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The Future of the Music Industry

Posted by Mike McCready | November 3rd, 2009 | No responses

This post first appeared on the Huffington Post – March 11, 2009

“In the race to adopt new technologies, the music industry historically has finished just ahead of the Amish.” – Stan Cornyn, former Warner Music Group executive

What is happening to the music industry?

In short, the traditional music industry has been beaten, battered and completely transformed by a perfect storm of new technologies. It actually started with the introduction of the CD back in 1982. Music was digitized and encoded on the CDs which we all bought to replace and enhance our vinyl collections. Then, along came the MP3 which enabled us to compress those CD song files down to manageable sizes and file sharing began.The next nail in the coffin of the traditional music industry was the emergence of MP3 players led by the iPod and digital retail led by iTunes. Once people became used to that, who wanted to carry around a CD case? Finally, the plummeting cost and decreasing technical knowledge required to make a decent sounding recording sounded the death knell for the major music labels, the backbone of the traditional music industry.

The music labels were society’s music filters. They were responsible for finding the best talent, nurturing it, promoting it and distributing it all over the world. But the labels were also incredibly inefficient. For each act they successfully promoted and on which they turned a profit, there were dozens, even hundreds of failed acts and artists in whom the labels had invested and had lost money. Few industries would have been able to operate with such numbers but the music industry had thrived under this system; mostly due to the large amounts of cash that were made with every success. With new technologies affecting almost every aspect of the ecosystem (from song creation to mass distribution) the labels could do little to prevent the demise of their business. Seeing opportunity before them, entrepreneurs emerged with ideas about how the whole industry could be run more efficiently.

Today, music is increasingly sold as digital files that you download to your computer and then put on your mobile device such as your iPod. Other services are increasingly enabling you to stream music on demand. Under that arrangement, you never actually own any music. You simply have access to all of it all the time. Physical music retail stores are going out of business and soon won’t exist as stand-alone shops.

Anyone can record and upload a song.

On the music creation side of the value chain, the cost of recording and producing a song has fallen through the floor. What used to cost tens of thousands of dollars and had to be done in a professional recording studio can now be done in a bedroom on a laptop computer. This is a great development that enables creative talent to emerge even in the absence of musical ability or even any musical knowledge. On the other hand, it has caused a veritable avalanche of new music to pour onto the web — much of it of dubious quality. Even the largest physical music stores couldn’t carry much more than 10,000 titles. That’s nothing compared to what’s now available at the click of a mouse. MySpace alone is said to host over 10 million acts. Other sites that cater to artists have hundreds of thousands of bands signed up to their services.

It is a jungle out there! How can the fans find the needles in the haystack they want to hear? How can the artists locate their future fans? It’s the fundamental problem the labels were solving but now they can’t do it effectively. There’s too much music for them to even try to filter effectively and nobody wants to buy their CDs anyway, so how can that work even be funded? The sale of digital files isn’t even coming close to compensating for the loss of revenue on the sale of physical goods so now there’s much less money to compensate for the labels’ inherent inefficiencies. In fact, most insiders believe recorded music will cease to be paid for by the end consumer. It will instead either be free (built into the cost of marketing other products) or built into the cost of other services you pay for such as your Internet and cable TV bill or your mobile phone service. It will feel free and the actual revenue generated from the distribution of recorded music will be a fragment of what it has been historically. So, where does that leave us?

Fortunately, it’s all going to be OK. There are dozens of emerging companies that are taking on these challenges and there are some really good ideas. It’s interesting to see the variety of approaches. Most agree that the currency of exchange for recorded music will be the attention of the fans instead of their money. If an artist can get attention they will be able to sell tickets to their shows, license songs to soundtracks and get money for endorsing products. The labels held the key to getting access to big opportunities but now the artists and their managers have to find other avenues.

In spite of the reduced barriers to music creation and access to easily have your song distributed to all of the digital outlets (see services such as TuneCore or The Orchard) it still almost always requires mass exposure in order for a song to really take hold and begin to earn some money. That means that once a song is created, it still requires enormous effort, time and resources to “push” and promote that song within the industry. Songs must still come to the attention of someone who has an opportunity. The gatekeepers, such as music supervisors in Hollywood, ad agencies, program directors and video game designers remain and will continue to remain in place playing a valuable role.

So, real change will come by leveling the playing field and by giving individual artists equal access to mass-exposure opportunities. This is the challenge we’re trying to solve with our new Music Xray service. (Pardon the plug but I can’t describe the solutions to the industry’s toughest challenges without describing our own solution since it represents our best thinking and thus my opinion).

