The "S Factor" — What Apple Lacks In Music

Do you remember the scene in Almost Famous when pre-teen William flips through his older sister’s vinyl album collection?

I flashed on this great scene as I thought about this week’s events.

Apple’s recent iCloud announcement was warmly received by most digital music proponents. In the first couple of days after the announcement the mainstream press fawned over Apple and the iCloud, and Apple stock gained.

That’s not to say that everybody was impressed — there was grumbling from well informed digerati, as well as Apple competitors, that this was much ado about very little. After all, the dissenters argued, Apple still hadn’t rolled out a subscription music play to obliterate the old model of paying for music track by track, album by album.

This all makes for a fun digital debate, but I think both camps miss the musical mark.

While the Apple cloud integration might be the best we have seen so far, it offers no surprises. Your collection remains your collection. You can simply access your music now much more easily. This makes Apple devices more attractive, and that’s smart business for a company still driven by hardware and design, not software and content.

Think about the biggest music fans you know — the people who call themselves music junkies.  Chances are that while they love their devices of choice (classic 160gb iPods, Sonos systems, vintage turntables and vinyl) they still spend the majority of their waking hours engrossed in discovering music. Talk to them at length and they will tell you that they live for that Oh Wow moment of discovery. The perfect moment of surprise.  Surprise with a capital S. Their favorite music story invariably revolves around “the first time they heard or saw Elvis, The Beatles, Springsteen, Nirvana, Wu-Tang, Arcade Fire, etc.”

Music fanatics live for surprises and discovery above everything else. That’s why they are so loyal to the bands, magazines, fanzines, radio stations, and websites of their youth. They’re constantly trying to recapture that moment that young William has, flipping through those albums, in Almost Famous.

I’ll never forget this comment from a Warner Bros. Records co-worker a couple of years back:

“I go to Best Buy to get the music I know I want to buy, but I go to Amoeba a helluva lot more, to get the music that I didn’t know I wanted to buy”

With the iCloud, Apple has made progress on getting you the music you already know you want. But what about discovery?

The battle for the Oh Wow moment of surprise — for the music you didn’t know you wanted, for that elusive “S Factor” rages on.

Q: Who was the big Cloud winner today? — A: "Yes".

I once worked for a brilliant guy, an artist manager, who when you asked him:  “Should we play Dennver or Salt Lake City?”, would invariably answer: “Yes”.  After a month or so,  I figured out that he wasn’t really distracted, he simply wanted you to figure it out.

So, who exactly had the best day today as Apple announced their iCloud launch?

Was it the labels who finally figured out how to get paid for your whole digital music collection, legally aquired or otherwise?

Was it Apple who patiently slogged their way through the tangled web of major label licensing, and came out the other side with a cloud offering immediately superior to Google’s and Amazon’s, that amplified their iTunes meets Apple device ecosystem?

Or was it the consumer, who for $25 a year instantly upgraded all their IOS devices to stream their music collections without having to tether into their computers, and without the time-suck of sifting through files, device capicity issues, or getting “back” to their devices?

So, the question is — Who was the big winner today?

“Yes”.  Yes, is the answer.

Meanwhile, Back In The Real World…Microsoft Triples Apple?

We are a household tethered to Apple’s ecosystems. Currently we have an iMac, Macbook Air, and three Macbook Pros in circulation, counting the hardware the kids use too. Come to think of it there are also currently four iPods and three iPhones in use. Oh, and a nifty “magic” trackpad. So much for my belief that holding off on an iPad here, or an iTouch there, shows any kind of moderation.

Is this Apple hardware festival overkill? You betcha.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Microsoft rolls onward:

 

The Final Take: You know that fly-over zone? Those states just outside your Virgin America window?? Essentially, everywhere in the U.S except California, New York and, maybe, Seattle???

Well, despite Apple’s hardware and OS gains over the last 3 years, according to SAI’s chart of the day, Microsoft still has a gragantuan footprint out there in the real world. Especially for business services. Our Seattle friends may not be as dominant as they once were, but make no mistake Windows-7 is having a very good run lately.

