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Music Distribution

Let’s get physical: why musicians shouldn’t forget about cds, tapes and records

Record store

Regular readers of The Prescription will have picked up on the fact that much of the advice it contains relates to digital aspects of music industry – whether that’s to do with recording, distribution, PR or marketing.

This week, I thought I’d devote a bit of time to looking at the more ‘physical’ side of things and how thinking beyond digital releases can really benefit musicians.

Whilst it’s true to say that the digital revolution has in general made physical formats like CDs and records seem rather obscure, and often available for next to nothing in charity shops, paradoxically it has also – in certain contexts — turned them into valuable source of revenue.

I’ll expand on that shortly, but let’s stay with the digital side of things for a moment.

Although digital recording gear and worldwide digital distribution have led to an explosion in the number of bands producing and distributing albums, what it hasn’t provided for these bands is the kind of fanbase-generating marketing budget that would have accompanied a traditional album release.

This is usually because today’s major music medium — streaming — doesn’t typically generate enough money to risk investing much in a band.

The upshot of universal access to recording equipment without a corresponding access to marketing budgets is that the industry has arguably changed from being one where there was a small number of bands with huge followings to one where there is a huge number of bands with small followings.

I’m guessing that if you are reading this post, you or your band fall into the latter category, and you’re struggling with how to generate revenue from that small following.

By ‘small’, I mean that perhaps a you have few hundred dedicated fans rather than a few hundred thousand. But the key word here is ‘dedicated’: if your few hundred fans are really into you, they may be prepared to pay a premium for your music, and make your music-making a financially viable activity.

But given how easy it is for for your fans to listen to you for free, this is only the case if you make it really worth their while.

And here’s where physical music products come in: if you can create a physical offering that is perceived as unique and of special value by your fans, you may find that instead of them steaming your album on Spotify for a few pence, they may be prepared to pay a lot more for the same music.

So, here are some simple ideas on how to get physical.

  • Number your CDs by hand and sign them. Instead of charging £8.99 etc., charge £15.00. This is a really simple way to increase the income you generate from any stock you manufacture, and you'll always find at least some listeners prepared to pay a bit extra for a signed CD.

  • Put together a little package comprising a bunch of limited-edition items. For example, charge £25 for a package that includes a signed CD, handwritten lyrics, a poster and two signed photos.

  • Accompany a CD sale with merchandise – bundle a CD, t-shirt and mug together for £20.

  • Do a limited run of cassettes / mix tapes and charge £15 per signed cassette album.

  • Do a combined vinyl/CD release and charge £25 per copy sold.

  • A bit of a physical/digital mash-up this, but you could issue your album on a designer USB memory stick. Include high-resolution versions of your tracks on the USB (WAVS rather than MP3s) and other exclusive content like videos, alternate takes and so on.

These are just some examples of limited-edition physical releases – I’m sure you can use your imagination to come up with more interesting examples of how to get physical. In fact, I’d be keen to hear some more ideas; do leave a comment if you have any suggestions on this front.

The point is to try to increase the value of your offering for your fans, and by extension to increase the financial value of each fan (if that doesn’t sound too mercenary!); for example, to get to a situation where you know there are 750 people who will pay £20 every year to consume your music; a £15k total. Ok, it might not be millions, but it will happily finance the recording and release of another project, or help support a tour.

Whatever you eventually decide upon for a physical release, the key thing really is to think like a business and work out:

  1. how many of your fans will realistically buy a physical product

  2. how much they will be prepared to pay for it

  3. how much it will cost you – not just in terms of money, but time too – to make your physical offering.

Ultimately, if you are smart about things, do the right sums and manage to keep costs down, you may find that oddly, in this digital era there is still considerably more to be made from an innovative physical release than a bog-standard digital one.

And the added value of this is that you have interesting physical products to send to journalists and bloggers too — this can make your press pack stick out from the crowd.

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What does Apple Music mean for musicians?

