Monday, June 07, 2004

What if Music DVDs were the albums of the future?

see edited version at Media Guardian, June 7th, 2004

There was a time when buying a new album was not just a special, but also a sentimental journey. Everyone has memories of taking home an LP from Our Price, unwrapping it, admiring the cover art, closing the bedroom door, turning on the record player and sitting back, without the tyranny of a remote control, to study the lyrics and sleeve notes while listening to the tunes in the order they were played.

It was a beautifully linear narrative: we studied the tracks, read between the lines and then debated endlessly with anyone who was prepared to listen to us about why the twin-drum solo at the start of Kings of the Wild Frontier could never be bettered. Somehow CDs could never be the same. All of a sudden track numbers became more memorable than song titles, you could skip all around and the visual canvas of the cover was so compact that the bond between you and the band seemed shrunk to Lilliputian dimensions or displaced to another medium like MTV.

No wonder when the Internet came along we all started to flee in disgust and sought refuge back in the music heaven to which we’d always retreat, a place where you could find cool new tunes and talk turkey with people who loved the same tracks as you. For those of us turned off by MTV, alienated by HMV and either too old or too young to go to live gigs, the file-sharing networks that Napster spawned were a godsend – not only was there now music everywhere but a community of listeners to share it with.

It’s not clear whether the decline of the music industry coincided with the birth of file-sharing networks or was precipitated by it. Year on year, the industry has suffered global losses of 20% since 2000 and its official bodies, like the IFPI, have attributed much of these losses to digital and physical piracy. Forrester’s European study in January 2003 concluded that “more than 40% of frequent downloaders buy less music now than they did before they began downloading. This is not enough to be compensated by 2% of people who say that they bought more after having downloaded”.

Sounds pretty conclusive and with 1bn estimated files available for download in April 2003, you can see why the music industry was having kittens and suing any teenager with a peer-to-peer connection they could lay their hands on. But many of these studies didn’t actually look at the data, rather they asked people who were downloading if it affected their purchasing behavior and surprise surprise many said it did.

But a more recent study done in partnership by Harvard Business School and UNC Chapel Hill, which correlated actual download information and compared it to sales data, suggests that the true impact of file-sharing on album sales may have been over-estimated and in fact in many cases found that file-sharing leads to increased sales. In fact the issues most likely to have impacted music industry growth seem rather to be less Kazaa and Morpheus and more other forms of entertainment. The long march of video games and DVDs, as well as a reduction in music variety stemming from both label and radio consolidation have led to systematic decline.

But the music industry may be turning the corner, and once again, it may be their willingness to embrace and innovate using the new digital formats presented by the Internet and DVDs that will drive the renaissance. Both are relatively new and untested by the labels but early signs are that the combination of the online distribution’s breadth of selection, convenience and value-for-money and DVD’s ability to involve us in the intimate world of the artist – behind the scenes, the lines and live on-stage – is pointing us back to a world where we could love music and feel excited to share our passion.

Digital downloading has stripped music down to its bare essentials – all sound and no fury, it is the logical conclusion of the customization promoted by the CD format. But the format and distribution possibilities afforded by DVDs could be the first major creative outlet to hit artists since the birth of MTV, in terms of developing new dimensions of intimacy with their fans.

In 2003, retail sales of music fell worldwide by 7.6% but there have been some encouraging trends for the music business as it looks to explore and add value to new formats. The sales of DVD music video grew 67%, with top selling artists including new and old favourites like Coldplay, U2, Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson. In Europe alone, over 50 legal music downloading services have been launched and Apples iTunes passed the 50m download mark in March 2004.

In fact perhaps the best news for a music industry increasingly intent on exploiting under-developed markets is the news that according to NPD the real growth opportunity is among the over 30 crowd, who represent 56% of all sales and by 2005 could account for as much as 60%. Maybe I’m showing my age, but it certainly makes sense to me that instead of pushing compact content at the 15-24 year olds, the music industry may be better served creating the albums of the future for a community that enjoys visual feasts and footnotes alongside our new digital downloads.