Read the full SAI piece here.

PS–Wonder if my Blackberry feels lonely.

How Music Shopping in 2011 Works — A Foo Fighters Case Study

Last Friday night I found myself with six hours of “free” time on a JetBlue flight from New York back to L.A.

As I flipped channels, I stumbled upon the new Foo Fighters documentary,”Back and Forth” on VH1 Classic.

Now, besides the ludicrousness of a Rock band that can sell out Wembley Stadium two times over being relegated to VH1 Classic, this turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Back and Forth is an extremely well made biopic on a band that I always liked, but never loved.

Don’t get me wrong. I always admired Dave Grohl, he’s easy to root for based on his public persona. He shows a great sense of humor, has kept has band together for 17 years, and has elegantly handled the unique circumstance of being Nirvana’s ex-drummer. I can’t even begin to imagine how much baggage the mantle of Nirvana is to carry around.

But I digress. So, although I wasn’t a Foo Fighters fan, I got caught up in the documentary. It’s a very compelling story arc — young idealistic drummer moves to Seattle, joins band that changes rock forever, lives through lead singer’s suicide and band implosion, picks up pieces, forms own band, soldiers on through a myriad of adversities, ultimately to make his own way. Good stuff.

So here I was, now interested in the Foo Fighters. The new album sounded good, and I was engaged. I loved the idea that the band overcame so much strife, and had stuck it out. I liked the fact that Butch Vig was involved. I liked the idea that this music was recorded on analogue tape, for a supposed “warmer” sound. On one level, who the heck really knows…but I liked all that intent.

In the old days, it would be off to Tower and Virgin as soon as I landed, and likely the Foo’s CD would have been picked up.

Now, instead, it would be a Tuesday morning Internet crawl.

Here is what I discovered. This is what searching for an album you are interested in, but not fully sold on, feels like in 2011:

6:30am: Check iTunes. Two versions of the new album are available; standard for $9.99 and deluxe for $11.99. I listened to a couple of song previews (now :90 seconds, not :30) and kept searching. The music sounded good, it was promising.

6:40 Amazon. Foo Fighters are not the deal of the day. There would be no $2.99 bargin on this one…likely because Sony controls their own pricing at Amazon. I move on.

6:45 Mog. I subscribe to all the subscription services. It’s completely unnecessary and duplicative; I simply do it to stay informed. I  found myself at Mog first because their email, featuring the Foo Fighters in the #2 slot, got to me first. I spent about 30 minutes listening to the album on Mog, while doing other work. Wasting Light is a good album; no question about it. A number of lyrical turns of phrase distracted me — a good sign.

7:20: It’s 7:20 already? I have to go. Thought the album was solid. Not disappointed at all, but didn’t pull the ownership trigger. Based on hearing the music one time, it is likely I will buy this album at some point soon. It might take a sale, it might simply be seeing the right video at the right time, but it will probably happen. And yes, owning the actual CD itself, will also likely be completely duplicative for me as I can listen to it via subscription anytime, and because of my apps, just about anywhere I want.

Final Take:  Let’s start with the obvious — especially in digital form, people rarely buy albums at all. We live in a track by track world. That said, I still like albums, and if I get excited about a Rock band or artist, am likely to want the full work. But yes, I understand I am in a very distinct minority for even caring about albums.

For me, the Foo Fighters example was a really interesting one. The VH1 documentary was clearly the catalyst, without that exposure I likely would have never heard a note of new music. I don’t ever listen to commercial radio, instead relying on Slacker, Pandora, friends, blogs and the subscription services for music discovery. So a TV show turned out to be a good marketing touch-point.

And, as Alternative Rock is outside my sweet spot (I prefer Hiphop, Jazz, Pop, Indie & Classic Rock), for me to spend additional money, beyond the subscription services, on the Foo Fighters would truly be an impulse buy.