Apple Music

by Chris Singleton

With the arrival of Apple's new streaming service, 'Apple Music', the music industry looks set for yet another massive shake-up. Here are some potential consequences of its arrival for bands and artists...

1. Music bloggers just became more important

Because of the ubiquity of Apple devices, and the fairly strong likelihood that a significant proportion of their owners will opt in to paying for Apple Music, a much larger slice of the music-listening population is going to start consuming music via streaming. Apple’s aim is to get 100 million paid subscribers on its books (the current number of people streaming music via paid accounts is thought to be around 41 million) – and, unlike many of its competitors, Apple has the advertising funds handy to help it achieve this goal. All this points to the fact that we may well soon reach the point where streaming become a much more popular way to listen to music (in all probability the de facto way).

And with streaming becoming more mainstream, the journey from reading a review of an album to listening to it becomes a lot more straightforward for a lot more people – they can simply click on a link at the bottom of an online review to hear a piece of work that is being lauded or panned by a rock critic. Contrast this to the ‘old’ scenario where a music fan encountered an album review in a printed publication: in order to get their mits on the record, they would have had to take several steps – get up off the sofa; locate the album in a physical or online store; cough up cash; bring it back from the store (or wait for it to download); insert or transfer into music-playing device…and so on. Most people are lazy, so only a fraction of printed reviews ever led to people actually auditioning the music being written about.

But if an online review contains a link at the bottom to the whole album on a streaming service that is used by millions – well we’re talking about a different kettle of fish entirely. Reviews suddenly carry more weight, because they create an instant path between the music being reviewed and its consumption.

Yes, you could argue that we’ve already arrived at that situation thanks to links to Spotify, Soundcloud or Youtube accompanying reviews, but with the arrival of Apple Music we’re talking about a massive ‘upscaling’ of all this. Its introduction will, in my book at least, have labels and music PR companies 1) taking bloggers more seriously than ever before and 2) begging them to include Apple Music links alongside reviews and features.

2. It’s going to be harder to collect fans’ email addresses

Eh? What’s Apple Music got to do with the sign up form on my website? Bear with me. First, Apple Music’s arrival is going to kill off the MP3. Not right away perhaps, but we’re now way past the beginning of the end for the ‘Motion Picture Experts Group Audio Layer Three’ file. This means that people are less likely to get excited by your band’s offer of a free MP3 in exchange for their email address – partly because they don’t bother downloading stuff any more, partly because it's inconvenient or because downloading files feels well, a bit dated – and not in a hipsterish retro good way (give it time though: I suspect that in 10 years time we'll see a downloading revival in Shoreditch...).

And will offereing people a quick - albeit exclusive - stream in exchange for their personal data yield much in the way of sign ups? My feeling is no, not really: for all its virtual nature, the MP3 could still be considered a 'thing' of sorts, whereas a stream feels more like a bit of a fluffy cloud or something. Upshot? You’re going to have to be more creative about what you offer people in exchange for their email addresses.

3. You’re going to have to get your head around a new social network

As if having to be constantly witty on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on wasn’t enough hard work, you’re now going to have to engage fans via Apple Connect, which Apple describe as

”a place where musicians give their fans a closer look at their work, their inspirations, and their world. It’s a main line into the heart of music — great stuff straight from the artists.”

Whether or not Apple Connect lives up to this hype or not is another question, but it would be foolish – given the number of devices Apple Music will be pre-installed on – not to take it pretty seriously. 

4. Musicians may have less time to write and record songs…

So far, all indications point to Apple Music managing to both kill CD and download sales whilst providing minuscule financial renumeration to artists; as with Spotify, we’re talking about musicians getting a fraction of a pence per play. Amongst other things this means that bands are going to have to tour more regularly to make any dosh, and one potential consequence of this is that some acts will have considerably less time to hone their writing or production skills (that said, they might improve their chops somewhat thanks to all those gigs).

