Wednesday, 6 November 2013
To listen, or to consume?
In this digital revolution we are all living through it is arguable that the area of our lives in which it has had the most consistently personal impact is on the music we ‘listen to’. From burning CDs, to using Napster, to using iPods, to switching to iTunes, to discovering new music with Shazam, to watching music on YouTube, to switching from iTunes to Spotify, to watching Radio 1 on your phone. In the space of a decade, the way we consume music has drastically changed.
'Consume' is an important word in this context, because in the past few years the concept of the pop song and the pop star has morphed. In mid-2012 the world was introduced to Psy, the star that fronted Gangnam style. The video is still the only one on YouTube to have reached 1 billion views and by the turn of the year it is likely to have reached 2 billion. Importantly this track was only (initially) released online, backed by a highly sophisticated marketing campaign from Korean media company YG Entertainment. The company made sure all the ingredients for success were right before they released. 1) They had built a huge database of warm users that were likely to spread the video. 2) The video was designed to specifically combine child-friendly colours, with major Korean stars, a major Asian meme from the Korean arm of the ‘got talent’ franchise and careful blend of comedy. 3) They had a scalable viral escalation strategy to push the content out of the Asian market and into the US and Europe. This recipe was spot on and for one year only, Psy became the biggest thing on the web.
The K-Pop model
Gangnam Style is an important part of the visual music story because YG Entertainment has used it to push out the company’s K-Pop content into the US market. Most notably so far was at Sunday’s Youtube music awards, an American based show, but with a huge global remit. The ‘surprise’ winner of the night was Girl’s Generation for ‘video of the year’ with ‘I got a boy’. Of course ‘surprise’ winner is far from the correct description. This was a win constructed in Korea by a company that gets how music works now. Their stated objective of pushing into the US is now paying off in a massive way by hooking into how the web works and how youth audiences access content.
The Youtube music awards themselves were an interesting phenomenon. Chaotic, completely different, streamed not broadcast, live and raw. Mainstream media outlets found it confusing and unexpected. The internet found it hard to understand. However, its mixture of live performance, live recording, anarchy and its unscripted nature are a perfect fit for the internet’s visual music age; one where everyone is searching for the next big thing and the next phenomenon.
Changing the music industry revenue model
This transformation is being felt most severely by the mainstream record industry. The writing has been on the wall for a long time with a slow decline in sales, but in the past few months, recorded album sales have plummeted off a cliff. This is at the same time as iTunes revenues down for the first time ever, but rental models such as Spotify are soaring. Services such as Spotify challenge the ownership paradigm fundamentally. After all, why would you own anything when you can simply rent it? Actually, that may be the internal conversation that the older demographic is having. The younger demographic for the longest time have been saying why would we pay anything at all? The music industry took a long time to understand the non-payment mindset. However, after a long period of adjustment, the mechanism has been put in place to ensure that Youtube ad revenue sharing and Spotify licensing costs now more than compensate for the loss in revenues from record sales, so much so that 2013 revenues on recorded music in the UK will increase for the first time in eight years.
That non-payment argument is no better illustrated than when you start to look at the nature of today’s pop stars and their multi-platform existence. If we take a look back at that album sales data from last week again, at number 1 we have Katy Perry selling a paltry 300,000 units in her first week of release. Conversely however, her Twitter following since the release of Prism has shot through the roof to make her the most followed person on the planet with over 45 million people tracking her every 140 character movement. Look further down the list of sales and we find Miley Cyrus with a mere 45,000 units shifted, yet she is the most searched for celebrity on the planet thanks to her twerking at the VMAs and the subsequent release of the controversial wrecking ball video, a video with a quarter of a billion views. And it is with Cyrus we complete the loop. Her transformation has everything to do with consumption and very little to do with music. Her reimagining as Disney Princess turned bad, is a direct result of the way that the market accesses internet content today and that trajectory looks set to continue.