So, what did I learn? Well, I certainly learned that with 4-5 major subscription services, and 4-5 major digital retailers there are no real obstacles in hearing anything you want, whenever you want. I learned that with this many outlets, a price point of $9.99 for a digital album doesn’t feel like a special bargin. And lastly, I learned that with all these digital options, it takes a tremendous amount of marketing and a well crafted call to action to sell me a new rock album at full price. That is far from an easy sale.

One last thing, I also learned that The Foo Fighters made a really good album at the same exact time that the “rock is dead” meme has hit a crescendo. So while I may not buy this album today for myself, I certainly will recommend it to any of my kid’s friends looking for something new that sits comfortably with Nirvana, Green Day, Cage the Elephant or any classic rock they might like.

It’s a process in 2011 to sell a rock album. A definite process.

And guess what…after writing this whole damn thing, and hearing a bunch of these songs again, I just bought the album. So there you go, insiders. There you go.

DMI Bonus Tip: Charming scene from the documentary featuring Bob Mould.

Who, Apple, Worry? — iTunes Scorecard April 5th, 2011

 

It’s time to check in with iTunes, and see how our friends from Cupertino are arranging their offerings in the wake of last week’s Amazon Cloud Drive announcement.

If you thought Amazon’s surprise attack would prompt a quick response from iTunes — you would be wrong. It’s business as usual, stay the course, for the iTunes store. If anything, there is less music at the top of the iTunes homepage than last week.

Here’s the latest at America’s favorite (legal) supplier of uncorrupted and down-loadable files, for uncorrupted and morally upstanding consumers.

AKA — Here’s what is for sale at iTunes today:

1st Cut SPLASHES (aka The Big Bold Banners): Songs For Japan — charity relief album, Death Cab For Cutie — iTunes Pass, Asking Alexandria, Hollywood Undead, Jim Jones.

New Release SWOOSHES (aka Minis): Songs For Japan, Hollywood Undead, Grey’s Anatomy, Asking Alexandria, Death Cab For Cutie, The Kills, Jim Jones, Diego Garcia, Tiesto, Mandisa, The Beatles –Box, The Beatles — Magical Mystery Tour.

1st Row BRICKS (aka static rectangles under the New Releases): Porcelain Black — Single Of The Week, $7.99 Classical Albums sale.

Free Single Of The Week: Porcelain Black — This is What Rock n Roll Looks Like (feat. Lil Wayne)

Did You Notice?:  Again, based on the iTunes store, it hardly looks like Apple is worrying about any music competitor.

Just look at the top of the iTunes store — real estate goes this week to The Kennedy’s miniseries, a free CBS TV show called Chaos, and the Tron movie, before iTunes shines a spotlight on any individual music act. Not only are these offerings not musical, they aren’t particularly sizzling either. Makes label-folks kind of long for simple problems, like piracy and competition from gaming, huh? At least those competitors were hot stuff.

Chart Glance: On the album chart, It’s Songs for Japan at #1, Adele #2, Asking Alexandria #3, Britney Spears #4 and Hollywood Undead rounding out the top 5. On the tracks chart, you will find Katie Perry at #1, Black Eyed Peas #2, Blake Shelton #3, Rihanna #4, and Jennifer Lopez at #5…How tough is it for Rock Tracks? Well, by my count the highest tracking Rock song on the chart is “The Cave” courtsey of Mumford And Sons. Man, it is tough sledding for you rockers these days at iTunes. And, finally, not that you necessarily asked or anything, but Rebecca Black’s “Friday” is already down to #71 on the tracks chart, and fading fast.

Hats Off: Death Cab For Cutie for getting to the homepage in great shape seven weeks ahead of their album release date, Blake Shelton for  a nicely executed single campaign, and Asking Alexandria for a great profile across the iTunes board.

 

 

Stringer Bell Presents — Today's iTunes Scorecard

Look,  I wont lie to you. When I was a kid  I didn’t have to walk 5 miles in the snow, uphill each way, to buy new music. That’s silly. I just waited until Tuesday after 11am, hopped on an F train to West 4th street in Greenwich Village, and got busy.

