The Problems Musicians Face and How To Solve Them, Pt. 5

Part5Written by Tommy Darker, originally published in The Musicpreneur.

Travelling the world and chatting with fellow aspiring artists reveals astounding insights about the future of music. Here’s the deal: we think we all face different problems, but the reality reveals the opposite. I will share one of these insights, explaining what it means for the way we work as musicians and how to move in the future.

This is the 5th part. Each part is linked at the end of the post.


What constitutes today’s success in the music business.

Ok, hopefully we see how poorly we currently behave and the potential for a better future for musicians. Identifying and outlining a problem is one part, suggesting a solution is another. This is what this Part 5 is all about.

Before we dive in, let’s articulate the main idea of this part, so we can provide a framework of thinking along the way:

There are two main Mediums in the modern music world: Mediatization and Communities. Mediatization represents Storytelling and Communities represent Humans.

The First Medium: Mediatization

There is a fundamental premise about modern music (that separates it from classic/contemporary music). Except for the formalistic idea of ‘the intrinsic value of music’ (that is, the exclusive value for what music IS on its own terms), the main value today lies in the context around music (or, value for what music MEANS OR REPRESENTS), which strengthens the musical experience and listener comprehension.

In modern reality, musicians are connectors, not just songwriters. They’re connecting people around stories and feelings. This is the magic power of a song and what the most successful tunes do: they connect. Humans. Around stories.

No surprise, then, that the main economic driver for the contemporary music industry is based on the story built upon the musical expression. As the French economist, Olivier Bomsel [1], calls it: Mediatization.

Mediatization is storytelling upon the musical expression that adds meaningful value to the music experience.

Without attempting to be conclusive on this, I love the idea of Mediatization as the first of the two Mediums upon which musicians can build success in the music industry. ‘Richer storytelling rewards you with success.’ Sounds like an ideal scenario.

And, in a way, it is. Think for a minute what prompts you to buy something — concert ticket, music itself, merch, anything — from your favorite artist. Is it the fact that they wrote some music? Or the fact that you’ve been reminded about their existence due to a new story that’s been published?

We buy music-related products because of the fusion of three factors:

• We have affection for the artist’s craft. That is, we love their music.
• Something triggers our affection towards them. That is, a story gets published.
• They give us the opportunity to purchase something. That is, they have something available for sale.

This is how the industry has been making money Direct-To-Fan so far.

In short, the business value of any musical activity, such as live performances, selling merch, getting sponsorships etc., is mainly based on the Mediatization potential of the artist.

This is the grand picture of the Medium in the music industry. We don’t sell the music itself, we sell the story around music. As Troy Carter, the ex-manager of Lady Gaga, said: “Music today sells everything but music.”

“Interesting. Tell me more about Mediatization…”, you say. Let me explain, without going too much in depth, with the help of Olivier Bomsel (who actually wrote a book on the subject).

Mediatization shapes the music experience and perception of the value of the song. The economic value in the music industry is based on the mediatization potential. As a natural consequence, mediatization contains the extended social functions of music:

• People connect and communicate because of music, and
• The more people that connect because of this music, the more valuable the music becomes, triggering network effects.

Once mediatization has been built upon the musical expression, it cannot be detached.

It’s obvious that mediatization is a meaningful compliment and cannot exist without the great music it’s built upon.

“I still cannot get my head around it. In practice, how does Mediatization manifest? Gimme examples”, you say.

Sure. With the artist’s branding (it can be myths, symbols, story, persona, colours, logo etc.) and the context around the music (campaigns, triggers, discovery process, marketing, distribution etc.). The tongue logo of The Rolling Stones is contained in mediatization. The numerous times David Bowie reinvented himself, the unconventional ways Trent Reznor releases his music, the personal touch Amanda Palmer brings to interactions with her fans.

The blatant truth is: for the music business, Mediatization is more important than the musical expression itself, but the former cannot exist without the latter.

That is to say, for the music businessman, it’s not enough that you’re a good songwriter. You need to be able to attach a nuanced and original story that can endure the course of time.

Needless to say, this story needs to be communicated properly to the people that would enjoy it.

It would not be an exaggeration if I classified ‘Communication’ as a separate Medium by itself. However, stories and music never communicated (or that don’t endure the course of time) maybe serve little practical purpose. That’s why Mediatization and Communication are inextricably connected — and one could say that Communication is a sub-medium contained in Mediatization. As Andrew Dubber mentions, ‘there are only two types of content of any value online: conversations, and the things about which the conversation takes place.” [2] I’m with you, Andrew.

The last, but probably most important thing to jot down, is that each musical expression deserves its own Mediatization.

As a consequence, in the past the mediatization of music was mainly delivered through CDs (and this was the main economic driver, leading to a universal business model in the ‘record industry’). But now the means of music mediatization can be as diverse as the musical compositions themselves (each artist can find their own unique way to show the story of their songs — not just CD releases — leading to a plethora of business models to use).

In short, each artist’s success could be sought upon a unique business model for their musical expression, based on richer and authentic stories. In the digital world, everything can be copied and replicated digitally (even physical objects — see 3D printing), leading their market value to a race towards zero. What will survive, however, are the intangible experiences we can create. Selling copies of music in plastic discs is not the only way anymore and we have to stop pretending we’re still in the MySpace era.

Hint: knowledge about business models and Mediatization is essential for modern Musicpreneurs. [3]

I repeat once again: each musical expression deserves its own Mediatization.

This simple sentence is responsible for the huge mess in the current music industry. We don’t know which business model to follow, after a long period of capitalizing relentlessly on a handful of established business models.

Anyway. No matter how necessary the first Medium might be, the full picture remains incomplete unless we go to the second Medium that artists will have to build their business upon.

