Van Morrison: Treasure … No Longer Buried.

 

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I am, or at least try to be, a Van Morrison fan. Van is a notoriously “difficult” character — known for an ornery persona with labels, promoters, the press and fans alike. I have no problem with any of that. In fact, truth be told, I sort of like his wariness and mistrust of celebrity and of the music industry. And I’m certainly more than OK with the idea of loving the art, not the artist.

So, it wasn’t Van’s personality that made it tough to be a fan. Instead, it was simply the fact that his catalogue was a mess. The back-catalogue had fallen into incredible disrepair. For the last 15 years or so, a good portion of Van’s music was out of print on CD, and absent from streaming services like Spotify and Slacker. You literally could not listen to pristine versions of life-changing albums like St. Dominics Preview or Into The Music without breaking the law or breaking your bank account.

st doms

So, I approached the news that Sony was cleaning up and readying the Van Morrison catalogue with realistic expectations. Van Morrison was a self-professed music industry hater, grappling with a digital era that he certainly couldn’t feel much natural affinity with.

Listen to how many times Van reminds the Time Magazine interviewer here that he is “not a download artist”.

Yet, here we are. Sony has done a nice job, under no doubt difficult circumstances. The new Essentials CD is well curated, combining tracks from Them, the Warner titles, and Sony’s newly licensed stockpile into a worthwhile overview.

van essentials

More importantly, they have at least plugged the gaping digital hole that was Van Morrison’s streaming catalogue. 3 of the 4 Warner albums and these 33 Sony titles are now available for streaming. For depth of emotion, commitment to chasing the muse, and pure musical delight these albums represent a catalogue of music that rivals any solo artist in the history of rock.

Van creates a unique musical mix of R&B, Rock and Roll, Celtic folk, Soul, New Orleans blues and jazz, all while he searches for transcendence. It is art of the highest order.  It is the only music I know that sounds simultaneously completely spontaneous, and yet inevitable. And its all so intimate, so personal, as to make almost every other artist sound artificial.

Griel Marcus breaks this down:

People take Van Morrison personally. Incidents from his music enter the events of their lives – events in their love lives, their family lives, births and especially deaths – and people feel as if he put those incidents in their lives. As if, in some way, he’s there. Not in any magical sense – just in the manner in which art is supposed to work: it touches you. And won’t let go. People have always talked about the certainty they had that when Elvis Presley sang – on record, especially in person, but even on television – he was singing directly to them. This is different. It’s a feeling people get that Morrison has already lived the events that they’re living out or have lived out – or haven’t yet lived out, but may – that he’s been there first, and put those events into songs, into music, into an emotional form that can be transferred into a thing, a record, an LP or a CD or a download on a computer or an iPod, something you can physically refer to, that produces an apprehension of the real, the tangible. In other words, not he’s singing to you; in a certain sense, he has lived your life for you.

Listen to Van Morrison on Slacker here.

Amazon Will Pay Top Dollar — To Google.

Amidst all the recent Amazon news — the Cloud Drive launch, the “we don’t need a license” letter to major labels, and the ad-supported and price-discounted Kindle, I originally missed this very interesting report on Amazon’s Search spending.

SAI reported yesterday that Amazon was Google’s #1 advertiser for Q4 2010, spending over $51 million dollars. That’s right, Amazon spent  fifty one million dollars at Google in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Final Take: All is fair in love, war, and the Digital Music business. Amazon is the world’s biggest e-commerce player. They are wildly profitable. Amazon has successfully disrupted the book business, and are certainly a giant factor in electronics, apparel, toys, jewelry and a host of other categories including music.

For Digital Music executives, it seems to me it is best to recoginize the history here. Amazon doesn’t usually dabble. Thay may move slower than you would like, and they are tough negotiatiors, tough partners. But they are clearly here to stay. In fact, Amazon has been selling music for 15 years now.

I have previously written about Amazon’s laser focus on customer aquisition. ($5 Albums — Sure, Cause Amazon’s Customers Are Worth More Than Yours) The facts remain — a customer is worth more to Amazon than any other music retailer. Diversification will do that for you; a lesson the recorded music industry should heed.

