Record label angst

If the last three generations (five years = one generation) of music industry executives had been contestants on The Apprentice they’d all have been fired by now. So many self-destructive manoeuvres, so many technological and commercial dead-ends, so little readiness to try stuff. And I speak as a supporter of the industry: I don’t believe the whole superstructure of music production, packaging and distribution could or should be swept away or that labels and publishers and collection agencies and allied trades are evil or at some kind of Darwinian inflection point.

The 100 year history of recorded music is a glorious episode in the story of human culture and we should celebrate that. The risk, though, is that the current mess turns into some kind of terminal crisis. We might easily wind up remembering that hundred-year heyday as a story with a beginning (recording, mechanical reproduction, Caruso), a middle (CDs and the shift to bits) and a particularly grisly end. Nobody wants that.

There’s a good interview over at Paid Content with Terry McBride, one of the people who could, if the industry were ready to listen to him, help save recorded music. Real wisdom there.

I’ve been really trying to get to like We7, Peter Gabriel’s latest, ad-funded, online music business, but it’s not working. There’s a lot of good stuff there and it’s all free but the ads are utterly intrusive. There’s no way around it, they just ruin the music. Every track has a short ad inserted at the beginning and sometimes this is just bizarre (try listening to Lou Reed’s miserable classic Berlin with chirpy ads between the tracks, or to Shostakovich’s vast, mournful 13th Symphony) but it quite quickly becomes utterly unbearable.

The good news is that if you download a track you’ll find that in a month’s time you can go back to the site and download it again without the ad. It’s also pretty straightforward to remove the ads yourself (and that’s not forbidden in the site’s T&Cs). But it’s all pointless. Most current or popular stuff, such as that from Sony BMG, We7’s first major label signing, can’t be downloaded anyway—you can only stream it, which makes the ads unavoidable.

So I wonder if there’s an audience that won’t be driven crazy by the ads. Is it possible that teenagers live in such an altered musical world, for instance, that they can accept commercial messages as part of an increasingly heterogeneous audio stream? If you’re accustomed to soaking up your beats from the tiny speakers in a mobile phone, maybe ads are less of an intrusion—you just tune them out. Or maybe it’s got to do with the passing of the album—ads are not a big deal if you’re not hung up on the integrity of the carrier. If you consume music track-by-track from multiple free sources they’re not interrupting anything after all: they’re just the cost of the music you love…


  1. Hi Steve
    Thanks for your namecheck for We7, it is a real challenge getting the balance of ads and music right to create a free music experience for fans but a monetised one for artists etc.

    Fundamentally people hate ads but love free better, so the thing with We7 is we try and do everything in the open, the contract is simple you listen to the music you wnat for free, the advertisers get to ‘talk’ to you and the rights owners get paid.

    We see ourselves as a positive alternative where people can pay for great music or choose to listen free knowing rights owners get paid.

    As We7 we have a host of technology that over the coming year you will see it is aimed at reducing the element of intrusiveness, such as ads that match the tempo of the chosen music and ads based upon your own selection of interests to increase the context.

    Overall the association between ads nd music is always going to be a rocky one but at least we are trying to get out of the downward spiral and make something happen.

    With input from people like yourself we will hopefully get it more right than wrong

    Thanks again

    CEO We7

  2. Hi Steve,
    I went to a mini-conference about just this issue and with Terry McBride speaking too. But the best thing was hearing the “millenials” he had gathered to talk about their attitude to music explaining how little they cared about record company profits.

    However, they do understand that if there is no payment at all that makes life a tad tricky for the artists.

    I think the industry is paying the price for ripping us off and over-pricing music for the last 20 years, but I also believe there’s a price that will work.

    I use e-music where you pay a subscription per month and then download 40 tracks – which ends up working out at 22p per track. (Apparently on this system most people download full albums, whereas on i-tunes they are more likely to download only tracks.) Anyway, the key thing for me about this system is that you then own the track, it’s mp3 you can move it onto any device you want, no Apple-type restrictions. I have tracks I have downloaded onto my home compute moved to my mp3 player and phone, transfered to work and then could send to a friend (oops, naughty but no more naughty than buying a cd and sharing a track on a tape in the 90s).

    Cost + portability = value.

    The industry needs to appreciate our love for their artists, enable us to get hold of the music and price things reasonably and then probably 80% of punters will be happy to pay. But on the net there will always be the 20% that won’t.

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