Monday, September 27, 2010

The media and music businesses struggle to succeed in the modern era, share many of the same problems

What a weekend: I hopped on a plane early Saturday, landed in Washington DC, checked into my hotel and ran off to the French embassy for a concert by two bands -- one from Montreal, the other from Belgium -- then off again the next morning for my return flight. Quite an effort just to go to a concert, but it was certainly worth it (and thanks to Priceline it wasn't than much of an expense).

But sitting in that concert, and then discussing the travails of the modern music business with the bands, record "executives" and members of the audience, my mind returned often to the problems of the media business. You see, both "industries" see themselves as fighting an uphill battle against the Internet, fragmentation and other issues. Neither really sees themselves as "industries" and therefore fail to make decisions based on long term strategy.

The Internet
Very few actually blame the Internet for the failings of their publication, but many realize that the Internet has created some unique challenges -- first among these is the fact that so much content is readily available for free.

The music business has been dealing with this issue for quite some time. Not only do many consumers download their music free-of-charge through websites and music sharing vehicles, but even the paid download services, like iTunes and Amazon, are not being handled very well. (One band told me of their frustration that their early CDs were now out of print, something that shouldn't happen since it is easy of make these recordings available through download services.)

For the media business, file sharing is not much of a problem (though it is growing in the book publishing business). The real issue is that free news content found online, either through newspaper websites, or through aggregators like Google News, is competing with paper products. The one-to-one relationship between product and price is broken in a world where content is as available as air.

Fragmentation and oversupply
The media business knows all about fragmentation, but one rarely talks about oversupply. In the music business this is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. A few decades ago the music you bought was limited to what was available at your local record store. One regularly browsed the shelves of stores looking for something new. Occasionally word would leak out about a new store and one would walk in with the same excitement a kid feels on Christmas morning.

The alternative to the store was the mail order service, now the butt of many jokes among old-timers. Who, over the age of 50, doesn't remember the Columbia Record Club and its monthly mailers? (Don't forget to send in that reply, otherwise you'll be shipped the latest Trini Lopez record!)

Today, I sometimes complain, there is too much music. I literally have thousands of CDs, many that never get played. When I went to the concert I knew I wasn't as familiar with the bands latest releases as I should have been.

In the past, your local newspaper was your source for all news -- local, regional, national and international. The same AP story you read on happenings in Washington DC was the same story that appeared in the newspaper a few hundred miles away. But your local paper, or maybe network TV, was the only place to get that news. This created opportunities for other news products like the news weeklies.

Today I can read about the Obama administrations moves to increase their Internet wiretapping capabilities (don't get me going) on the NYT website -- and, according to Google News, I can read about it on 450 other website, as well.

This oversupply effects the likelihood that unique bands can be discovered. In the case of the bands I listened to this weekend, they have more obstacles because their music is complicated, sophisticated, and difficult to understand for some -- gotta love rock bands with bassoonists!

News suffers from the opposite problem: you take the same story, with the same facts, and then try to attract readers online and in print -- how do you do it? No surprise then that we are seeing some parts of the news industry move away from straight reporting and moving to creating news content and programming that tries to reinforce the prejudices of the audience -- partisan journalism brings in the audiences, after all.

Marketing and Social Networking
I actually remember the days of having a fairly large marketing budget. When I was CAM at a daily newspaper in Northern California I used to be radio advertising on a regular basis, some as trade-out, but much of it paid advertising. Writing radio ad scripts was actually part of my job description. Can you imagine that today?

Today marketing budgets are almost nonexistent if you are in the media business. Imagine what it is like running an extremely small record label where your artists are doing very well if they sell 10,000 copies -- do you really have the money to buy a full page in Rolling Stone for one of your artist's CDs?

And so both industries try to market on the cheap. Thank Good for social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, right? Yeah, right. Both industries struggle getting comfortable with social networking tools, though I think this will change real fast -- it has to.

I was speaking to members of one of the bands yesterday at the airport -- they were on their way home to Montreal, me to Chicago. They had played at a rock "festival" the weekend before and I was curious how many people attended. I knew this wasn't the equivalent of Woodstock, but I wanted to know how many people would attend a "festival" of this kind of music. They estimated 400 people.

I was a bit stunned. I had imagined that today, in the era of the Internet, it would easier to get the word out about an event, easier to sell CDs across borders, easier to reach your audience.

Sadly, I had overlooked the new challenges these musicians were facing -- just as we in the media business are facing. The introduction of web publishing and smartphones and iPads hjas created great new opportunities for the media world (and the music business) but we all know that it hasn't solved our problems, in some cases it has even made things harder.

Nonetheless, this weekend was a good reminder that the best artists (and journalists, and media executives) will continue on because they simply love what they do, and they know their audiences need them to continue. It was a wonderful weekend, filled with great music, camaraderie, and adventure -- but it was a bit depressing, as well. Much like the media business.