Think of Music Xray as a kind of YouTube for songs in that each Music Xray represents one song. Each Music Xray get s a unique URL (just like a YouTube video) and each Music Xray can be embedded elsewhere around the web (again, just like a YouTube video). But that’s where the comparison with YouTube ends because a Music Xray is more than just an embeddable song player. Each Music Xray comes with a stack of modules that open and close (see here) and each module contains specific information about the song, such as its lyrics, how many times it is mentioned on Twitter, in blogs, how many times it is traded on peer to peer networks, what it’s market potential is, what kind of license under which the song is available, what other songs it sounds like, among much other information.

In addition to providing all of this information to the song owner (and anyone else they want to share it with), having so much information on each song allows us to provide a free filtering engine to the entire song buying music industry.

Imagine you’re an advertising executive and you want to license a song for your next ad campaign. You want something that sounds like “Brown Sugar” by Rolling Stones, which has 130 beats per minute, has the words “Russian roulette” in the lyrics, that has at least a 50% chance of becoming successful in a particular market, that already has a growing number of fans and an available license. The filtering system at Music Xray will soon provide that level of detail and that level of filtering ability. It will be a revolution in how that part of the business operates.

The important thing for artists is to have their music in databases of this sort. The one at Music Xray is particularly attractive because it will be open to anyone in the industry who wants to leverage Music Xray’s search capabilities. For a song owner, having their song in the Music Xray database will make it discoverable by anyone and reduces the work artists must do to promote their music within the industry once they’ve recorded it. It also reduces the work that music supervisors have to do when filtering hundreds of songs for each opportunity.

How will music consumption work?

From the music fan’s perspective, music recommendation engines will become a ubiquitous part of our lives, and not just for music and entertainment products but for many consumer goods and services. You’ve seen the ads for Angie’s List which compiles and features customer reviews of household and professional services. Amazon has been recommending books and other products for years based on what others with consumption habits similar to yours have purchased. This is just the beginning of where recommendations and “relevancy filtering” is going.

The best recommendation systems will be very sophisticated. They will expose you to enough of the “familiar” for you to feel like the system “gets” you and understands your tastes. They will expose you to enough of the “new” for you to feel like you are growing and evolving in your own unique direction. They will also keep you sufficiently in tune with your peers and with those who are like you for you to feel like you belong to a larger collective. They will know the difference between you at age 25 and you at age 45 and they will know which products you buy for yourself and which you purchase as gifts for others — an important distinction for companies when making future recommendations.

There are a number of problems for the music industry to sort out but things are taking shape. One thing for certain is that the fans will not suffer. There is now and there will continue to be more music available than ever before and it will become easier to find and enjoy. It will cost less and more artists will earn a living making it.

Who Should You Ask to Critique Your Songs?

Posted by Mike McCready | August 24th, 2009 | No responses

Once you’ve decided that getting some expert feedback on your song is a good idea you then need to decide who is the right person to ask and how to access them.

As a rule of thumb, you should try to seek out the services of someone who has been successful in the market with similar music to your own. I would suggest going with a songwriter or a producer. My next choice would be an accomplished A&R person. These are the three kinds of people who have been successful because they write, record or find the best songs. So, they certainly know one when they hear one or are in the business of polishing good songs to make them great.

I find that crowd sourcing (playing the music for a focus group of music fans) and asking your non-songwriting friends and family is not the best idea. Fans tend to hear good production and can imagine hearing your song on the radio but they aren’t objective when it comes to whether or not the song is compelling. Friends and family are invested (at least emotionally) in you and they cannot be objective.

Furthermore, keep in mind that songs catch fire in the market by a lot of people hearing the song in situations when they aren’t actively listening (while shopping, driving, during ads, in the background at restaurants etc). You can’t easily re-create those situations but professionals who have been successful time and time again really know what a hit song is all about. Of course, my company is in the business of enabling artists to interact directly with music industry professionals so I’d be remiss not to point you here for some of the best in the business.

Why You Should Have Your Songs Professionally Critiqued

Posted by Mike McCready | August 19th, 2009 | No responses

When seeking commercial success, the best, most experienced songwriters have their songs critiqued by their peers and others in their networks they respect and trust. They know they are too close to their work to be objective about it. What’s more, when you pour long hours and hard work into anything you are less willing to admit to its flaws than you should be. You become emotionally invested in the song and have certainly lost the ability to judge the impression it will make on a listener the first time they hear it. Melodies start sounding too familiar and love for your own creation begins to become unconditional.

It takes a certain level of wisdom and sophistication on the part of the artist to seek out critiques. It’s hard to hear you need to go back to the drawing board, or that your song isn’t all you thought it was. It’s even harder if you’ve already poured a lot of money and other resources into getting a good production done only to be told you’ll likely have to do it again. This is all part of paying your dues. It also leads to learning that you might want to start getting feedback earlier in the process, i.e. before you have a song produced and mastered. Are your lyrics compelling? Is the hook catchy? Is it too repetitive? Should the cowbell start in the second verse or should you just bring it in for the bridge? Is the structure right? How could it be improved? These are the things you’ll learn.