5. …but the songs they write may be influenced by way more artists

A lot of musicians I know decry music streaming – yet subscribe to a streaming service at the same time. There’s simply no denying the convenience of the format – hence the hypocrisy. As with listeners, so with musicians: we can expect a lot more of them to get into streaming simply because of Apple Music’s arrival on their iOS device. And this will provide access to a really wide range of influences that many songwriters might never have encountered (or been arsed exploring) before. This in turn has the potential to shape their music – and music in general – in new ways, making it even more post-post-post-postmodern than it already is.

6. You’ll have more data to play with

With Apple Music, you’re going to get more access to more data – as usage of the platform becomes more widespread it’s going to be easy enough, based on being able to see the number of plays you’re getting, to spot your popular songs from the duffers. What you do with this data is, of course, up to you: some bands recoil from writing anything that could be considered remotely popular, and those acts will be no doubt pleased to see yet more evidence that nobody is listening to their music.

7. It may mean that bands start to get slightly more cash from streaming

If the number of paid streaming accounts goes up – which is likely with the introduction of Apple Music – then so will the revenue generated by this method of consuming music. This means that musicians may make a bit more money from streams of their songs. But we’re still talking fractions of pences per play. Streaming in itself does not look like making musicians rich anytime soon.

8. Should you put your songs on Apple Music?

Musicians are caught between a rock and a hard place here. If you’re a ‘niche’ act (and who isn’t these days) with say, 1000 listeners who religiously cough up for each new album you release, then you may find that putting an album up on Apple Music decimates these sales – your die-hard fans are still human at the end of the day, and given the choice most will take convenience and ‘free’ over the effort involved in a purchase (not to mention parting with real hard cash money). But not putting music up on Apple Music closes off your chances of being discovered by a lot of new listeners.

Personally I feel it’s a case of using Apple Music (and indeed other streaming services) judiciously: putting back catalogue up there will make sense for a lot of bands, along with EPs and singles; but whether you want to go the whole hog and make a new album release immediately available on Apple Music will involve weighing up a set of pros and cons and looking at your specific audience carefully. If you are an indie band with a history of ‘surefire’ sales to fans that you can communicate directly with, then there is a strong case for releasing a ‘paid-for’ physical / downloadable version of the record in advance of putting the whole thing on Apple Music: to stagger the release, in effect. Crowdfunding is also a potential option. If you’re Beyonce, it’s another scenario of course, because you'll be in a position to negotiate more favourable terms with Apple for putting your music up on Apple Music (oh how they cowered when Taylor Swift got annoyed with them recently). Horses for courses, much like everything else in today’s multi-platform, multi-format music industry.

9. So is there any good news for musicians in all of this?

The best thing about Apple Music for musicians is the 'conversion' factor: it brings with it the potential to turn the person who might casually hear - and like - a song on the radio or at a friend's house into somebody who engages with your music more regularly, simply because your catalogue is very easily accessible on their iOS device. The difficult part, however, will be turning that engagement into a financially beneficial arrangement. And you'll have to remember that with accessibility comes disposability: your song will be 'just' one of millions on Apple Music (and will be perceived as such by listeners). This means that your music will have to fight even harder to be the signal in the signal to noise ratio. In a way, that could be a good thing: with the advent of mass streaming, we musicians will all have to raise our songwriting game to get heard. Again.

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How to build a great online store for your band

A shopping cart

First came the cheap recording equipment, which turned everybody into a bedroom recording artist. Then the web arrived, turning all these bedroom recording artists into bedroom recording labels, able to flog records (in theory at least) to a massive global audience.

Now, many artists are great at making music in their bedrooms, but not so savvy when it comes to selling it from them, so in this post I’m going to outline how you can build a really good online store that makes it easy for people to purchase your wares – and ensure that people can find them.

Let’s start with building your store: there are three main approaches you can take, with various pros and cons – so let’s look at each in turn.

