the be­gin­ning of the end of recorded mu­sic.

What to do? For starters, let’s drum up more in­ter­est and ramp up the num­ber of pay­ing cus­tomers. That’s where the BBC Mu­sic app’s di­rec­tion serves as a crys­tal ball. Lit­tle has been an­nounced about this app, but the BBC has said it has plans to go big on per­son­al­i­sa­tion – the core prin­ci­ple be­hind Ap­ple Mu­sic.

So­lu­tion one

Why per­son­al­i­sa­tion? Be­cause it is no longer enough to of­fer a mas­sive li­brary of mu­sic. There must be more of an in­cen­tive for peo­ple to sign up. When MP3 play­ers and ipods came along, the idea of car­ry­ing all your mu­sic in your pocket was an ap­peal­ing one. Now we have all the world’s mu­sic just a tap away, and it is over­whelm­ing. So there has to be a de­gree of cu­ra­tion, se­lec­tion and rec­om­men­da­tion.

That said, it is not ac­cept­able just to trawl through data. Spo­tify knows your pref­er­ences and where, and when, you lis­ten – but that does not en­cour­age trust.

BBC Mu­sic reck­ons the so­lu­tion is part man, part ma­chine. Let’s say the num­bers iden­tify a group of peo­ple who are into Gre­go­rian chant­ing. That’s where a hu­man might sug­gest they lis­ten to Magna Canta.

‘Data-led hunches’ is the term of­fered by video stream­ing gi­ant Netflix, and things are cer­tainly go­ing well for them. In the fu­ture, mu­sic rec­om­men­da­tion will strad­dle the line be­tween au­ton­omy and au­to­ma­tion.

So­lu­tion two

Cu­ra­tion adds value, but it is still pas­sive. Stream­ing ser­vices need to be more in­ter­ac­tive if they are to draw peo­ple in.

Let’s look at Youtube. It is ruled by in­ter­net celebri­ties with view­ing fig­ures that dwarf the big­gest mu­sic stars. Take Pewdiepie, a 25-year-old Swede who posts footage of him­self play­ing videogames and swear­ing. His chan­nel has nearly 41 mil­lion sub­scribers. Adele? Just un­der nine mil­lion.

It’s not be­cause an an­gry Nordic geek in­her­ently has more ap­peal than a pop star. It’s be­cause he en­gages. He might take sug­ges­tions. He might post com­ments, in­ter­act­ing with fans and of­fer­ing a de­gree of au­then­tic­ity.

We’re not say­ing Adele needs to start re­ply­ing to ev­ery com­ment that comes her way, but spon­tane­ity gen­er­ates buzz and th­ese days it is buzz that gives you on­line clout. In-progress lyrics, in­spi­ra­tions, footage of an artist eat­ing pizza – this is the sort of con­nec­tion that en­gages. More per­son­al­ity than per­son­al­i­sa­tion – and per­son­al­ity goes a long way.

So­lu­tion three

In the long term, there re­mains the is­sue of power, held by the record la­bels in an out­dated busi­ness model that does lit­tle to fur­ther the cre­ative as­pi­ra­tions of artists.

Grammy-win­ning artist Imo­gen Heap is lead­ing a rev­o­lu­tion. “Let’s say I de­cide I want to give my mu­sic away for free to stu­dents or peo­ple over 60,” she says. “Cur­rently, I can’t do that, even though it is my mu­sic.”

Her so­lu­tion: turn the whole dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem up­side down to cre­ate ‘fair trade mu­sic’.

“I no longer have a record la­bel. I’m out of con­tract. Which means I’m free to ex­per­i­ment and find a way of work­ing that works for the artists.”

She paints an im­age of a stream­lined mu­sic in­dus­try that pri­ori­tises the re­la­tion­ship be­tween artists and fans. In this world, artists re­ceive pay­ment di­rectly to their web­sites. Pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble con­tracts would show how much any col­lab­o­ra­tor is owed. Money is au­to­mat­i­cally and ap­pro­pri­ately shared.

On­line shops and stream­ing ser­vices? They’d get their mu­sic from the artist’s web­site, same as ev­ery­body else.


This is not as far fetched as it sounds. The in­fra­struc­ture for such a sys­tem al­ready ex­ists in the form of a global net­work of in­ter­con­nected com­put­ers. It is called the Blockchain, and it is the next step for the in­ter­net. de­fines the Blockchain as ‘a shared, trusted pub­lic ledger that ev­ery­one can in­spect, but which no sin­gle user con­trols’.

Es­sen­tially, ev­ery­one’s com­puter is used to form a gi­gan­tic pub­lic record, re­ly­ing on safety in num­bers. The sys­tem does not tol­er­ate dis­crep­an­cies, which means it is tam­per-proof. The­o­ret­i­cally, it is the most se­cure way to pub­licly record in­for­ma­tion and trans­ac­tions – so se­cure it un­der­pins Bit­coin, the dig­i­tal cur­rency.

Would this sys­tem work for mu­sic? Pos­si­bly. The record la­bels won’t be pleased, but it would straighten the tan­gles of mu­sic own­er­ship and open the path to fair pay­ment, ul­ti­mately lead­ing to a health­ier in­dus­try.

Bri­tish mu­si­cian Imo­gen Heap in her home stu­dio

in Lon­don

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