You should get multiple opinions.

Another compelling reason to have your song professionally critiqued is that by doing so, you are likely engaging someone who has been successful in the music industry. Perhaps even someone who could know where your song should be placed or someone who has an opportunity for your song. Often times, engaging someone’s professional song critiquing services can lead to developing a broader relationship, songwriting partnerships and professional opportunities.

Should You Spend More Time Creating Music Or Promoting Yourself?

Posted by Mike McCready | August 8th, 2009 | No responses

I get this question from time to time from bands and musicians who are seeking their big break.

The world of social media is so new and is changing so quickly that it’s hard to give an answer and it’s even harder to know if any answer will hold true tomorrow. At any rate, I had an email exchange this morning with a very talented artist who asked this question.

I told him that being an artist is hard enough without having to be the best self-promoter. In an ideal world, you would have a manager who is good at leveraging social media. But, since many artists have to do this on their own, I’d advise to do it in spurts. When you’re in creative mode you need to keep the network you’ve built active, but you should allow yourself to disconnect from making it grow while you work artistically. Then, when you have good material and you’re ready to push again, spend your time networking, promoting and growing your fan base.

In the end, you’ll attract fans because you have great music. That’s your goose that lays the golden eggs so don’t ever neglect that. Your ultimate goal is to leverage your social media efforts. You have to push really hard to get your fan base to a level where your fans are evangelizing your music and spreading it around, so your fan base grows when you’re not pushing it personally. It’s like a rocket. It takes 90% of the fuel to get it out of the pull of earth’s gravity, but then it can go to the moon and back on the 10% of the fuel it has left. If your music has what it takes you’ll get there sooner rather than later. Extremely compelling media (and that includes songs) will spread virally. Keep lighting matches and sooner or later one will light the forest on fire.

The Future of Music Promotion

Posted by Mike McCready | November 23rd, 2008 | No responses

Less Push and More Pull

Does the future of music promotion really involve promotion? At Music Xray, we believe promotion (push) is going to take a back seat to powerful music discovery and filtering solutions (pull).

Music Experience Interfaces (MEIs) will be game changing.

We are positive that new music experience interfaces (MEIs) are going to change the way music industry professionals locate artists/songs, and MEIs will change the way consumers discover and interact with music.

Radical MEIs described – we know this stuff is coming!

Visual – thousands of songs visualized on the screen, color-coded, easy to manipulate, fast as hell. Tactile – reach in and divide a screen filled with ten thousands songs. Auditory – hear overlapping song clips as fast as you move your hand across the screen. Fiction? We doubt it. Music industry professionals will be using these tools in 2009.

2,000,000 songs in two minutes…

Not only do consumers need far better ways to filter the ocean of new and existing music, professionals that work with artists and songs need to be able to slice, dice and filter through millions of songs in minutes to find exactly what they are looking for. This is not a luxury; at 99 cents a track, it’s a necessity for everyone in the industry to be more efficient.

About Music Xray

Music Xray is dedicated to changing the way music is promoted within the music industry. There are millions of songs in existence and almost a million songs a year are being uploaded to the Internet. Music Xray will use music information retrieval science to enable Music Industry Professionals to create dynamic, high-speed music filters where quality metrics, success potential and sounds-alike search criteria are defined by the individual needs of each Music Industry Professional. You could say that Music Xray is the first fully customizable music filter for Music Industry Professionals.

Industry Talks About Music Xray

Posted by Mike McCready | May 21st, 2008 | No responses

More mainstream awareness for Platinum Blue!

On May 9, 2008 Platinum Blue’s Music Xray™ was a central part of the story line on the CBS television series Numb3rs. As we’ve seen before in the NBC series Studio 60: On The Sunset Strip, Platinum Blue makes for good and interesting drama. Music Xray is not always portrayed accurately but that’s part of the dramatization.

In this episode of Numb3rs (called “Pay To Play”), a music label president is paying radio stations to play songs from one of the artists signed to his label in spite of the fact the public isn’t buying while on the other hand he refuses to sign an artist whose Music Xray™ scores are very high. The label owner is even paying the radio stations not to play his songs. It results in murder and intrigue.

Thankfully, in this case fiction is stranger than truth. Click on the video below to see some scenes from the show.

Industry Talks About Music Xray

Posted by Mike McCready | May 30th, 2007 | No responses

A couple of months ago I was interviewed by Peter Day of the BBC about Music Xray. It aired the other day and this is the show. You can stream it by clicking here.

Others interviewed for the segment were Ayappa Biddanda of Vanguard Records, the band Alternate Routes and Mike Smith, President of Columbia Records in London.

In the interview, I plugged a couple of our technology partners but unfortunately that was edited out. That’s unfortunate since a lot of the exciting research in this field is being done not only by us but by our partners and we always like to give credit where credit is due.