Today, a 14 year old who waits for Tuesday morning probably has a parent in the Music Biz, a sibling in RIAA litigation, or a Tracy Flick sense of playing by the rules. Bless the young ones, I say.

So, for those of you kids, or kids at heart, here’s the latest at America’s favorite (legal) supplier of uncorrupted and down-loadable files, for uncorrupted and morally upstanding consumers.

AKA — Here’s what is for sale at iTunes today:

1st Cut SPLASHES (aka The Big Bold Banners): American Idol, Rise Against, Alice Cooper (Celebrity Podcast), Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and Hollywood Undead.

New Release SWOOSHES (aka Minis): Rise Against, American Idol, Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, Choir of Westminster, Lupe Fiasco, The Beatles — Box, The Beatles — Let It Be, Mastodon, El Young band, Travis Barker, Passive Me and Aggressive You, The Chemical Brothers, Miranda Casgrove, Oh Land, Selena Gomez.

1st Row BRICKS (aka static rectangles under the New Releases): The Naked and Famous/Single Of The Week “‘Young Blood”, $6.99 albums, $11.99 double albums.

Free Single Of The Week: The Naked and Famous “‘Young Blood”

Did You Notice?: As Stringer Bell once said on The Wire, “Everybody making money sharing the real estate”. And speaking of The Wire, — it’s that HBO series, IFC’s TV shows, movies from Paramount, special exclusive deals like Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & American Idol, and even Sammy Hagar’s book that dominate the, uh, real estate at iTunes this week. It’s hard to blame iTunes for dialing down positioning new albums, even Stringer Bell understood demand, or lack thereof, will drive supply.

Chart Glance: On the album chart, It’s Adele at #1, Lupe Fiasco at #2, Mumford & Sons back to #3, and Rise Against and Glee rounding out the top 5. On the tracks chart, you will find Katie Perry at #1, American Idol judge Jennifer Lopez at #2, Lady GaGa at #3, Rihanna at #4, and Kesha at #5. These ladies make me wonder — is it time yet for the Moulin Rouge remake?…just think of the real estate that could be shared on that one.

 

 

 

I Loathe My iTunes Library

 

Two pull quotes from Tim Bray this morning.

Let me put it this way: Playing a song on iTunes often takes longer than it did to get the CD off the shelf, slide the player’s drawer out and in, and wait for the music to start.

My #1 complaint is that when I just want to listen to some music, iTunes gets in my way. If it isn’t actually running it takes forever to start. Then, unreasonably often, it wants to update itself. Then maybe it decides it needs to reindex, or tell me about Ping, or do some genius-bar stuff, all of which get between me and my music.

This morning, I found myself unplugging my Bose Dock and moving it from the bedroom to the home office. Again.

This is crazy.

It’s what I have to do now to work on my  Mac desktop and listen to music simultaneously. And no, there is nothing wrong, antiquated, or nearing capacity with my hardware.

It is iTunes that has gone south.

I used to love iTunes. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. Having my full iTunes library at my fingertips, was a daily necessity.
Now I loathe my iTunes library. I feel like a man at sea dying of thirst — all that water, and nothing to drink. All that music, and no way to play any of it.

For the record, sure, I use many other solutions. Some days I use the subscription cloud, some days I hunt and peck through YouTube, and sometimes I still play CDs. But I am a hardcore music geek — deep cuts, rarities, bootlegs — I want them all at my fingertips.

I think that a once good system is now choking on its own girth.  It’s too much, too slow, too clunky — it no longer works.

Am I alone in this?

Today's iTunes Scorecard — Still the King Kong of Digital Music.

 

This morning, Spotify’s Daniel Eck posted a nicely crafted thank you note on his blog :

So it’s with a sense of real pride and excitement that we can announce a new milestone today, having welcomed our millionth paying subscriber to the service. It’s a testament to our fantastic users who continue to support us and spread the Spotify word, either by telling friends or sharing some of the 200 million playlists that you’ve put together so far.

I love this approach… playful humility meets braggadocio.

