As the music industry continues to react to the digital revolution, musicians face the challenge of figuring out the best way to earn a living from their work. PR guru and digital marketing expert Nathan Taylor explains why free online content may have a much greater inherent value than many musicians realise.
Until very recently record companies were not only distributors of a finished product, but also the initiators of the creative process. The entire business model was based on the record company’s initial investment in the recording process, allowing the music to be widely consumed and shared (and, of course, to make a profit).
In 2012, we’re a long way into the digital revolution, yet many record companies are still primarily obsessed with selling pieces of plastic. Even the companies which have embraced digital distribution are still essentially marketing digital representations of conventional records.
Over the last few years it’s become clear that the growing availability of online content is changing the way we consume music.
Even if we ignore the availability of paid music and pirated music, consumers can access free, legal music and video content from dozens of online sources; YouTube is now the second most popular search engine for music (Google is number 1) and SoundCloud now accounts for just over 28 per cent of UK music traffic (nearly 33 per cent if you add in their mobile stats).
But this shift in consumption is also changing other, more primary functions in music, and musicians need to pay closer attention to the way their creative output is helping others make a profit.
When is free content not really free?
Against this backdrop of record companies struggling to come to terms with the changing market, new players are entering the field, sourcing quality music and investing in creating appealing online content, eschewing a traditional record company model.
Prolific YouTube channels such as UKF and SB:TV reach an audience of millions. Luke Hood and Jamal Edwards, the teenage founders of the two companies, are sitting on viable business models, making hundreds of thousands of pounds thanks to the traffic their channels generate.
A new generation of music consumers seems less concerned with the traditional album format or the sound quality of the music they listen to and more concerned about instant access to streaming content.
Channels like UKF and SB:TV rely on a constant influx of free or cheap content from musicians and PRs, but when is giving away content good for promoting an artist and when does it cross the line into allowing someone else to profit from your product?
It’s not just media-savvy youngsters who are exploiting free content, either; businesses with megabuck budgets are creating high quality online videos and music blogs, looking to cash in on the perceived ‘cool’ associated with music culture and encouraging artists to offer their services for little or no return. And they’re happy to back ‘free’, because it’s their brand/s that benefit.
As a new artist, if you’re looking for an established platform to make your voice heard or if the site gives something back to the culture it seeks to profit from, all is good.
The fashion chain Topman have a great digital magazine with strong editorial values and interesting music articles, while Toyota neatly slotted into blog culture with their acclaimed Scion AV campaign – a series of video interviews and mp3 album giveaways, licensed by the brand, seeded with influential bloggers for wider distribution to the fans. The content is the commodity here, but the artist at least benefits in some way.
But what if you’re already an established artist? To demonstrate the capacity of a new van, Ford entered the blog field with a video series called Bands In Transit, featuring the novel idea of bands performing in the back of a van. Likewise, clothing retailer ASOS’s music blog was pitched to artists, agents and managers as an opportunity for promotion.
A closer look at the ASOS and Ford videos, starring hipster-approved bands like Spector, Chromeo and The Drums, suggests that the brands’ main motivations were thinly veiled brand endorsement and advertorial. The musicians themselves were effectively donating a chunk of their indie credibility to major brands. Whether that offers any benefit to the artists themselves is – at best – debatable.
The future of digital music
In terms of accessing music online, the growth of new platforms offering exclusive content is changing the culture of how people source and consume their music.
With a tidal wave of streaming audio and video available, where does that leave the mp3? Well, at this stage it’s still on top. Although iPod sales have waned slightly, Apple still sold over 40 million units (not including iPhones and iPads) last year. At the time of writing, the blog directory Technorati lists some 11,062 music blogs, most of which specialise in sharing mp3s. But a quick look at a few of those sites will show that bloggers are also increasingly keen on sharing video and audio streams.
As mobile devices get more powerful, broadband connections get faster and smart TV begins to take off, I think we’ll see the mp3’s role as the main way we consume our music diminished.
The trend raises a serious question: assuming that consumers are turning their backs on traditional albums, physical releases and maybe even mp3s, why are record companies still failing to recognise the inherent value of online streaming and exclusive content? Why should teenagers with YouTube accounts be the only ones to benefit? As the owners of that product, artists and their managers and agents need to recognise its value. Perhaps we don’t realise in what currency we trade.