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Music Marketing Author and Course Instructor

Blog Post
This Old Argument Again

Posted on 5/22/2009

Dear Steven Van Zandt,

I just read your interview in CNN, and I wanted to offer an alternative view to your thoughts, particularly related to this quote: “The reason nobody wants to talk about it is because it mostly sucks! Who are we kidding here? Nobody’s buying records? Because they suck!”

You also suggest that if bands learned more cover songs and listened to more great records (i.e. classic records) the record industry would be saved, which I think it is a slightly myopic view of what is happening in the business. I think you are missing two key points:

1. THERE IS AN AMAZING AMOUNT OF GREAT MUSIC OUT THERE, but I think you are looking in the wrong places for it. I suggest you take a look at eMusic, the largest online retailer for independent music. Find an artist you like, look at recommendations by eMusic and other consumers, and you can easily fall down the rabbit hole for hours experimenting with new, and in many cases, amazing music you have never heard before. Like Psych Rock? Check out Wooden Shjips. Sign up for newsletters from forward thinking physical retailers like Other Music, a store run by music geniuses who can connect the music dots between Grizzly Bear and Erlend Øye in three steps or less. And of course there are dozens of music blogs, from aggregators like the Hype Machine, live music session and editorial blogs like Daytrotter, old school outlets like Pitchforkmedia, and a million in between. Not to mention the myriad of online radio stations that are not hamstrung by the tight-playlists the consolidated commercial radio business has given us over the past 10 years. Widen your net, Steven, and you'll find tons of music that will knock your socks off.

2. THE OLD MODEL OF A PHYSICAL RECORD-BASED MUSIC ECONOMY IS DEAD. It is not coming back. Dead. Dead. Dead. You can have a million bands covering "Working on a Dream" for a million years and you will not bring traditional physical record sales anywhere close to where they were at their height in 2000. The infrastructure has shifted forever. Some details you should consider:

Less Outlets for Traditional Music: Tower Records shut down their U.S. operation in 2006; Circuit City (9th largest music retailer in 2008) ceased operations in 2009; Virgin Megastore announced in 2009 that they will close all of their U.S. stores; Borders (the 6th largest retailer of music) has cut back their in-store floor space by 30% to 7% of their total floor space; and Transworld closed 101 stores in 2008, after losing $69 million dollars, including a 24% drop in total sales during the nine weeks leading up to the end of the year traditionally the best music retail time of year. Taken together, there are simply less outlets and less floor space available to the labels to merchandise and sell their music. It is not a matter of buyers not taking in records because they suck. The space that had existed for music is now filled with DVDs and other media, or is gone.

Consolidated Commercial Radio is Ineffective: The number of artists that terrestrial radio breaks, in terms of converting radio play to mechanical royalty sales is smaller with each passing year. Although radio is still the primary method that folks hear about new music (49% of consumers list radio as the #1 way they find new music, according to a 2008 Edison Media Research survey), radio is quickly losing ground to the Internet, with 25% of consumers hearing about new music online.

The Replacement Cycle: Technological innovations have been shaping how, where, and when folks listen to (and purchase) music for years, beginning with improved production processes with vinyl, and then moving onto 8-track, cassette, CD, and finally digital music. Along the way, major labels have been able to monetize these technological innovations through a process called the replacement cycle basically a repackaging of existing content in the newest format.

With consumers being able to convert files to digital themselves from existing CDs (not to mention sharing digital files for free online), the labels have been unable to find a way to monetize this format shift effectively. The end of the replacement cycle, coupled with the complete decentralization of the industry brought on by the Internet and the change in consumer habits, makes for a very tough time for the record business.

I know it's a tough to find new music, particularly when you are on tour. Perhaps you don't have regular access to the Internet. But I assure you; the issue is not that that music sucks. Spend some time doing your research on finding new bands, find some tastemakers you can depend on to turn you onto new music. The old industry that you grew up with is gone; but the phoenix is rising from the ashes with new models and new revenue streams. Whatever you do, please don't blame what is happening on a lack of good music it really makes you sound out of touch.

Mike

Blog Index

Interview with Don Passman
    posted 11/18/2009

Clay Shirky on Social Media
    posted 8/6/2009

Covering an Entire Album in a Day
    posted 6/18/2009

Goodbye Jay Bennett
    posted 5/26/2009

This Old Argument Again
    posted 5/22/2009

How to Get Your Music in TV and Film
    posted 3/24/2009

Mother of All Funk Chords
    posted 3/12/2009

Changes at Touch and Go
    posted 2/19/2009

Estelle Bennett – Ronettes
    posted 2/16/2009

Radiohead at the Grammy Awards
    posted 2/9/2009

Apple and the Replacement Cycle
    posted 1/25/2009

Lessig on Colbert
    posted 1/10/2009

Using uStream to Host a Webcast
    posted 11/19/2008

Top 20 Online Promotions for October
    posted 11/8/2008

Talk About Leveraging New Technology!
    posted 10/14/2008

How To Sell Music On Your Website
    posted 9/8/2008

The Word of Mouth Manual Volume II
    posted 7/21/2008

SXSW Interviews
    posted 4/19/2008

Record Store Day
    posted 4/17/2008

SXSW
    posted 3/16/2008

Why I am a fan of TuneCore
    posted 3/4/2008

How to get your music on iTunes
    posted 2/4/2008

The Trouble with the Future of Radio
    posted 12/3/2007

More losses at Big Box retail
    posted 11/25/2007

The (growing) Cost of Doing Business
    posted 10/30/2007

iTunes drops price of DRM-free music
    posted 10/17/2007

Instant Music
    posted 10/10/2007

Very Legit iTunes Rival
    posted 10/1/2007

Quote of the Year
    posted 9/21/2007

Prince and the Devolution?
    posted 9/14/2007

Does Street Date Still Matter?
    posted 9/13/2007