1 Send people to Amazon or iTunes

The first method of creating an online store, and possibly the easiest, is to simply create a page on your website called ‘store’ and place a few links on it to well-known online retailers that are stocking your CDs or selling downloads of your MP3s (Amazon, iTunes, 7 Digitial and so on). There are three main advantages to this approach: firstly, you don’t need to fulfil anything yourself (i.e., walk down to the post office and send stuff off to your customers); secondly, your music is chart eligible if you sell it this way; and thirdly, many people shop regularly with these companies and will be comfortable with buying your products from them. To maximise income from this approach, you should ideally obtain and use ‘affiliate links’ for your album from any online retailer that provides them.

2 Use Paypal

Although selling music via Amazon and iTunes is pretty easy, and has several advantages to it, you may find that selling your music direct to fan is more profitable. Instead of losing 30% or so of your sale to iTunes etc., you get to keep all the dosh. If you only have one or two products to sell, then selling them through Paypal is probably the easiest way to do this. It’s fairly straightforward to create a couple of ‘buy now’ Paypal buttons, accept payments and fulfil any items yourself.

3 Use e-commerce software / an online store builder

If you have lots of products to sell – i.e., a big back catalogue and a wide range of already-manufactured merchandise items – and you are fulfilling orders yourself, you may find it easier to go with a more comprehensive ‘online store solution’ – a paid-for web service that lets you manage lots of items of stock, keep track of orders / inventory, present items in an attractive way and add / remove products easily. There are lots of different solutions out there, but two stand out for me: Ecwid and Shopify. 

Ecwid is ideal for people who already have a website (for example, a Wordpress or Squarespace site) and want to ‘plug in’ an online store system. You set up your store on the Ecwid website, add products, upload artwork, set up pricing...and then, when you are ready to launch your store, you are given a snippet of code that you can add to the shop page of your site; once you do this, your online store and all your CDs and tacky t-shirts magically appear. You still fulfil the products yourself, but you get a professional way of displaying stock online, tracking orders, capturing data and accepting credit card payments. You can try out Ecwid for free here.

If you don’t already have a website, then Shopify is possibly a good option for you, because it’s a system that doubles up as a website building tool and a sophisticated online store which lets you sell physical and digital products. There are more sophisticated / user-friendly website builders out there, but its online store functionality is amongst the best available, and with a bit of perseverance or help from somebody who knows their online onions, you can put a very nice site together with it. Shopify’s free trial is available here.

The downside of using one of these solutions is that they come with monthly fees attached. So really, they are best suited for bands who are going to be selling enough items every month to justify these payments.

Selling direct to fans? Give your customers some options

Even if selling direct to fan is the most profitable option for you, some people prefer to buy music from the big retailers. As such, even if you are using Paypal or an online store builder to facilitate online sales, it's still worth offering people the option of buying your music using Amazon or iTunes. By all means encourage fans to buy direct from you, and explain that this is the best way they can support your band...but give people the option to buy elsewhere – or you could lose sales. An iTunes sale, even if less profitable than a direct-to-fan sale, is better than no sale at all...

What about selling merchandise, then?

There are two main approaches you can take to selling your tacky t-shirts online:

  • You can manufacture merchandise yourself, and sell it using one of the methods described above.

  • Don’t manufacture any at all but use a site like Cafepress or Zazzle to design an item of merchandise virtually – with these sites, your item only gets manufactured and shipped once a customer places an order.

Which option is for you really boils down to how popular your band is and how many items of merchandise you’re likely to sell. If you are only likely to sell one or two items a year, then I’d avoid manufacturing hundreds of t-shirts like the plague, but if you are huge and likely to sell thousands of t-shirts and leather thongs with your band’s logo on them, then manufacturing them yourself will lead to a much greater profit margin. This is because sites such as Cafepress and Zazzle charge a ‘base rate’ for items which is quite high, meaning you have to keep your mark-up very low to prevent your t-shirts becoming prohibitively expensive.

