What will happen to the music industry?

Since MIDEM, I have been reflecting a lot on the future of the music industry. As I wrote below, as an outsider, I was discouraged by what seemed to be backwards thinking regarding what I see as the great opportunities of the era of the networked audience.

Two posts today from Techdirt and the MIDEM blog question whether the recording industry is really ready to collaborate and cooperate with new services and fans or whether all that talk is just another PR campaign.

What struck me at MIDEM was that for all the sobbing or cynical snickering from those within the industry about the damage being done and the jobs and revenue being lost, I found that most of the time I was surrounded by really smart, really optimistic people who were creating new jobs, new revenue streams, and having a really good time doing well in the music business.

The thing was, all those people had accepted that the audience is irrevocably networked and that digital music is and will always be easily and freely shared. They were building businesses that use social media to turn people on to new music, to connect people to one another around music, and to provide comprehensible data analysis to the people making and marketing music. They weren’t in the old jobs working for record labels and publishing companies.

If I were a futurist, I would predict this future:

As the old industry behemoths focus more and more on controlling intellectual property, fewer and fewer artists will be willing to deal with the restrictions this places on their fans’ ability to build excitement around them. Rather than fearing the exchange of their music for free, or the propensity of fans to make their own videos and remixes, more and more artists will seek it out, realizing there’s plenty of money to be made giving the music away and selling scarcities (see Masnick’s Techdirt writings for long exegeses of this idea).

Third party companies and services  on the internet will make it easier and easier for artists to spread their music and reap financial rewards outside of the sign-with-a-label/get-on-the-radio system. Eventually the recording industry as it stands now will become a small marginalized part of the industry as the people who understand that “protecting” intellectual property is a good way to kill your business, while sharing is a good way to build it decide it makes more sense for them to forego major label representation. To the extent that rights-holders opt in to a system that locks them into a protectionist-orientation, they’ll be increasingly irrelevant. To the extent that they bypass that increasingly restrictive system, they’ll thrive. Eventually there will be so many outside the system, what’s now fringe will be the norm.

Now I understand that it’s not reasonable to expect musicians to also be ace marketers and social media experts. The people at labels do real work, and I don’t mean to dimish that. The huge need is going to be a new kind of intermediary, not a label, not exactly a manager (though they’ll still be useful), but the social-media-advisor who can make sense of the many forms of media through which word is spreading, the many kinds of social activity through which those words flow, and guide the musicians’ media presence.

For those who say “but musicians should be able to make a living by charging people for the music, they shouldn’t have to do all that other stuff” I say, well yeah, in the perfect world. But this is the new world. Some people may still get away with that, but clinging to that historically brief past in which recorded music could be a primary source of income will only lead to obsolescence.


On a housekeeping note, I apologize to any readers who are bummed that I’ve been such an infrequent blogger. I find my thoughts these days are either happening in 140 character form or really long form (since my blogging slow down I’ve written four book chapters and two journal articles as well as a few talks). Blog post length seems either too long or too short. But I’ll keep trying.

Relating to Fans Means Helping Them Relate to Each Other

Here, for your reading pleasure, is a PDF of the talk I gave at MIDEMNet last week titled Making The Most of Online Music Fandom. Bruce at Hypebot, one of the excellent people I met there, was kind enough to do a near-instant writeup.


I identify 5 key social practices in fandom, 5 reasons the internet has superpowered fans, and make 4 suggestions for how artists and those who represent them can make this work for everyone. I argue that the key to fostering fans’ strong connections to artists is fostering their connections to one another by understanding and nurturing the activities that bind them together in their fandom.

For me, this page in the middle of the talk is the key:

Of course, the flip side to fans’ empowerment is what seems a lot like disempowerment to those who’ve been able to control music production, distribution and coverage. It’s natural to respond to this with fear. The threats are real. Those in industry  may want to stop fans from:  Criticizing them, spreading their music, using their name, bootlegging their shows, discussing their private lives, writing fantasies about them, spreading misinformation.

But getting control back is not an option. That genie is not going back in the bottle. The power struggle and the tensions it raises will continue for the foreseeable future.

The relationship between fans and artists is less and less like a business relationship in which artists and industry set the terms and audiences either buy or don’t, and more and more like a social relationship in which bands and fans have to negotiate terms together.

They are independent, they have their own goals, and they will do things you don’t like. They can also help you.

