You Forgot It In People

You Forgot It In People

Record Store Day reminded me that buying music is more fun with people involved.

Broken Social Scene’s “You Forgot It In People”album whose title I lifted for this post.

It’s been a little over a week since the music geek holiday of Record Store Day has passed. For those who don’t know, this holiday consists of rubbing (or for certain records throwing) elbows for the right to spend $25-$45 for albums pressed on plastic that you probably already have access to through Spotify, YouTube or your MP3s. It’s a real throwback for music fans and artists because people actually go to stores, talk to other humans and buy music again. It also serves as a stark reminder of how impersonal the music experience is now and what we’ve lost in the transition to digital.

Unfortunately, the record store is not going to return to its former glory no matter how much vinyl sales keep growing. To be clear, there will always be a little record store selling vinyl long after Urban Outfitters stops selling vinyl as a fashion accessory. That’s because people who love music will always seek out places to be with other people who love music too. I know that’s why I still go to concerts and music festivals.

So after my last Record Store Day (“RSD”) experience I started thinking about how digital music could capture more of the store experience. Right now, most digital music services are just about delivery and algorithmic programming and I am getting annoyed with it. Opening up a digital music service is bad a combination of overwhelming and boring.

It’s overwhelming because I have more music than I could ever listen to in a lifetime available. Unfortunately, this large number of listening options available tends to make my mind go blank. “Um, The Rolling Stones… I guess?” seems to be my brain’s typical response. Music services know this is a problem, so they prompt the user with suggested playlists to deal with this “what do I listen to now” problem. Or worse “this is what’s popular in your network” activity feeds. I love my friends, but I mostly hate what they listen to daily. Unfortunately, I find all these algorithmic programming options uninspiring. These suggestions also make me feel like a lame demographic:

I’m sure the algorithm is right and something in the data analysis that Spotify is gathering from my listening habits is spot on with these recommendations above. I definitely need a deeper focus, a happier work disposition and some idea of what today’s “viral hits” are as I don’t have a clue. But I don’t pay Spotify to give me the tough love reminder that I’m just an aging hipster in need of an attitude adjustment.

There’s got to be a way to make digital music more personal and enjoyable. Or at least something more akin to the RSD experience. Here’s a few ideas I had below.

Make an event out of new music.

When I was in college, I worked at a record store in Knoxville that did “midnight sales” when CDs came out. Like RSD, midnight sales were totally manufactured commercial events driven by the perception of scarcity. Lines of people waiting in the parking lot at midnight for Nirvana’s “In Utero” CD so they would be the first to have it… at least until 10am the next day when everyone else could buy it. The midnight sales were parties where you met a lot of people who liked things you liked. I think that still holds true and why people are still willing to line up at record stores at 10 a.m. on a Saturday to buy music instead of just buying it off eBay or Discogs the next day.

Why isn’t there an equivalent live event online when new albums come out? Not just a live concert, but a place where I can hear more about the album from the artist. Maybe see what other people think while we listened to the album live together?

I’ve got a little bit of experience in doing similar types of events for video games and movies from my last company Whiskey Media. Whiskey Media built entertainment brands like Giantbomb and Comicvine (which are now owned by CBSi) that were hybrid publishing and community sites. We would broadcast our hosts playing new video games or talking about movies live and the fans loved it. Thousands of people who would show up to watch and participate in chats during these live broadcast. You can check out what they are like yourself tomorrow (April 29th) at Giantbomb if you want to see exactly what I’m talking about, or check out an old clip of one of ours shows below.

It would be real easy for Amazon’s Twitch and Google’s YouTube to do these type of live “Fan Parties”. They just need to invest in great hosts for the events. If I were Spotify or Apple I would start thinking about these type of music release parties. Otherwise, they potentially lose their promotional power to Google and Amazon who can easily turn on this ability to connect fans with artists on their platforms.

Less exclusives, more rewards for supporting music.

The digital music industry has tried to create excitement around different kinds of exclusive models for awhile now, notably iTunes getting the Beatles or Spotify having Led Zeppelin exclusively. Tidal’s whole strategy seems to be based on exclusives which they have already caught a ton of grief about already.

With RSD, the exclusives exist in the form of limited edition vinyl that are distributed everywhere. The only fans getting the shaft are folks who live in towns without record stores. Or as I found out, showing up two hours late on RSD and missing out on that Alabama-shaped St. Paul & the Broken Bones release you really, really wanted.

Anyway, both of these “exclusive” methods are flawed. With digital exclusives, the artist risks alienating fans by making them choose between digital platforms. Consumers are not going to subscribe to three different services just to listen to all their favorite artists. The limited distribution leads to limited income.

When it comes to RSD exclusives, it’s not a sustainable business model because it happens once a year and most of the product is targeted to limited edition rarities for hardcore music nerds like me. This model does not “scale” as they say.

I think it would be better for digital music services to reward hardcore fans who show up for an album launch and buy the music instead. Let the distributors fight for debut rights instead of exclusive rights. Sure, it’s possible that the bigger, wealthier distributors might disproportionately get rights to bigger artists as they have in the past. If that happens, it will just make the smaller distributors work harder at breaking newer artists. That has worked out well for my favorite music distributor Bandcamp, which has already given a $100 million to artists. The more platforms we have fighting to promote new music the better I say.

Here are some ideas that as a music fan I would be glad to hand over $20 for when new albums come out:

  • Expensive benefit: Limited edition vinyl/cassette/t-shirts with digital purchases made on the first day of release.
  • Moderate priced benefit: Send posters & stickers for the first 100,000 (or pick a number) that buy the album in the first 24-hours at full price.
  • Cheap benefit: Collect Twitter, Instagram or Facebook usernames on checkout. Then post a link to a page with a collage of all those first week buyers, until the artist creates its own version of the Million Dollar Homepage. Randomly Tweet or Instagram those buyers and tell them thank you.

I’m sure there are better ideas by smarter people or maybe these ideas have been tried already. The point is music consumption needs to go back to being a better cultural experience and not the isolated experience it is today. Sure, there’s still concerts and record store days, but music’s future is online. Digital distribution is just not that fulfilling and is partially why people still look to buy physical artifacts or interact with their sometimes nice, sometimes crotchety record clerk guy. The companies who bring people back into the music experience will do exceptionally better going forward.

Special thanks to my super talented friend Lessley Anderson for edits and thoughts on this rambling post. If there are any errors or you don’t like the thoughts, don’t blame her. Also, you should see her band Baby & the Luvies if you’re in SF!

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