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The Future of the Music Industry

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"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. 2009-03-10-nightsapuppy.jpg 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.