As always, your feedback is welcomed in comments.

The Future vs The Past of Entertainment

Since leaving MIDEM my thoughts have been all ajumbled, but as they begin to settle, one thing that seems strikingly clear is the contrast between the dominant rhetoric I heard there, particularly from those within the music industry proper, and the rhetoric I heard at the Futures of Entertainment conference in November. In short, if the Futures of Entertainment was about the future – or multiple tracks the future is taking – MIDEM seemed to be largely about the past, sticking to old ways of thinking and trying to make old models work in a world they no longer fit.

In her write-up of the Futures of Entertainment conference, Flourish Klink does a great job of summarizing some of its dominant themes:

* The death of “viral” and “meme.” People choose what they pass along to other people. The content matters. If something is viral or memetic, it’s caught or coded into DNA, not chosen. “Viral” and “meme” are broadcast ideas, where the all-powerful content producer forces the weak consumers to enjoy and propagate something. They’re wrong. From Henry Jenkins.

* The birth of “spreadability.” When people say that they want a video to “go viral,” they mean that they want it to spread. Good media is spreadable media. From Henry Jenkins.

* Value vs. worth. Things have monetary value, but their worth is hard to measure. Companies exist in a world that’s all about money, but fans typically participate in gift economies. When companies try to “monetize” fans (and incidentally, the death of “monetize” was extensively discussed on the hashtag) they run into problems because fans don’t operate that way.

In contrast, the word “monetize” was in the very theme of the MIDEMNet program (“Monetizing the fan-artist relationship”) and was absolutely the dominant theme of the meeting. Viral got an occassional nod, though often as something scary, and the notion of spreadability was not even close to present (except when presented by those outside the industry). With a very few exceptions I heard very few people at MIDEM asking the question “how can we provide value to our audience?” Instead I heard them asking “how can we get money from our audience?”

The people at Futures of Entertainment, some of whom were working at huge mainstream media companies like HBO or NBC, were all asking: how can we use new media to get fans more involved with our product? How can we use these tools to keep them engaged and give them the resources to help them bring in new fans? How can we collaborate with fans in ways that make the product and the experience around it better for all of us?

The people at MIDEM were asking “how can we make sure that every time someone downloads a song, we get paid?” Though there were some great examples of keeping fans engaged (Mike Masnick summarizes them well here), with the exception of the industry people who worked directly with fans (like the person who runs Pearl Jam’s website or the guy who oversees Kanye West’s online presence) for the most part, there was simply no concept of “fan” there at all. Sure they used the word, but what they usually meant was “downloader,” an entirely different concept.

At MIDEM I met many industry people who are passionate about their work, and who see their chance to do what they do professionally disappearing. I spoke with a wonderful woman who used to be in music videos, for her the fact that fans will now make awesome videos for free is not a great example of artist-fan connectivity, but the end of her chosen career.

At the same time, I also met many many people who are building new careers by asking the hard and interesting questions about how to make the internet and mobile media work for both artists and fans. I left believing that the jobs are not disappearing, but they are shifting. I imagine if college teaching were replaced by, say, user-built wikis that could result in the earning of a college degree, I would feel profoundly threated as well. I would probably rant against it and point out its shortcomings.

But I hope that if I were faced with a seismic shift like that, I would be able to look toward the future and ask how I could use the skills I have to provide value to those students instead of looking to the long arm of the law, hoping they would pass regulation to ensure that students still had to take my classes the way I want to teach them.

Finally, lest this seem like I am unappreciative of having attended MIDEM, quite the contrary — I had a great time, I learned a great deal, and I find it very heartening that people like me and Mike Masnick were invited to speak there.

We Are Ready to Barack and Roll

One thing I love about my new President is that he inspires his followers to create in ways that erase the boundaries between politics and fandom. Here’s to President Obama:

I’ve got this image on today:

my shirt

Now let’s fix the world.

Spring Classes!

I’ve finished up the syllabi for the two classes I’m teaching this semester.

I’m teaching an undergraduate course called Communication On The Internet. The sections of the course outline correspond to the chapters of my book Personal Connections In A Digital Age, which I hope will see the light of day around this time next year.

I also teach a graduate course on Qualitative Research Methods in Communication Studies, which includes some material on qualitative research and the internet, including, of course, the book Annette Markham and I just co-edited on the topic.

I hope they’re useful for some of you.