So, while Amazon is busy asking the labels for increased wholesale discounts, and favorable marketing scenarios, they are also spending agressively at Google, and itireating their music offerings.

For Digital Music stakeholders the real question shouldn’t be “Will Amazon stay committed and challenge Apple”?…instead, it should be –“What can we do to benefit from this spending?” and “What’s our play here?”.

 

 

 

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.

Zune In Retreat — Will The Brand Live To Fight Another Day?

Word from Bloomberg and All Things Digital today that Microsoft will be pulling back on developing further generations of their Zune music player.

Both sites emphasize that Microsoft still seems committed to the Zune brand as a software platform compatible with their hugely successful Xbox 360 gaming systems and their new generation of Windows Phone 7 mobile devices.

Hats Off: Certainly, Microsoft struggled mightly to convince folks that their Zune player was worth foresaking Apple for. The power and marketing  behind Apple’s hardware and ecosytem was just too much for Zune.

But, I hope that the brand lives on inside of Microsoft. Xbox and the new Windows Phone’s have many positive attributes. I have admiration for both Zune’s efforts around digital music as a social experience, and the quality of their senior music executives.

Only time will tell if the  Zune brand will live to fight another day.

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?

Technology, Music & Morality — Completely Dependent Imbeciles?

“Technology… is a queer thing.  It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other”.  — C.P. Snow, physicist and novelist.

“Don’t be evil” — (unofficial) Google positioning statement.

“We call this a shakedown where I come from. And that, my friends, is the new boss. If you hated the record companies, they were Mother Theresa compared to this crowd.” — Chris Castle, music and copyright lawyer, commenting on Google & YouTube.

“In conclusion we could say that music is more alive than ever before, that piracy is a tool to build a fan-base, and that the times when the music industry could dictate what we were listening to are over.” — Ernesto, editor Torrentfreak.

“These devices (MP3 players) are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it,”  Doug Morris, Universal Music Group Chariman (2007).

” For a music fan (Napster) was amazing.. 1- all the music 2-amazingly easy to use 3-free…if we had put up a toll booth and just charged everyone then, we might have a bigger online business now.” – Jonathan Daniel, Crush Artist Management.

“True information does good.” – Julian Assange, Wikileaks.

“There are no morals about technology at all. Technology expands our ways of thinking about things, expands our ways of doing things. If we’re bad people we use technology for bad purposes and if we’re good people we use it for good purposes.” — Herbert Simon, mathematician and social scientist.

Final Take: I had a conversation with my wife today about technology and morality. I think technology is an absolutely neutral tool, more akin to a hammer than to any kind of ideology. I’m sure I heard the analogy somewhere along the line…that technology,  like a hammer, can either drive in a nail or bash in a head. It gets things done, good or bad.

My wife wasn’t so sure. She was it pains to categorize technology as “mixed, but not neutral”.  She went on — “Wouldn’t it be immoral if the human brain devolved over-time and we found ourselves to be completely dependent imbeciles. Are we not men?” My wife, she is funny. And she is prone to a vintage new wave reference, when it serves her purpose.

You hang around the Digital Music water-cooler, passions regarding technology also run high. Discussions about cloud music, piracy, Google, and especially Apple routinely get heated.  Steve Jobs plus the cloud will save the music business. Steve Jobs is draconian and hell-bent on the destruction of Artists, Labels & Publishers. You’ve heard it all before, I know.

For me, the interesting thing is that even though we are twelve (12!) years past the debut of Napster, these discussions inevitably take on a moral as well as a financial component.  It’s understandable —  the Recording Industry has been practically halved. It has been painful for many in the Label, Publishing & Artist Management areas.

For me, it’s pretty clear. I think technology is amazing. It has made my musical experiences richer, my career more interesting, yet it wreaks havoc every day with any preconceptions I have about what might happen next.

The way that we weren’t is what we’ll become — Devo.

 

 

 

Apple, Google, Spotify. — We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For.

“We are the ones we have been waiting for.” — Barack Obama following Super Tuesday results, Feb 5, 2008.