How to ensure that people can find your online store

If you are distributing your music digitally you will probably find yourself in the odd position of competing with various digital outlets for sales of your own music. For example, you may find that iTunes is beating you to the top spot in Google search results when you type your album’s title into the search box. Or that a Google advert encouraging people to buy your album on Amazon is appearing next to these results.

Obviously it makes a lot of financial sense to ensure that your online store is highly visible in search results – you ideally want your store at the top, so that you can either avail of the more profitable direct-to-fan sales or purchases made through your iTunes / Amazon affiliate links. There are two ways you can do this: through search engine optimisation (SEO) or by advertising your album via adwords. With regard to SEO, here are some tips on getting to the top of results:

  • Your band’s name and (important) album titles should be listed in your online store’s page title – for example, a title such as "David Bowie – Online Store – Albums including Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs" is infinitely preferable to a very non-descript ‘Online Store’.

  • Ensure your page has a ‘meta description’ which lists your artist name, albums, merchandise items and so on. This can be longer than the page title – for example, “David Bowie’s official online store, where you can buy all his albums and merchandise. Get the remastered editions of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs, or buy t-shirts, coffee mugs and leather thongs”.

  • Ensure all your product descriptions are ‘keyword-rich’ – i.e., contain very accurate descriptions of those leather thongs you are selling.

  • Where possible or applicable, use ‘meaningful URLs’ – web addresses that contain keywords. For example, if you happen to have individual pages for individual items (this will be the case if you are using Shopify), ensure that you are creating URLs such as ‘www.davidbowie.com/ziggy-stardust-album’ rather than ‘www.davidbowie.com/album1’.

You can check out our article on search engine optimisation for bands for a more in-depth guide to SEO for musicians, but following the above tips will help you enormously when it comes to ensuring your online store is optimised for search.

As for online advertising, it’s probably only worth spending money on Google Adwords if you know you are going to be selling significant quantities of records and want to ensure that they are bought from a particular location – your online store, basically. More useful perhaps is advertising on Facebook – using promoted posts or side adverts to put your release or store in front of your existing fans (who constitute your warmest audience of course).

That’s it for me for now – hope these tips help in your ambition to sell music to your parents succeed.

Online store building resources

I’ve written a few reviews over at my blog on Style Factory of popular e-commerce and online store building apps. See below for links:

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How to distribute your music

The way music used to be distributed...on old tapes.

The digital revolution presents many challenges for musicians – but fortunately, distribution is not really one of them: it's now easier than ever to make your music available to a big audience (whether they buy it or not is another matter, of course). In this blog post I’m going to look at some ways that you can distribute your music quickly and effectively – and give you some tips on how to maximise revenue from each method of distribution. 

1. Use your own website

The simplest way to distribute your own music is by setting up a store page on your website and selling your music – in whatever format you like – direct to site visitors. The big advantage of this is that you keep nearly all of the cash generated through sales; the downside is the time involved in fulfilment of physical products (that, in layman’s terms, means the shoving of CDs into jiffy bags and walking them to the post office). If you think you are going to sell thousands of CDs, and don't like going to the post office, then you need to bear this time commitment in mind.

Selling digital downloads from your site is obviously more straightforward and doesn't involve the dreaded jiffy bag – but don’t forget the bandwidth issue: if you find yourself in a lucky position where thousands of people are rocking up to buy a download direct from your site, remember that they may also knock it over unless you’ve set everything up correctly from a hosting / bandwidth perspective.

As for processing payments, an obvious way to get started on this is via Paypal, but a tool like Shopify might be a better bet, as it allows you to upload and sell digital goods easily, track and fulfil orders, run sales reports and so on - Paypal can be a fiddly business as far as this goes, and not everybody loves buying with it. You can also use Shopify to sell other merchandise and, in fact, build a whole music website on it.

