I often wonder if the music industry expects too much of music listeners. This might seem like an odd concern, considering that an equal portion of label executives seem to expect nothing but music piracy and concert going from today’s listener.
But hear me out. Maybe I’ve attended too many conference panels. Maybe I’ve read to many blog posts. Maybe I’ve heard too many startup pitches. But I think that we expect too much from today’s listener, and their interest in music has limits.
What are the limits? I don’t know. When I see all of these services and apps, I often question their purpose and longevity. I think these companies are running on a lot of assumptions. Certainly, the world is changing and many of things people say they don’t care about today could be the breakthrough innovations of tomorrow.
But I have my doubts. One moment, we say that listeners will fund and buy all of their music. Crowd-funding is the future. The other, we say that they will loot and destroy everything sacred about culture. Music piracy undermines the future. One day, everyone wakes up right, but before that happens, most just wake up dead.
To explore these ideas further, I asked several music and tech experts: Are today’s expectations of music listeners and fans overblown? If so, why? Are there limits to cultural orientation and active participation we might brush up against very soon?
What Sets The Music Business Apart From Others
This is framed as a question about fans, but it’s really a question about customers. We’re talking dollars and cents here: can we really expect music customers to support the economics of a wide range of new business models?
To answer this in a round about way, I would argue that every industry is looking to push the limits of what their customers will spend on their products or services. What sets the music industry apart — not very far apart — is that music business models often require not only customers’ money, but significant amounts of their time and energy as well. Musicians are taught to cultivate ‘super fans’ to do promotion for them on the basis of adoration. They’re taught to push fans for referral sales of tickets and merchandise, often for no reward other than face time.
If you’re a professional musician — you generate your income primarily from your musical endeavors — your fans are no longer simply fans, they’re customers. Asking fans to perform services that would earn a paycheck in other industries may not cross any ethical boundaries. A paying customer, an individual who purchases your products and from whom you derive income, is a different story.
If you want sales, sell or hire a sales force. If you want promotion, promote or hire promoters. If you expect free labor, well, now your expectations might be overblown.
The Board Of Music Industry Expectations Doesn't Exist
I have a fundamental problem with this question.
I don’t know if the industry’s expectations of fans are either uniform enough to warrant discussion, or even relevant at all if there were to be uniform.
There isn’t an industry board that sets standard expectations. There are companies that have high expectations, companies who have low expectations, and companies in between.
We will see who was right based on their success rate, assuming that those with the best combination of product/service and marketing will prevail.
What’s more interesting is to look at fan expectations from the industry, and to build a business around that dynamic. It should start with the customer, and end with how we best service them as well as the artists we work with.
Is funding fatigue setting in with the increasing amount of crowd-funding campaigns? Sure. Does that mean all artists shouldn’t engage in crowd-funding? No. It depends on the artist and the fanbase. Are artists active on too many social networks for people to keep up with? Maybe some artists, but it depends. There is no industry wide truth on expectations.
Music Fans Have Shifted To More Passive Discovery Role
To say that today’s expectations of music listeners and fans are overblown would be a mass generalization, however it is safe to say that the formation of artist-fan relationships and general patterns in music consumption have changed in the last few years. Listeners and fans have shifted into a far more passive role when it comes to discovering new music.
Since 2010 there has been a decline in people actively searching for new music, with rapid drop off rates occurring from mid-2011. That said, the interest in digital music consumption, while slowly declining, has remained relatively unchanged. This means people are moving to rely on publications, brands, blogs and music streaming platforms to curate new music where artists and songs are being pushed at listeners/fans.
The danger here is how popular music platforms are set up for fostering new artist-fan relationships. Digital libraries like iTunes, distribution platforms and some streaming services such as Spotify and the others are simple grids with the same amount of personality as an Excel spreadsheet — just more colorful cells. The opportunity for artists to inject their branding into the music discovery process via these platforms is minimal due to lack of customization. For artists, they are limited with creating an emotional hook for potential new fans.
We know the journey of a music listener to fan goes something like this: Listener stumbles across new music — listens/watches said music — explores it more by seeking info about the artist, sharing the audio with their own friends — follows the artist to stay connected with new updates — and finally aligns themselves with the artist’s brand becoming a true super fan.
In order to grow a relationship between an artist and fan, which is a very emotion driven and human process, the digital platforms in which they are cultivated need to work towards creating an emotional hook. There is a reason why seeing favorite bands in concert make you love them even more. It’s the emotion. When digital music technology can recreate the same hook you get from seeing something live, then you have a winner.
The Music Industry Should Stop Trying To Sell Music
In 16th century Europe, marriages were not legal unless a trumpeter was present and played for the wedding.
Now that is a valuable music product. Not surprisingly, the trumpet was a symbol of wealth and nobility and one of the highest paid positions for hundreds of years.
These days, music is optional. "Optional," in this use of the word, means "not very valuable.” The value of music has not gone down because we were more cultured in 16th century Europe and we are less cultured now. The value of music has gone down because we oversaturated the market since the invention of recording equipment. As a film maker once told me, "I can buy music by the pound."
If the music industry expects "hardcore fans" to care about music, they expect too much. If, instead, they are trying to sell these "hardcore fans" peripheral products and experiences that relate to the music — and here I'm talking about concerts, swag, access, self-identity, community, a sense of belonging (see: Lady Gaga's Little Monsters) — then I think their expectations are more reasonable.
Above all, I wish the music industry would stop trying to sell music. That's never been their product. There was a period between 1950 to 2000 where it seemed like music was their product, but — even then — they were wrong.