There are increased rumblings this morning that cloud-based music offerings are imminent from Apple and Google. Similarily, there are increased signs that Spotify is finally progressing in making their U.S. launch.

SAI and Electronista have a bit more here and here.

The Final Take: Apple and Google have immeasurably changed consumers’ lives over the last decade. And Spotify certainly seems stable–it’s in this for the long-run after a recent round of funding. For a beleaguered and bleeding Recording Industry — what better partners for change could you possibly hope for?

Here’s the rub though; Apple, Google, Spotify are fine candidates, but they ultimatetly represent themselves. If the Music Industry really wants change, the whole model needs a re-think. What the products are, how artists are represented, how labels and publishers are staffed — it all needs to change. The cloud and subscription, with partners like Google, Apple & Spotify may help, but ultimately, for the labels & publishers, it’s time to realize they are the ones they have been waiting for.

Apple & The Magazine Publishers: Hot Rhetoric From Anonymous Sources

Adweek has a interesting piece this morning on magazine publishers and their reactions to Apple’s recent subscription tweaks.

Here are some of the more noteworthy quotes:

“The brands who submitted to Apple on day one are the equivalent of France in World War II” — anonymous publishing executive.

“They’ve chosen to make it as difficult as possible to execute. They’re frenemies, for sure. You have to hope at some point the FCC or someone here begins to look at it.” — anonymous publishing executive.

“The terms we currently have are terms that we can live with. It’s going to evolve and we wanted to be there as early as possible.” — Gregg Hano, vp and publisher of Popular Science.

“The reason many people find this a hard pill to swallow is they were running around believing the iPad would save the business. It’s a reality check that says, ‘Look, if you want to reinvent your business, you’re going to have to do it yourself.’” — anonymous publishing executive.

Read the full piece here.

Read All About It — Radiohead Announces New Album, Sends Valentine to Old Media?


Last time, Radiohead tried the Sting approach — if you love somebody, set them free. In Rainbows, the bands seventh studio album and first as free agents, was initially offered in October 2007 in a “pay what you wish” distribution model.

Today, Radiohead announced a different approach for their new album The King Of Limbs:

  • The album will be released digitally this Saturday, February 19th.
  • Radiohead is calling The King Of Limbs “the world’s first* newspaper album”. (Radiohead shows they know their Jethro Tull, by adding the caveat “*perhaps”).
  • The record will be available as a download on Saturday, then released physically on May 9. The “newspaper album” package will contain The King Of Limbs’ on CD, two 10-inch vinyl records and artwork sheets. Those who buy the set will also receive the album as a download on Saturday.

Did You Notice: The execution on this release is a interesting marriage of old school meets new realities. After making some noise through 2009-2010 about possibly not making full length albums, the roll-out of The King Of Limbs screams album-as-event.  And the somewhat mysterious inclusion of  “worlds first newspaper album”, underscores this old-school positioning. Newspapers, huh? Perhaps Radiohead is being cheeky in emphasizing old-media so directly, but I suspect they simply like the idea of lots of tangible physical value as part of the album equation. In any case, the announcement has me dreaming of Pink Floyd styled post-cards and gatefolds.

On the other hand, both the timing (only six days from announcement to release) and the digital — ahead — of –physical release is very 2011. Radiohead knows the realities of marketing albums in 2011 — A.D.D. attention spans, instaneous news cycles, and pirates who move way faster than physical pressing plants ever could.

Again, maybe the newspaper analogy is a head-fake but my bet is, instead, that it’s a wry nod to the ambition and appeal of the physical formats of their childhood.

Stay tuned.

David Hyman Mog Interview — Dishing With The Digerati #1

David Hyman is the founder & CEO of Mog, the subscription music and blog network based out of Berkeley California. I caught up with David last Friday, and we chatted about Mog, competitors like RDIO & Rhapsody, and life and how to live it — all via the old school magic of instant messenger.

Hyman: greetings from MOG!

Isquith: Hi David

Hyman: yo

Isquith: so welcome back to AIM…very Web 1.0..but maybe great for your elevator pitch or Twitter A.D.D.

Isquith: In 140 characters or less, What’s Mog? and why is it compelling?

