Saturday, May 13, 2006

Mobile Music

An article in a recent Washington Post Online confirms (yet again) that the traditional record biz is looking down the barrel of the digital gun. The first part of the article, Music Labels And Artists Turning To Cell Phones Over Radio For Distribution And Promotion..., discusses the shift from commercial radio as the primary means for artist exposure. It then moves to talk about how the cell phone is a huge revenue source.
The first album from punk-pop band Yellowcard became a hit through conventional radio and CD sales. But the group only broke into the big time when it launched songs from its second album exclusively on a new stage: the cellphone.

Pictures of the quintet were blown up into 40-foot Verizon Wireless signs draped off the side of buildings in Manhattan. Their title song, "Lights and Sounds," became the centerpiece soundtrack for 30-second commercials promoting the cellphone company's music download service. In total, Yellowcard benefited from $5 million to $10 million in advertising, something the band's label, Capitol Records, couldn't have afforded, said Deborah Klein, the band's manager.
I agree radio is losing it's lustre (some may argue it's already lost.) Between Elliot Spitzer's payola investigations, XM/ Sirius, and the web, I wonder how influential programmed music radio really is to anyone below 40, (let alone 25) age bracket. But to expect these big dollar ads to be a panacea that allow the coporate music industry can continue their marketplace domination is foolish.

Anyone else remember those contact lens commercials featuring the band Lillix? That was all over the place- but did very little to help propel the band to any real fame. I guess the lesson to be learned is: Unless you're already famous before you pimp a product, you wind up being remembered only as "that contact lens band," and not remembered for your music. Yellowcard was already "famous" by the time this ad hit, and coupling them with a cool cellphone/music technology product is a much better fit than contact lenses.

The article then gets to the meat of the matter: the cellphone, being the most ubiquitous piece of technology worldwide, is the next wave of media player. The cell companies and majors are making this marriage of convenience to achieve their marketing goals. One offer unique custom content (on the cell end) to lure customers, the other gets mass-media exposure in ads that would ordinarily be too pricey.

The cell model is perfectly in line with the music business 1.0 way to sell music- a proprietary distribution system that you can charge outlandish prices for.

Ringtones use music as a style accessory- like a pair of shoes, handbag, or little dog. It fills the pockets of both the cell companies and labels for a very disposable service. In that case I understand charging a buck or so for a song that someone may use repeatedly as a ringtone or ringback. But some companies have the nerve to not only charge you for the tone but a monthly maintenence charge as well. It's just DRM in another form.

When customers can readily rip quantities of CD's to a phone, sales of high price ringtones and other dubious content offerings, will suffer. My feeling is people will pay for custom tones because they have no choice, but once there's a way to get it for free, they'll follow the most cost-effective path. (And the fair-weather-friends at the hardware providers will happily oblidge whatever trend is necessary to move their products according to marketplace demand.)

I still maintain music is a liquid commodity. And you have to control it at the source to effectively monetize it. Chasing pennies and "units" still works for now, but it won't as a long term strategy.

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