A good thing to do when selling direct from your site is to ‘add value’ to the stuff you are flogging. By this I mean making the products on offer more appealing on your website than on other digital stores – for example, you can let potential customers know that you will sign every CD bought direct from your site; that you will include an exclusive PDF of lyrics with every download of the album and so on.

However, if you think you are going to sell records in quantities that might result in a chart position, then it is better to focus on a distribution solution that lets the good folk who run the charts know whenever somebody buys a copy of your album. Which takes me onto…

2. Use a digital distribution company

There are a host of companies out there that offer global digital distribution on all the major digital stores and streaming services. You just pay a fee, upload your music to their system and they make it available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify etc.

As every online store you sell your music on will be taking a percentage of each sale, you won’t make as much money as you might from selling direct, but there are some big advantages in using an online distribution company, namely: 

  • you will be selling music on sites and stores that have large, existing customer bases
  • people may be more comfortable with buying music from their preferred digital store than from your site
  • this method of music distribution makes you eligible for the charts (and we all love being in the charts).

The question is whether you plump for a company that takes a cut of every sale (such as Zimbalam), or use one like Tunecore where you pay a flat fee every year and keep all the dosh generated via sales (after iTunes / Amazon / 7Digital have taken their percentage, of course). You’ll need to base this decision on the number of downloads you reckon you’ll sell.

There is work involved in all this – you’ll need to be prepared to spend a couple of hours gathering and uploading your music, album art, meta data etc. to your digital distributor’s website (and in quite specific formats). It’s time consuming and occasionally technically challenging but once it’s all set up, you will have global distribution and, theoretically at least, a chance of getting into the charts.

Remember that some online music stores provide ‘affiliate links’ that let you get a little bit more cash from each sale of your download. If you are pointing people in the direction of these stores, you should use these affiliate links to do so – this will help you get a few more pence any time somebody buys your music (follow these links for more info on iTunes and Amazon affiliate programmes: iTunes | Amazon).

3. Get a distribution deal

Another approach to getting your music out there is to try to secure a traditional distribution deal, where a distributor takes charge of getting your music into the shops and onto online stores.

The nature of each deal will vary, but generally speaking, this is possibly the most expensive way of distributing your music, so it’s best to do a distribution deal only if: 

  • you know you have a fairly large number of fans, who are very likely to purchase your CDs from record shops or
  • the distributor is offering to provide you with some support promoting the album (for example, by hiring a music PR firm, printing up posters etc.) or
  • you are completely and utterly too busy / technically illiterate to upload your own music to digital stores.

Make sure you are aware of all the potential charges from a distributor before doing a deal - delivery costs, CD storage costs, 'sale or return' costs and so on.

4. Forget selling your music

Of course the other way to distribute your music is to forget selling it, and just give it away for free. People are generally more likely to part with an email address / Facebook like in exchange for a download than they are to spend hard cash on a CD, and you may feel it's better to have tight people listening to your music than none at all. Oddly enough this can still generate revenue for you though, because, done right, free downloads can generate a (larger) fanbase that attends gigs, buys merchandise and so on.

And finally…

Possibly the best way to distribute your music is by using a mixture of the above four approaches – for example, give away a free EP in exchange for an email address; sell limited edition, signed CD albums direct from your site; use Tunecore or similar services to get your music into online stores; and see if you can convince a distributor to put your music into the nation's few remaining record shops.

That way, you can guarantee that you’ll end up with your mum’s email address, and that she’ll buy your record in three different formats.

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The demise of HMV and the implications for musicians

hmv.jpg

Three letters have dominated music industry news recently: HMV. Much has been written (quite rightly) about the sad fact that thousands of people may lose their jobs, directly or indirectly, if and when the chain disappears from the high street. We’ve also seen a lot of chat about the implications of HMV’s demise for the music industry as a whole. Will any independent stores crop up to fill the HMV-shaped holes on the streets of Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee or Humberside? Is this the final death knell of the CD? With nowhere in Stevenage to buy CDs anymore, will any remaining (and heavily bearded) CD buyers turn to that Amazon thingy, where ne’er-do-wells roam the digital streets selling signed copies of classic albums for as little as 1p?

