Monday, June 20, 2005


In his blog Not Bad for a Cubicle, Chandler Howell analyses How does the music industry not get it?, arguing that piracy is a natural consumer response to the service-oriented strategy of the music industry.
  • The recording industry [... has adopted] a self-destructive strategy of eschewing the long-term development of artists, preferring instead the quick buck of one-hit wonders ... If an artist is only going to have one CD worth buying and that one CD only has one or two songs worth listening to, then “schoolyard copying” is going to have a material impact on sales of that CD.
  • There’s no point in paying for a CD because the consumer has been trained by the music industry itself to not value that CD. Recorded music has become a disposable commodity.
There are several complex issues here.

The one I want to focus on here is not the morality of piracy and DRM but on the structural changes that emerge from the conflicts of interest between different parties on the supply side - composers, performers, recording industry, music distribution channels/technologies (e.g. radio broadcast, iTunes/iPod). Among other things, these conflicts of interest have had an effect on the different granularity with which recorded music is supposed to be consumed.

Whole CD versus single song? 3-minute song versus extended medley? Concept album versus collection of greatest hits?

One of the consumer issues about moving from vinyl to CD was the apparent need to repurchase all your favourite music. But there was another important change, which altered the balance of power against the musician - the shuffle function. You no longer needed to listen to your favourite Beatles album in the fixed sequence provided by John, Paul, George H, Ringo and George M; you could break a coherent sequence of songs (often with carefully considered changes of key and mood) into a random series of fragments - every time a new experience.

(Why do we do this to music? I've never seen a shuffle function on a DVD player.)

With MP3 players, consumers can now hang a tiny juke-box around their necks, and listen to a constant shuffle of their favourite tunes. But why bother, when there are so many specialist digital radio stations that provide almost exactly the same service without the hassle of downloading and selecting the songs?

But some people are arguing that the internet restores the power of the musician, who can record and release a single song very quickly, without needing big record companies or fancy CD production. It is also technically possible to subscribe to vast quantities of live music from your favourite band. (Imagine having a virtual seat in every single concert in next year's tour.)

What are the general lessons of this for the service-based business?

  • Technology can alter the preferred granularity of the basic service - how it's paid for, how it's delivered, how it's consumed, how it's combined into composite services.
  • New business opportunities can be opened up by thinking about alternative levels of granularity.
  • Flexible systems (both demand-side and supply-side) must be able to handle many different levels of granularity - preferably at the same time.

[Update] After I posted this, Chris Anderson made a similar point in the Long Tail blog, with a post called Shorter, Faster, Smaller, referring in turn to Seth Godin's Small is the New Big. Chris writes:
Note that this increased range of distribution options can allow for longer content, too, with the rise of TV shows on DVD (where you can watch much of a season at a single sitting) as a prime example. But the overall trend is toward shorter, faster, smaller everything. We're increasingly fine-slicing both the time we give media and the media itself.

Another update: The Anti-Shuffle Brigade [BBC News 18 January 2011]

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