I was going to write about Saul Hansell’s article in the "New York Times" about the sale of "iPhone: The Missing Manual" at the App Store. Mr. Hansell focused on the fact that people paid for it, but more interesting to me was that not only was this the number one computer book this year, the number one format is as an app for the iPhone. All in a week that Prince announces a triple album set available from Target. Unless he’s going to write a hit song and play in each and every store in the chain, this is a bad deal. We’ve got enough Prince music. We want two CDs and a third of a protege? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a life. And Prince hasn’t put out a good album in this century. He keeps making more and more irrelevant music, to the point I don’t even bother checking it out. He’s lost me. If only he’d cut one good track. And then another. Sure, I can understand a need to express yourself, but not at the expense of your audience. Prince gets a check, we ignore him. Next!
You probably think I’m making a point about CDs. How they’re history. But that is not the analogy that struck me reading Saul Hansell’s article. The printed edition of "iPhone: The Missing Manual" costs $24.99. The App Store version costs $4.99. And when the publisher lifted the cost to $9.99, sales dropped 75%! So they lowered it back down.
If I hear one more asshole singer, songwriter or record company executive tell me about the value of music, I’m going to puke. A record is worth a billion dollars if listening to it keeps you from committing suicide. It’s invaluable if you propose to your spouse when it’s playing in the background. But that doesn’t mean it should cost a buck, that when you tote up the cost of ten tracks you reach the price of a CD. Music needs to be much cheaper. Actually, it’s free. It’s just that the rights holders won’t admit it. Or believe by suing the Pirate Bay as opposed to embracing new economic models we can all jet back to the nineties, when the labels were fat and happy.
Which brings me to why I’m writing this missive. It’s got nothing to do with the App Store, but an article about network television in Saturday’s "New York Times". In the 1978-9 season, "All In The Family" had a 30.5 rating, meaning almost a third of the homes with TV watched it. In 2007-8, "Desperate Housewives" had a 10.9!! Was "All In The Family" that much better? Or are there just that many alternatives these days?
Let’s speak music business numbers. Back when the music business was fat and happy, in 1998-9, "E.R." had a 17.8 rating. So, in ten years, a popular network show lost almost HALF of its viewers. So, if you think that the Boss or U2 or any superstar of yore is selling so poorly because of piracy, you just haven’t thought enough about the equation. There are only 24 hours in a day, music is fighting against not only television, but video games and the Internet too. Furthermore, every record is fighting against every other record in history. You can only play one record at one time. Do you want to spin the newly-hyped crap or an old classic? If you do create a new classic, how hard is it to get the word out?
In other words, we’re seeing the death of the superstar. Maybe one or two could emerge, kind of like "American Idol", but the ubiquitous star, known by everybody, is history. In other words, shoot lower and try to make your profits in more ways than selling records.
No diamond albums, no stadium shows. Probably no arena shows either. So to hear indie promoters rail against Live Nation and Ticketmaster merging is missing the point. The labels have bitten the bullet, become marginalized, unable to cope in this new world. And historically, the labels have built demand for live performance. Who is building that demand today? And how great is it anyway?
We’ve got a clean slate. Don’t try to reach everybody, because everybody isn’t interested. Don’t care if the A&R man doesn’t hear a single, just worry if you’ve got an audience that wants to hear your music. Don’t focus on your SoundScan number, but your bottom line. How many t-shirts did you sell. How many deluxe packages. You’ve got to get people into the gig so you can sell them other shit. It’s no different from a supermarket putting cheap items by the cash register. That’s where you are, that’s where you check out!
So the deafening roar of complaints by the oldsters should be completely ignored. The glory days are never coming back, certainly not in the old way. The major labels are marginalizing themselves, by clinging to the model of distributing hit product, when hit product is almost an oxymoron. Unless you sell the ones and twos, unless you’re in the marginal world, you’re screwed. It’s kind of like Google. Imagine if they only provided a few searchable sites, and were looking for people to pay ten bucks for a direct hit. That’s the model of the music business. Whereas Google serves everybody, exactly what they want, and makes its money on servicing a zillion niches. Everybody doesn’t click on the same ad, you just click on what you want to.
Will someone roll up the acts to his and their advantage? That’s Irving Azoff’s play. That’s what the merger is about. Is it the only way out? Of course not. But the alternative starts at the grass roots. With bands that generate followings. And finding a way to monetize those followings. Irving’s a sexagenarian. The twentysomethings will inherit this business. But so many would rather work in Silicon Valley, the odds of success, the number of zeros on the paycheck, are so much higher…
I don’t want you to believe in your record. I want other people to. And they come to music not by being hyped, not by being marketed to, but by word of mouth. It’s a whole new paradigm. Radio broadcasting is a dying medium, just like network TV. Oh, there’s still a business there, but it’s not the future.
The handwriting is on the wall. Don’t be dazzled by what’s on TMZ, most of those people don’t make any money. Don’t look for an advance. Just look to make music so good that when someone hears it, they need to tell others about it.
How many people are going to tell their friends about Prince’s new album? None. No one has hipped me to a new Prince track in fifteen years. The release of his album is a dead end. He’s abused our trust. When you e-mail me an unsolicited track you abuse my trust. When you add me to your mailing list without asking first, you abuse my trust. When you focus on marketing as opposed to music, you’ve got your head up your ass.