One question that hasn’t really been asked enough for my liking, however, is this: what does the closure of HMV mean for musicians? You would think that in any discussion regarding the death of a high street store, some thought might be spared for the group of people that are technically the key players in the supply chain – the bands and artists that make the product (that would be, ahem, ‘music’).

But I kind of understand why nobody has really been banging on about poor musicians losing an outlet to sell their wares from. This is because most musicians’ output was never anywhere to be found in HMV. There just wasn’t enough space in there to house everybody’s latest concept album about beans. As a rule of thumb, only stuff that sold in good quantities was stocked, and if it sold ok, it must have been made by a rock star, and all rock stars are loaded and just blow their money on charlie anyway, so why worry about them? To be fair, anyone thinking like that probably had a bit of a point.

The fact is, in a practical or financial sense, HMV’s closure means little for the average artist, who no doubt has global distribution for that album about beans sorted via iTunes, Amazon and so on...but can’t get a single copy into HMV to save his life (not, as we found out, that very many shoppers would be present in HMV anyway to buy that copy).

Nonetheless, I think that the demise of HMV does have a big impact on musicians: a psychological one.

You see, even in this age of digital-everything, being able to invite girls (or indeed boys) into a HMV store – under the pretence of buying some records – and casually hanging out beside the rack where your CD casually happened to be residing was a Very Special Thing. It was a) something to aspire to and b) something that sort of indicated you’d 'made it' to some degree or other. Yet now, the closure of HMV kills that noble dream of impressing girls (or indeed boys) by showing them your CD sandwiched between Simply Red and Jessica Simpson.

If you are still reading this blog post after encountering that last sentence, then congratulations and yes, I jest a bit. But there is a serious point here: making music is a bloody difficult, time-consuming and generally unrewarding business, and if you are in the middle of recording that incredibly difficult twentieth album and you see HMV closing down, you are bound to think ‘oh crap, it’s bad enough that nobody buys music any more but now there are actually NO SHOPS to buy it in.’ This, naturally enough, leads you to wonder what the hell you are making that record for.

Well, I’ll tell you what you’re making that record for: your ears, and the ears of other people. Yes, getting it into the ears of the latter group is a constantly changing process – enough to make you dizzy, give you vertigo and throw up all over the place. But this state of flux is nothing new; the music industry has always been completely entwined with fast-developing technology. Popular music used to be exclusively about playing live; then along came wax cylinders. That gramaphone that the HMV dog stuck its head into. Reel to reel tape. Vinyl. The humble cassette. CD. Minidiscs. The MP3. Pro Tools. The rise of Myspace. The fall of Myspace. Streaming. iPods. iTunes. Autotune. Spotify. The return of Peter Andre. Whatever Apple throw at us next. iDunno.

The difference for musicians today is that the pace of change has got to a point where we are now galloping along at insane speed; computers are doubling in power every 18 months, and as you've probably heard me say before, the music industry all happens on a computer these days. Which is why of course HMV, with its quaint emphasis on shiny plastic discs, bit the dust.

But none of this means that people will stop loving music – it’s arguably more popular than ever (it’s certainly more accessible). And that’s why, HMV or no, you should make that difficult twentieth album. Because it might be your best yet (or your first good one). Because you never know what good music can do, or where it can take you. Throughout history, and despite the music industry’s best efforts, good music has shown itself to have an endearing habit of sticking its head above the parapet and making itself heard.

So I guess the key thing that musicians can take from the demise of HMV is this: put it in context. This industry changes every five minutes. Don’t get too hung up on the methods of distribution and delivery, just make sure the song’s stonkingly great. Above all else, that is the key requirement for reaching all those waxy ears.

(Or just get a boob job and phone Nigel).

