Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Tuning In to the Changing Sounds of the Music Industry

As a music professional, you know that an industry that was once resilient and dependable has become confusing and unpredictable; new music technologies have created unique consumer experiences and shifted the kind and level of success of songs and artists.The business model currently in place is failing to keep up. As a student in Northwestern's Medill IMC program with an interest in music marketing, I have been studying the particular and nuanced changes of the music business and its consumers. and have identified two articles that effectively present interesting perspectives on how the nature of industry is changing.

In an article by DeVon Harris entitled “Hipsters are buying vinyl records, but they aren’t listening to them” by Quartz. The body of the article revolves around the fact that, while vinyl records are increasing in sales, we have been too quick to laud the successful return of the record. Instead of actually preferring the sound and quality of a record, Harris posits that the purchase of these records seem to revolve more around image than it does the actual product. Vinyl has been tied to other artifacts of hipster culture – vintage, old, worn-in. Music has become, strangely, a visual medium as much as a sonic one. Not only do we think about what image artists portray (are they authentic, such as above), but buyers and listeners are also hyper-conscious of how certain artists make them look. In a world where social media and personal brands are becoming so effortless to create, music tastes and interests are one way in which an individual can easily communicate who they are and construct a persona. These records are then hung up as art or decoration, with few people actually taking the time to listen. Ultimately Harris argues that a historic aspect of the music industry is being devalued because of the modern obsession with image and presentation.

Image Source: genYchina

In the second article from The Fader, a music blog, Michael Sugarman writes on “Why Michael Jackson’s ‘New’ Record Says More About the Industry Than He Ever Did.” In attending a release party for Jackson’s new album, filled with eight previously un-released songs retooled and reworked by modern producers. He directly questions the balance between selling out and giving in to the business machine, and maintaining some artistic integrity. He specifically points out artists like Miley Cyrus who, despite talent and a unique voice, choose to make music for money, not for obvious artistic purposes. There is the issue of authenticity in an artist’s marketed image. To a certain extent, authenticity is tied to artistic integrity and translates to success as listeners feel they can trust authentic artists, especially in these harsh economic times with so much corporate corruption. Sugarman points out that this is a trend especially evident in millennial’s buying trends, but, as evident with this event around an older artist like Jackson, is slowly creeping up on all aspects of the industry.

Based on my analysis of these two articles and other music-industry-related research that I have completed, here are the three steps that you need to consider in order to push the music industry into the future:

Understand an audience’s tastes, aesthetics, and cultural identity. The music industry is quickly becoming a more visual medium than before and industry players must work to sell an artist’s image to a specific audience. In understanding not just an audience’s music tastes, but their favorite films, TV shows, brands, etc. professionals in the business can build up individual personas and images that a certain artist can easily fit into with their own distinct brand and sound. The music industry is slowly evolving to include less of what people actually enjoy, and instead becoming more aspirational; what people think they should enjoy based on the culture of the groups and communities they are a part of and, more importantly, want to appear to be a part of is now most salient.

Identify how audiences spend money within the industry. CD sales and radio play are no longer the key measures of success in the music industry and this mode of thinking needs to be revitalized and changed. Do audiences spend their money on concerts? Do they buy Spotify streaming accounts? Or do they actually listen to vinyl? Vinyl record sales are surprising because labels assume all millenials use music streaming services, which is too blanket of a statement. Research on how certain groups and demographics are consuming music and where they are choosing to spend their money on an artist is essential to growth in the industry.

Clarify how certain artists or acts quantify “success.” There are two distinct forms of music artists distinguishing themselves and industry experts must work to more explicitly delineate between the two. Is an artist geared towards entire albums, or instead catchy, hit singles? Are they like Rihanna, where they have many Top 10 hits but not a lot of album sales, or like Adele where album sales are soaring but do not have as many single hits. Again, there is no longer one way to measure success in the industry, and key indicators need to be modified. This focus on how certain artists quantify “success” will better reconcile an artist’s focus on their music/art with their ability to make money.

It is undeniable that the music industry is changing. Instead of relying on antiquated business models to measure success and understand how consumers experience music, industry professionals need to tune in to how the landscape of the business is changing. If professionals adapt the three action items above, they may just find a way to revitalize and once again make comfortably dependable a rapidly changing industry.

Alex Tomiak is currently finishing his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University. He has previously worked closely with the music business through student groups and internships during his four years in school and is interested in becoming further involved with the industry after graduation. Follow him on Twitter at @alexandertomiak.

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