I Want My MTV

31 January 2016

You’ve watched Making A Murderer, haven’t you? And of course when I say watched I really mean binged, episode after episode flickering past in a haze of instant entertainment addiction. If you haven’t watched that show, you will almost certainly be familiar with the experience.

Making A Murderer – and its widespread reception – indicates we have hit a tipping point where streaming, subscription-based video is truly mainstream. Not that it hasn’t been popular previously – the likes of House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black all attest to that – but it is now accepted – the fact that a series like this appeared, Beyoncé-esq, on Netflix with little or no fanfare and his hit mass acclaim is not news. It’s normal. And that’s interesting.

Not only was the distribution channel through a per-month-based app, but they made – or at least financed – it as well. That’s pretty interesting as well. In fact, it’s all far too interesting for the music industry just to sit and watch happen without thinking “maybe we should do that”, as it is wont to do whenever a similar industry is doing well. I mean, if you squint enough TV is pretty similar to music, right?

Netunes then. I scarcely believe that there isn’t a startup called that already, such is the ideas vacuum around music tech company names. This should be pretty easy, just a bit of find and replace on the business plan switching out video for music and we should be good to take over the world.

First off, obviously it needs to be subscription only – none of this free tier “rubbish” – and only a month free trial as that seems to work great for Netflix. And it should be £5.99/month – good luck with those rights holder negotiations by the way.

Next, as we’ve got rid of a free tier that acts as a funnel into a subscription, we’ve got to come up with some other ways of making people sign up, which means – you guessed it – exclusive content. So let’s continue playing by the Netflix rulebook and invest in generating our own material. Hire some hot shot A&Rs, employ a farm of writers, and generally make like an episode of Empire. We’re bound to have some hits.

Aren’t we?

This concept has been banded around the industry a lot of late, but this is where the elements of TV that are different from music make a difference, and in fact what separates music from a lot of other forms of entertainment that it typically gets lumped in with.

Music connects you, as a listener, with an artist.

TV, and film, and theatre for that matter, can do that but it is not a fundamental part of the medium. Rather, they connect you with a story.

For example, let’s return to Making A Murderer. I have no idea who made it, even despite being engrossed in it for almost 10 hours of my life, and I’m sure most of the people that have watched it don’t have a clue either. And that doesn’t matter – it’s not relevant, because it’s the story you connect to, and the characters within it, rather then the artist or artists behind it. You understand that it’s a product that has been created to entertain, whereas music is art that has been turned into a product.

Now I’m not naive enough to think that all music is born of a pure artistic expression. It’s called a business for a reason. But the cultural foundation that music is built upon is based on a fundamental belief in an artist, whether we know it to be flimsy or not. Yes, every Beyoncé track has a multitude of writers, but they’re still Beyoncé tracks. We ignore the little lies and have faith in an artist.

But if they become big lies, that all crumbles, and a big lie is anything that suddenly flips the switch from an art that’s been turned into a product, to a product that’s trying to be sold as art. And “Created by Netunes”, or “Created by Spotify” or “Created by Tidal” sounds exactly like a product that is trying to be sold as art. I’ve written before about music working by “magic” – you can’t define how a hit becomes a hit, it happens through a series of happy accidents that you can only influence but not dictate – and this is lack of authenticity is something that could significantly hinder this process, getting in the way of the music being heard by the right people at the right time.

Tidal is a fountain of examples for all of this, as they are evidently trying take their lead from Netflix. The infamous launch event is a perfect (almost too perfect) example of a “big lie” that they are still trying to recover from. By trying to play the artist friendly card in such a grand fashion, whilst it was so, so obvious that it was all about the almighty dollar, they destroyed not only their credibility but dented everybody that was involved.

Maybe I am overstating the cultural importance of authenticity, maybe I’m not, but let’s say our fledgling startup Netunes does get as far as making some exclusive bits of music. Does anyone actually care?

Again, looking at Tidal – who has founded their business on exclusive content – I think we can say no. Music does not have a scarcity problem – there is such a large volume of new music that it’s hard to keep up. Not only that, but in contrast to TV, listening to existing music is the default. I mostly watch new TV shows – I rarely rewatch something I’ve already seen – whereas with music it’s the opposite. If there’s a record that’s exclusive to one platform, rather then going to the effort of switching platforms to listen to it – and having to switch my whole music library with it, another problem not shared with TV – I’ll just listen to something else.

Sorry Tidal. Sorry Rihanna. ‘Anti’ can wait.

We can’t, then, take too much inspiration from the emerging models of streaming TV in a business sense. But there is something that is important that it is driving that is relevant: TVs are now computers.

Netflix means that people are used to interacting with their TVs, whether it’s via a “smart” TV that has apps built in, or whether it’s through a device like an Apple TV. And for music, this could be hugely important because as it turns out, TVs are probably the best way most people have to listen to music at home. Digital music at home has been dominated by iPod docks and latterly devices like Sonos, but these are potentially quite niche devices – aimed at serious music listeners – when you consider that most people have decent TV setups with “good enough” speakers, but up until this point have had no easy way to use them for music.

The new Apple TV, which – finally – has an App Store built in has the potential to take this to a mass market. It will probably be as simple to start with as the popular streaming services getting apps – obviously Apple Music is on there already – but there’s a lot of potential in a medium that can be as visual as TV for doing something different and new with music.

Just before Christmas I was part of the team that launched the first artist app on the Apple TV for Placebo, and I’m not saying what we did was revolutionary in any way but it’s a fascinating way to engage with an artists’ catalogue in a visual way. We designed it as the best way to listen to their music on TV, with a focus on video but also discovery, one bit of content taking you to another, interaction if you want it but not if you don’t. We’re only kicking the tires, though – it just scratches the surface of what could be possible.

As a platform it has a huge potential for music, and as yet no one has figured out exactly the right way it should work. For that right company or artist, that means that there’s a massive opportunity just within reach.

Someone is going to turn the TV into the iPod of the living room. I wonder who it will be?

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