Opinion

The future of music: there’s everything to play for

Last night I was at the latest of many discussions about the future of music streaming. And the more I hear, the more I come to the same conclusion: nobody knows how – or if – the business model will work.

As more and more music streaming sites vie for market share, the one thing music industry experts and utopian-minded music bloggers share is this: digital sales will continue to increase, and no one has yet fully figured out how music will be monetised in the future.

Host John Safran, Rdio's Dave Cain and Scott Bagby

Host John Safran, Rdio's Dave Cain and Scott Bagby

I was at Rdio’s Future of Music roundtable, featuring some of Australia’s best brightest music industry people, and came away with the single clear thought: the role of brands will be paramount, but no one has anywhere near cracked how to play that role.

There’s no doubt that music streaming platforms like Rdio and Spotify offer users an experience of music that is more relevant to modern consumption habits – a ubiquitous ‘all music everywhere all the time’ experience. But two things aren’t clear. Firstly, whether sufficient numbers of Australian music lovers will buy these subscriptions to support the way the music industry is structured – at 7m music streaming subscribers globally, there’s a long way to go. And secondly, how much of the functionality and accessibility music streaming fans are becoming accustomed to is going to depend on third parties like telcos and the NBN. Even Rdio execs Dave Cain and Scott Bagby repeatedly made the point that their business model continues to evolve.

It was clear that music bloggers view the value exchange as one that is almost weighted more heavily on their side than on the side of labels and musicians: they connect the artist with the fan, and as such the expectation becomes that music is available freely (or at minimum cost) and can be shared, embedded and distributed to their audience without let or hindrance. And if that’s the trend, one wonders how long before it leaves the labels struggling to stay profitable.

Who is going, ultimately, to pick up the tab?

ARIA chair Dan Rosen predicted that the split between digital and physical music sales will continue to shift in favour of digital, becoming a 60:40 ratio with the next couple of years. It seems likely the trend will continue on until physical music content becomes the concern of relatively small number of collectors and obsessives who love the smell of vinyl in the morning.

Something else that seems likely is that music success will be made and broken on the ability of emerging artists to market themselves. From crowd-funding studio time via sites like Pozible, to promoting themselves via social media – and the activity around the Voice is a good demonstration of this – in a world where we have almost the entire planet’s back catalogue available at all times, achieving cut-through is going to increasingly come down to a musician’s media savvy. As a passionate music fan, this makes me a little bit sad: I can’t imagine a modern Ian Curtis making his way in this landscape.

Another interesting trend, identified by Sound Alliance MD Neil Ackland (and re-titled by me) is the emergence of the t-shaped music collector – fans with a hugely broad and shallow range of artists with few deeper interests, where you might own singles by a thousand different bands but perhaps only albums of a very select few.

And these fickle future music fans will want access to all of their enormous libraries at all times, across all devices. “Smartphones make it easier to do the right thing, which is the legal thing,” according to Dan Rosen. But it’s clear from looking at torrent sites that if the ease of doing the right thing doesn’t continue to increase, doing the wrong thing doesn’t phase too many people.

Perhaps it’s down to the modern media brands, having created these nation of super-empowered and enormously entitled consumers, to solve the problem of paying for their content needs- and this is the big opportunity for brands. Branded content development needs to consider music, as experience, as commodity, as the channel to convey relevance to the consumer’s world. As a recent guest post suggested, “brand managers, you’re the new studio execs. Get out there and green-light amazing projects”.

As musician Muscles suggested, “Artists fill the gap between who you are and who you want to be’ – and it’s brands that will be left to bridge the gap between musicians and their public. Only no one quite knows how.

 

Cathie McGinn
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