What We Can Learn

22 November 2015

It’s about 7pm on a dark November Friday. The weather has turned from unseasonably warm to appropriately bitter. That hasn’t stopped the shoppers flocking to one of the capitals premiere shopping destinations, however. They mill around, bags in tow, flicking Christmas signs lighting up their work-weary faces.

In HMV there is a queue at the checkout. I am one of five; the three people ahead are all clutching CDs marked 25. So is the man behind me. So am I.

So much has already been written about the new Adele record, and far more will be because it is fascinating. It’s fascinating because the story of her, and the story of her success, runs counter to so many different narrative strands that we are all deeply accustomed and attuned to.

For example:

The recorded music industry is dying

Well, we’re all used to hearing this one, right? Even now, if you tell a new acquaintance down the pub that you work for a record label you get roughly the same response I did when I took my old car to webuyanycar.com – a slow exhale of breath through pierced lips, and a slight shake of the head (”…and how long did you say the check engine light had been on for?”).

But here we are, with one of the biggest releases the music industry has ever seen. At the time of writing it looks set to be the quickest selling release ever which leads me to the conclusion that maybe the music industry isn’t screwed, but we’ve just been trying to sell people the wrong stuff?

There was a brief, apparently wonderful period of time when due to a extremely fortunate happenstance of assorted factors you could release all sorts of different types of music on CD, and sell shitloads of them. Ever since then, this has been the yardstick that we have all been judged on, but what if that was just a fluke? What if lots – most! – music actually only deeply connects to a relatively small amount of people, such that when given the choice of listening to lots of music in a slightly less connected way rather then being forced to be narrow but more invested they choose the former rather then the later?

What this doesn’t mean, though, is that people have for some reason decided en masse not to buy music any more, it just means that they consume it in a multitude of ways when given the choice. And hence, when something comes along that unites and excites and connects with people it means that there’s still that base of people out there who will queue up in HMV on the day an album comes out.

Which also leads us to another narrative trope that 25 flagrantly ignores:

The CD is dead

Of course it is! Eventually, that is. But we’re not there yet, and we won’t be for a good long while. Now, the Adele record is currently selling a good amount of downloads (I say a “good amount” – in two days it’s sold almost double the amount of the biggest week one of any record so far this year just in downloads), but it is dwarfed by the amount of CDs that are being sold but this is what it means to release an album in the modern age: there is no one format to release on. Digital is not better then physical, or visa versa, and this is not unique to 25 – on every release almost all formats now a decent parts of the overall pie, across CD, digital downloads, vinyl and of course streaming.

Did someone say streaming? On to plot point number three then:

Streaming is the future of the music business

I mean, you couldn’t release a record in this day and age without it being on streaming services, right?

Oh.

Unlike many other people I see opining on assorted social media, I think holding back 25 from streaming services is exactly the right thing to do (which is ironic, as I argued against the exact same thing on 21 when I was working it). And that is because of what I’ve been talking about above – this is a rare (but not totally unique) case of mass cultural impact where people are truly engaged and connected to a release. The Adele record does not need to be on streaming services for people to hear it, and if it isn’t there people will search it out. Sure, some people will turn to piracy but that’s just not a mass market activity in music anymore.

This is counter to most releases, which I feel will sadly be lost on the inevitable rash of releases that foolishly copy this strategy. Windowing has always been something that the music industry has longed for – I remember several years back the idea of trying to move to releasing first with a higher priced CD, before shifting to a “paperback” simple CD and download release 6 months later was being floated in certain circles – and now with the advent of streaming it is very much back on the cards.

Unlike film though, which enjoys the luxury of an event-based form of windowing in the form of cinema which enforces how people first can see most movies, music by and large is governed by how you, as a fan, listen. It’s extremely difficult to push people to break with how they listen to music, just for the sake of one record. If the way you listen to music through a streaming service, you have to be a deeply engaged fan for that one record to force you to go elsewhere, and that for the vast majority of artists is a very tiny number of people. And that’s not to say that the other people that don’t engage aren’t fans, because they are – they will listen to your music and buy tickets to your shows – but what you have to realise is that not only are they fans of other music as well, both new and old, they are also fans of what ever service they use to listen to music.

That’s a lot of competition.

If you’re Adele, competing with all music ever as well as the listening habits of all your fans is actually not too crazy a bet, all things considered. If you’re anyone else, though, you might want to check your station before you start holding back your music from streaming.

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