Resnikoff’s Parting Shot: Music Matters

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A huge percentage of music is acquired for free these days, at least when it comes to the recording.

That includes both legal and illegal uses, though a new initiative is attempting to dissuade consumers away from unauthorized platforms.  The UK-based collective of artists, retailers, songwriters, and labels, called ‘Music Matters,’ wants to reinforce the value of music and encourage legal consumption.  Education is a core component, and that includes well-crafted video vignettes on a number of important musical figures.

The video messages are well-crafted and educational.  But is this the right focus, or simply an attempt to revalue the wrong part of the musical food chain?  And, is the real problem P2P and BitTorrent, or rather the ubiquity of free music – legal or illegal, Spotify or LimeWire?

A central component of the Music Matters campaign is a ‘trust mark,’ a digital certificate signifying an ‘ethical’ choice.  The seal is being affixed across a number of online outlets, including iTunes, MySpace Music, Vodafone, Amazon, Tesco, Spotify, and we7.  “We all agree that music has a value, the ‘Music Matters’ logo is now an easy way for consumers to instantly know they are supporting their favorite artist and industry by using legal sites,” explained we7 head Steve Purdham.

But some of the anti-piracy arguments are a bit worn.  A cornerstone of the Music Matters message is that good music and legendary artists require significant investments from labels and fans.  That is up for debate, especially given the swell of available music and consumption over the last ten years – a period of marked revenue declines and shrinking fan contributions.  The question is whether the products of heavy investment – like Beyonce or the Backstreet Boys – are more important cultural relics than independent singer-songwriters playing in coffeehouses.

Many of these underfunded artists are scraping by without handsome advances, but have adapted to shifts in consumer behavior.  Artists frequently distribute their music for free, and often disagree with their labels (if signed) on matters related to content distribution and monetization.  Ahead of SXSW, for example, a massive torrent of songs from participating bands is now distributed, and most artists seem okay with the idea.

But most of these artists (SXSW and beyond) will remain obscure and strapped financially, just like the old days.  That is the difficult statistical reality of the music industry, though the more promising monetization possibilities now come from non-recorded experiences, including live shows, merchandising, licensing deals and sponsorship opportunities.

Certainly, aspects of this 360-degree approach (whether major label or DIY) are also being properly questioned, though it seems foolish to focus the monetization efforts on the recording.  The reality is that insisting on an upfront payment almost guarantees obscurity, and prevents future non-recording monetization possibilities.

But what if Music Matters achieved all of its goals, and wiped unauthorized file-trading off the map?  The question then would still surround monetization, because some of the most popular legal services are simply free.  Spotify, MySpace Music, and we7 all feature upsell opportunities, but paying is optional.  Back in the day, playing music usually meant paying a significant amount – at a record store.

Instead, the current model – or some would say, wish – behind services like Spotify is that a meaningful percentage of large audiences will elevate towards premium relationships.  But across the pond, that thinking is causing licensing problems, most notably with Warner Music Group but also other stateside majors.

In that light, the bigger issue is not whether music is being acquired legally or illegally, but whether enough consumers can be convinced to pay for it, period.  According to Music Matters, free on-demand streaming is ethically sound, but it remains financially unsound for the recording industry.  Ironically, music matters more than ever to fans, but getting consumers to pay is another matter entirely.

Paul Resnikoff, Publisher.