Still, 1 million paying customers isn’t 200 million credit card supplying customers. That number belongs to our friends in Cupertino, running the iTunes store. And given these metrics, I thought we would steal just a smidgen of time away from Spotify this afternoon, and check back in with our favorite 800 pound Gorilla, the King Kong of digital music — the iTunes music store.

Below you will find the titles that appeared above the fold and in the 1st cut at iTunes. In other words, you land on the homepage today — here’s what you see:

1st Cut SPLASHES (aka The Big Bold Banners): Lupe Fiasco, Glee Vol. 5, Britney Spears (Pre-Order), Avril Lavigne, R.E.M., Sara Evans.

New Release SWOOSHES (aka Minis): Avril Lavigne, Glee Cast (2x), Matthew Morrison, Passion, Sara Evans, R.E.M., Raekwon, The Beatles — Love, The Beatles — Rubber Soul, Daniel Tosh, Aaron Gillespie, Dance Gavin Dance.

1st Row BRICKS (aka static rectangles under the New Releases): Timothy Bloom/Single Of The Week “‘Til The End Of Time”, SXSW Various Free Sampler, Wiz Khalfia Countdown.

Free Single Of The Week: Timothy Bloom “‘Til The End Of Time”

Did You Notice?: Lupe Fiasco may not love his label or even his own album — but that’s OK — apparently iTunes has enough love for both Lupe and Atlantic. How so? … well, Lupe secured the lead slot on the iTunes homepage, as well as great placement on the Hip-Hop page. Gosh had I known that rejecting success could play this well, I would’ve told Eddy, Robert, & Jay that I didn’t wan’t to be successful back in my day too.

We also noticed multiple placements for Glee, The Beatles, Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne. The lesson here is that it is fab to play Pop Music and to play it well. Esperanza Spaulding & Arcade Fire may have won Grammys last month, but iTunes awards space these days pretty much based on popularity. Oh, they may vote for the eclectic stuff when the NARAS ballot comes, but that’s on CBS’s dime.

Hats Off: R.E.M for a nicely executed iTunes campaign leading into strong placements, Britney Spears for securing a big Pre-Order look in an era where pre-order heat is rarer and rarer, and Lupe Fiasco for understanding that  hot rhetoric often leads to hot sales.

Chart Glance: On the album chart, Lupe holds the top 2 slots, with Adele, Avril Lavigne and Glee rounding out the top 5. On the tracks chart, you will find American Idol judge Jennifer Lopez at #1, Britney at #2, Lady GaGa at #3, Rihanna at #4, and Katy Perry at #5. Couldn’t you just blink and imagine those five ladies hosting The View come 2019?

Apple & The Cloud — You'll Need A Weatherman

 

“Hence, different expressions can be used to depict similar sky conditions — partly cloudy and partly sunny can be used interchangeably.” — Jeffrey Nesmith, Meteorologist.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” — Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan.

 

There are rumblings today from Bloomberg and Billboard that Apple is closing in on licensing a new set of music cloud rights from the major labels. The gist of the offering is expanded rights for iTunes customers on their music purchases. Specifically, these rights might include the ability to re-download any purchased track in perpetuity — and the idea of unlimited cloud access to your purchases from all Apple devices.

 

The Final Take: If you think this sounds an awful lot like some of the rumoured elements of the Google cloud music play, you would be right. This tweak would also take one of the cooler elements from Apple competitors like Spotify, Mog and Rhapsody — that is, the ability to effectively keep your music up in the cloud — and moves that  into the Apple ecosystem. Given Spotify’s latest round of funding, I don’t think this is merely coincidence.

For consumers this is probably all good news.  The digital music experience is about to return more value, and more choice, to the buyer.

If you like the a la carte current iTunes experience, then great –now your purchases are guaranteed and more easily accessible. And if you want unlimited music access through subscription, chances are that you will be looking at decreased costs and increased value as Rhapsody, Mog, RDIO and possibly Google try to keep pace with Apple.

 

On the other hand, if you work in the Recording Industry it’s time to take your umbrellas and suntan lotion into your budget meetings. Because things are looking partly sunny and partly cloudy according to your forecast.