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The end of the download is nigh

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If internet rumours are to be believed, June 6 2011 may possibly be the music industry’s equivalent of “The Rapture” (for those of you who haven’t been on Facebook recently, or have been living in a hole in the New Forest, The Rapture was the end of the world, and was supposed to happen on May 21. It didn’t, unless you are reading this on a cloud with Jesus or you are feeling rather hot and can’t concentrate on this article because a devilish imp is poking your bottom with a pitchfork). Of course “The Rapture” turned out to be a damp squib, but June 6 is more likely to live up to its reputation as being a day on which the music industry will change forever.

So what’s happening on June 6? Well, according to a multitude of newspaper articles and blog posts, it’s the date that Apple may unveil their ‘cloud service’ – a system that lets listeners stream music from the web. Now, as the cloud service in question hasn’t been unveiled yet, it’s not clear what form this is initially going to take. It could be that Apple are simply going to offer something similar to Amazon and Google’s new cloud systems, which allow you to upload and stream your music collection on the web, wherever you are.

But frankly, that’s a pretty boring approach, and unlikely to be what Apple’s “cloud offer” will be. If rumours are to believed, Apple have been working hard to secure licensing agreements with the “big four” record companies – Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, EMI Group and Universal Music Group – which means all this is heading in one direction: a streaming service similar to Spotify’s, where listeners will eventually be able to stream whatever music they like (for a fee, of course).

If Apple does go down this route, it means that an en-mass switch from paid-for downloads to on-demand music streaming is now just around the corner – the rise of 3G web connections, increasing use of smartphones and Apple’s 75%-85% share of the download market would more or less guarantee that streaming becomes the de facto way that music is consumed. If Apple release a software update for iTunes containing streaming functionality, millions of iPod, iPhone and computer users in general all around the world would suddenly be able to stream music instead of paying to download files. The choice of tracks would be vast – significantly bigger than Spotify’s library, due to full music industry buy-in – and the reach of the service would be enormous too, thanks to Apple’s strong global position in both the download and mobile device markets. All this would arguably result in death of the download, and pretty quickly too.

What would be the impact of this on musicians? Well, for bands who are signed to a label and getting a significant marketing push, it would be fairly good news – it makes their music even easier to access. For musicians without a budget however, it would represent more of a headache. This is because streaming removes the attractiveness of a key tool used by musicians to entice people to sign up to email updates: the free download. For several years now, indie musicians with any clue whatsoever have been giving away downloads in exchange for the ability to communicate with fans online – with individual tracks, EPs or even albums being swapped for email addresses or Facebook ‘likes’. However, there is not much of an incentive for a potential fan to grab a free download from a band if a) they don’t really download music anymore and b) the track can be streamed anyway on iTunes.  

The free-download-for-email-address scenario that we’ve seen over the past few years has led to a situation where clued-up independent musicians have to a certain extent been able to bypass traditional gatekeepers – labels, journalists, distributors, promoters and radio stations – and still make (often quite decent) amounts of money from music via direct-to-fan sales. Perhaps it’s a negative way of looking at things, but with downloads diminished as an incentive for joining a mailing list, indie musicians will be able to communicate directly with fewer and fewer listeners online, and power will go back to being concentrated in the hands of the traditional music industry tastemakers: a label will decide what music to promote, and spend money encouraging people to stream it (rather than buy it). In effect, a technological advancement may lead us back full circle to a situation whereby only those with budgets can create demand.

But if you are an indie musician who has built a business model on free downloads, and all this does sound like the end of the world, don’t despair yet. Pretty much every technological development in the music industry has shut one door only to open another; and with all these developments, the trick is to stay ahead of the curve. The musicians who twigged that free downloads helped build databases first built the biggest databases (and sold the most music and merchandise); and it will be the musicians who twig how best to use streaming cleverly who will monetise the new landscape. The trick is to think fast. The end of the download is nigh – get ready.

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