Hyman: MOG is the best way in the world to listen to music.  All you can eat, on demand music with unparalleled discovery features for one low monthly fee.

Isquith: The model has changed over last few years…give me the bite-sized cost and what you get in return rundown

Hyman: 4.99/month for web acess (or access through roku) for all you can eat on demand through the pc or tv.  $9.99/month gives you unlimited access on your mobile device.  mobile includes unlimited downloads to the phone for instances where you don’t have reliable connectivity

Isquith: OK. So the offer is straight ahead…let’s talk some trends and do some conjecture. Do you think Streaming (not downlaoding) will become the dominant model of legal music consumption in the U.S.?

Hyman: absolutely.  the value proposition of an all you can eat offering from the cloud, accessible via car, mobile, tv, stereo, pc is unmatched

Isquith: Although, perhaps matched by 3 sets of competitors:   1-RDIO, Rhapsody,& Spotify (ex-U.S)  2-YouTube/Pandora etc…the legal services that abels support that approximate streaming services & 3-Piracy.

Isquith: I know that I just threw a lot at you….bite it off anyway you want.

Hyman: i’ll disagree with you on the word “matched”

Isquith: Ha! touche’…Lets make it simpler.  Why Mog, and not RDIO Rhapsody?

Hyman: MOG offers the easiest to use service with awesome discovery tools, huge catalog, and the highest quality audio.

Hyman: do you have a subscription to mog?

Hyman: do you have access to mog on your mobile?

Isquith: I am a Mog fan…yup.

Isquith: What is your take on YouTube? Good for music and the music industry?  Or an unfair competitor to your model?

Hyman: i think if you’re after hearing the hits without any playlisting functionality, youtube probably appeases.  there no music videos before 1985. most albums only make videos for a few tracks, if they make them at all.

Hyman: there’s value there. but i don’t find it to be a deterrent to what we do

Isquith: OK, you hit on something I love about Mog. I think you have done a good job, best in breed so far, with playlisting

Isquith: for example..all the year end best of lists…very well done   Rolling stone  Pitchfork Spin etc

Hyman: passive programming is really important. listening to a succession of song in a row.  if i use youtube i hit play and the song ends. now what?

Isquith: How do you guys tackle editorial? is there a weekly “music meeting”…how does that work?

Hyman: even a plain ol’ album is a succession of songs

Hyman: we have an editorial team.  we believe big time in the value of human editorial curation. i miss hear music! we’re bringing it back as a component to music discovery. there are many other components, but this is a valuable one.  in a few hours. a whole bunch of new editorial features are being pushed live! so you asked a timely question

Isquith: Cool….what are the few hottest albums you are featuring this week & any unusual playlists make the home page?

Hyman: there is a whole new “browse” section going live today.  hundreds of album reviews written by in house team.  great ways to view new cool music by genre/microgenre

Isquith: OK, so you have a quality offering, an editorial point of view and process, and you continue to tweak the platform. Still the fight for subscribers isnt easy, is it?

Hyman: we work hard at mog so users don’t have to.  so nothing on our end is “easy” – but for consumers – hell yeah!

Isquith: OK, we  know you are not talking subscriber #s yet…but what would represent success in yr view?

Isquith: in a year…2 years etc?

Hyman: success is defined by the love i have in my heart for friends and family. and the joy that i bring to the world through music

Isquith: ahhh, if only all our bosses present past and future agreed.  …..   Mog has made some interesting distribution moves….you won the best streaming app award from Billboard at the end of last year…you were present at CES  with some deals…what is the strategy to ramp up distribution?

Hyman: i wish i could share that in detail. some big things to announce soon. assume you heard about our deal with verizon.  outside of that, expect to hear big things across all points of music consumption.  CAR, TV, CE, CARRIER

Isquith: Cool. Thank you David for your time and your love of music and the space. Any final thoughts here?

Hyman: love you back

Hyman: final thought is,

Hyman: check out our chrome app next week

Hyman: mog.com/chrome

Hyman: you can use on chrome or safari now

Isquith: nice . Thanks again and take care…keep fighting the good fight.

Hyman: but some incredible improvements coming out next week for it. INCREDIBLE

Hyman: peace