The Second Medium: Communities

As we saw, musicians today are not just music creators, but also connectors: they connect human beings with stories. Mediatization had something to do with stories. The second Medium has to do with humans.

The second Medium is Communities.

Musicians attract people around the music. They evoke the audience’s feelings and awaken their sentiments. This phenomenon has better effects when the audience has gathered in a physical space to enjoy a shared experience (in a live performance or any other experience around music, generated by an artist).

You’ve definitely been in a large-scale live concert, right? Remember the feeling you get when 80.000 people scream the band’s name or dance to their music? Priceless. It’s the vibration and exchange of energy with people tuned in the same frequency. Something that doesn’t happen with other arts except for music.

The power of live music as a shared experience lies in the activation of network effects (the more people that use and/or enjoy an experience/music/product, the more valuable it becomes).

This partially justifies my previous argument that ‘music never communicated maybe serves little practical purpose’.

While elaborating on the fact that network effects are an essential — and actually inherent — part of the Mediatization process, it reminded me of another, obscure word connected to them. This word is not a buzzword or something everyone pays much attention to. Yet, the biggest and most high-valued tech companies today ARE this word. And, not many people seem to have realized this idea’s worth.

What is the word? The word is Platforms.

iTunes is a platform. Facebook is a platform. YouTube is one as well. Pinterest, Flickr, Twitter and — hell — even Uber and AirBnB are platforms.

They connect two (or more) parties around a main object. Facebook connects you with friends and interesting social objects to talk about. Twitter connects around real-time news. iTunes connects musicians with the audience directly. AirBnB connects room-seekers with room-owners. And so on.

Three of their common characteristics?

• The owners of the platform don’t create any of the content, they merely connect the content creators with the content consumers, incentivize/help both parties to keep doing so and make the information of the platform easy to find.
They let other people build businesses upon their platforms. YouTube gives you a share of their ad revenue. Facebook enables you to make money too, through stores and building an audience. Flickr lets you sell your photos and AirBnB lets you rent your room. Any platform with an API allows you to plug your bit into the platform, giving the opportunity for you, the user, to innovate. This is how Apple’s AppStore or any marketplace works anyway.
• More common than ever, the platform will give away one product or service in order to attract one audience and make money from another (or, finally, both). Free in platforms is not a bad thing — it’s a prerequisite and it’s profitable.

By doing so, platforms build their business model upon other people’s activities and make money. They become the enablers. To simplify this nuanced matter, the more people that use the platform and interact, the more valuable the platform becomes and the more profit it makes. Networks effects in action.

Which made me wonder.

If musicians…

• Are connectors already, connecting human beings around stories and common feelings…
• Give away their main product for free — that is music — and…
• Already enjoy and incentivize user-generated (or fan-generated) content around their art…

…then what keeps them away from being their own successful platform?

The answer is: in practice — absolutely nothing. In theory — just the absence of knowledge on how to build and approach a platform.

Platforms are so powerful in the real world, that a Boston University business professor who studies and speaks about Platform Economics, Marshall Van Alstyne, said that “there is a strong argument that platforms beat products every time.” [4]

Your music (and mine, too) has been a product so far. Created, promoted, sold. Like a shoe in a factory and game in a store.

Nike changed from a shoe manufacturer to an interactive platform for runners — and they won big. The same for Apple, who allowed the game developers to create their own app games and connected them with a global audience through their AppStore, taking advantage of their iPhone devices — Apple won big and were ahead of their time, too.

Now it’s high time that the approach to music shifts: music is a platform upon which a serious business can get built, connecting people around musical expressions and musical experiences.

As Andrew Dubber mentions in his ‘20 Things You Need To Know About Music Online’ essay, “we hear music, we like music and then we buy music”. Since each platform has its own, unique business model, what if we ‘hear music, like music and join the platform about music’, instead?

I’ve been studying and experimenting with these concepts for a while now. I find them highly arousing and exciting. I even quit my well-paid job to follow them and implement them in my art. But let me be clear: both Mediatization and Platforms have a lot of theoretical and practical points backing them, but they’re not easy concepts to master.

Nevertheless, before our main focus was to impress a label’s A&R and do whatever they say — getting a cut for this ‘obedience’. Now our main focus shifts to learning about making richer stories and building communities.

More fun? I think so. And I’m looking forward to it for sure. The future is now.

Further investigation and resources are necessary to explore the present and future of music, so I reckoned it would be useful to provide some links below. They are either already mentioned in the essay or provide additional context to the issues discussed.

[1] Olivier Bomsel on Mediatization
[2] Andrew Dubber — Music In The Digital Age
[3] The Rise Of The Musicpreneur
[4] The Economics Of The Internet Of Things

The Problems Musicians Face and How To Solve Them:
Part 1 ~ Part 2 ~ Part 3 ~ Part 4 ~ Part 5 ~ Part 6a ~ Part 6b ~ Part 7

[Photo credit: Studio68.]

Tommy Darker is the writing alter ego of an imaginative independent musician and thinker about the future of the music industry. His vision is to simplify scalable concepts and make them work for independent musicians.

He is a writer about the movement of the #Musicpreneur and founder of Darker Music Talks, a global series of discussions between experts and musicians. He and his work have been featured in Berklee, TEDx, Berlin Music Week, Midem, SAE Institute, Hypebot and Topspin Media. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

This research and essay is proudly patronized by its readers.


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  1. Q: What keeps musicians from being their own successful platform?
    A: There is no unity among musicians. They are all competing over the same deals & gigs. They are divided over the prize of fame (if not fortune).
    At isongu.com we are building a platform that constantly unites musicians over the prize. Tf we can unite musicians, then they can indeed become the platform that controls music.

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