“Too Expensive to Be Free, Too Free to Be Expensive”

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I have to partially borrow the title of (my friend and former colleague) Eliot Van Buskirk’s article on Wired.com for this post:  Music: Too Expensive to Be Free, Too Free to Be Expensive.  I need to borrow it, because when it comes to the state of digital music business models, this phrase nails it more than any I’ve heard in a long time. I’ve worked on both the consumer and the “rights-holder” side of this business, and the institutional barriers in the music industry have always been, in my view, the biggest obstacle to progress — for all parties involved.

Advertising was supposed to be music’s magic bullet, enabling fans to get the free music they’re going to find anyway while contributing at least something to copyright holder coffers. That dream is fading fast. As legitimate sources for free on-demand music dry up, fans will likely head back to file sharing networks, which is bad news for everyone involved in music — except for, perhaps, hard drive manufacturers.

That paragraph elegantly sums up what I see as a summary of the core institutional issues of the music business. The revenue generation happens so far away from the consumer experience that the two don’t recognize each other anymore. This model worked for a long time while the entire creative, intellectual property, manufacturing, distribution, and retail channels were in the control of a few large entities, because, well, that’s how oligarchies are. The industry’s bent towards “rent seeking” models, however,  grew old and tired and then the internet came along and put them all out of their misery.  Understand that I lump labels, publishers, and performance rights agencies together into the word “industry”, and rightly so, because this disaggregation of rights is a big cause of their woes.  I’m going a bit beyond the scope of Eliot’s article in discussing the various rights owners and their motivations, but it applies when you are a consumer company who must consider the cost of entering a business involving music (and I ‘m not even talking about up front costs and guarantees).

In a recent MidemNetBlog post titled A Delicate Balancing Act, Ted Cohen is sympathetic to both sides of the   “music industry vs. tech start-up” predicament, and he alludes to the cultural differences between tech entrepreneurs and industry types:

Having been on the label side, I understand the desire AND need to extract value from assets. In my current ongoing work with start-ups, I appreciate their passionate desire to do something innovative with music. These two goals shouldn’t be at odds with each other, and yet they are. The ‘asks’ by the rightsholders are frequently substantial, the expectations from the start-ups are often unrealistic. Neither side is really listening to each other, they are each focused on their own immediate concerns. Understandable, but not very productive.

The expectations for start-ups are often are unrealistic, but innovation is like that, and ultimately, “explaining” the music industry to someone with a good idea and a grasp of the demand side of the equation doesn’t solve the problem. The cultures do need to understand each other better, but the institutional structure of the music industry and the high costs that it creates in comparison to the questionable (and perhaps, now, unknowable) demand is a really, really big problem.

Getting my Blog (Back) On

Ok, so I’m getting my blog going again.  Or… rather – for the first time.

I’ve probably started and abandoned more than a dozen blogs in my time.  Blogger, WordPress, MovableType, Tumblr, and probably a few others that I’ve forgotten, are littered with the skeletal remains of various attempts to enter the blogosphere in a meaningful way. I really made my big push about a year ago when I chose WordPress as my platform of choice, and even went so far as to register some domains, including my vanity “timjmitchell” moniker. Although, as much as I like to hear myself talk, I really had a hard time getting posts started and even a harder time completing them.  Part of that inability is simply life (work, marriage, social, music, etc.) taking up time, but part of it was really  not really understanding why I was doing it in the first place. A quick search on Technorati can yield for you any number of other people’s reasons , but I think I’ve finally come to my own conclusions.

The practical and “hard” answer is that given what I do for a living, it behooves me to have a well organized site where I can not only express ideas, but where I can tinker, experiment, and otherwise play with whatever social media or web detritus I might want to understand.  A blog these days can be very technically sophisticated, and with all of the plug-ins, social media integration, and SEO capabilities now available, a good blog can be a real asset to one’s career. As a product management type, it’s really an interesting experiment to have one property/destination/whatever where there is no “cross-functional-ness” at all – it’s just me, some tools, the web, and my own good, bad, or neutral decisions.  I’m working on a post now that goes into this in more detail, so I’ll spare you more discussion. Ultimately, given what I do, its almost a problem NOT having a blog – - whether or not that says something positive or negative about web-working I’ll leave to others.  At the very least, I own a domain with my name in it and an email address that goes along with that – frankly, that was the main reason I set it up in the first place.

A more metaphysical and “soft” answer is that it allows for a certain type of mental exercise that falls outside of work and/or normal social discussion. Never mind my predilection for using Facebook http://www.facebook.com as mostly a container for funny links and videos or snarky comments on other people’s posts  – - I mean, isn’t that what its for? Ok, Ok, I know that there are meaningful ways it can be used for business, but that’s for another post – - I think Facebook should mostly be for fun, and that’s just me.  My blog has got to be a sincere attempt at expressing sincere ideas. I think being able to post about subjects that I am not an expert on, for example, is a really productive way to remind yourself how to acquire and analyze new knowledge.  So for me – yeah, my blog is professionally focused. You won’t see posts about my vacations or good meals or movies – - there’s nothing wrong with that, but for me, it just wouldn’t keep me interested and blogging.

Oh, I changed the design, too — i had this really frothy japanese-themed look that just wasn’t pro enough… I wanted slick and so forth, but you can be the judge.  I’ll post a screenshot of the old interface and explain later.

Now for the snarky comments back from my friends on Facebook when I start promoting my sincere (and to many, probably extremely boring) posts.  I can take it.  I can blog about it, I guess, too.