2 May 2016
My first MP3 player was this terrible, brick-like contraption made by Nokia. I couldn’t afford a regular player, so to take part in the nascent digital music revolution I was forced to get something on a phone contract that also happened to play MP3s. I paid a big price, not just in terms of the student-loan depleting monthly payments, as the phone I got was designed at the peak of Nokia’s “creative” phase, where they rigorously tested all the different possible permutations of what a phone should look like. For better and, far more frequently, for worse.
I can picture the design meeting. It is somewhere deep in the frozen north of Finland. A gaggle of designers, sipping strong, black coffee to keep them alert from the never ending snowy darkness outside, assemble in a pristine conference room.
“I have got it!” one of them says – he is excited, although you could never tell from the monotone of his voice.
“The kids that we want to buy the new MP3 player phone,” he continues “they like to send the text messages.”
“So, how about we give this phone a full keyboard, so they can send them even quicker?”
“But,” another of the designers interjects, putting down his cinnamon bun “…where will we put it, won’t that make the phone too wide?”
“I have thought long and hard about this” says the other “and I have come to the realisation that the optimum placement for the screen is in between two halves of the keyboard. Then they can send the text messages with two hands at once for optimum speed, whilst simultaneously listening to music!”
An awed hush filled the room. And lo, the Nokia 5510 was born:
As it turns out, it really was quite good at texting – side note, don’t forget before the crazy messenger app boom we’re in right now their was the txting boom, which was exactly the same thing only without silicon valley being involved.
What it wasn’t good at was playing MP3s. For a start, it didn’t actually play mp3s, it played DRM encrusted AAC files which it would convert as you loaded them onto the device using some terrible piece of proprietary software. And of course, that software didn’t run on a Mac, so if you had one of those (like I did) you had to run it through an emulator, which meant that it would take at least an hour to transfer an album’s worth of songs.
Fortunately, you weren’t stuck waiting for any longer then that, because as it only had 64mb of memory you could only fit one album on it anyway. For a good six months I couldn’t be bothered to go through the hassle of syncing the thing again to change the meagre selection of tracks I had on it, which means that even to this day if I hear a track from The Hives debut record I get a flashback like a Vietnam veteran, only with more Snake and less napalm.
I was thinking back to this the other day when someone was telling me about how they tried to listen to the new Kanye record. This was whilst it was still exclusive to Tidal, but they didn’t know that. They looked on the normal places they get music from, starting at iTunes, then moving to Amazon, until after coming up empty handed they just googled for it and finally ended up on Tidal. They then downloaded the Tidal mobile app, spend a good 30mins trying to figure out how to download the album to their phone, until finally – finally – they listened to the album.
It’s not Nokia 5510 bad, but it’s not far off it. But here’s the rub for us as an industry: this person is now a – maybe slightly unwilling – Tidal subscriber.
You can make an extremely compelling case that album exclusives are bad for us as an industry. Just as we’re finally starting to get people to move away from piracy by providing them legitimate sources that are as convenient, service specific album exclusives blow that advantage away.
But is that really true? We talk about it like it’s a zero sum game; either people are completely legitimate, or they’re dirty pirates that steal everything. And also, there’s a side implication that once a fan get’s “forced” to pirate by an album not being available on the service they use, that’s it – they’ve been turned to the dark side, forever to be lost.
I don’t think that’s true, simply because people, on mass, find the most simple and convenient way to do something. At various points – for example at Napster’s height – pirating music was the simplistic way to listen to music digitally. Now, for 99% of the music you want to listen to, a legitimate source is the most easy way to consume. Spotify’s interface is better then whatever proxy Pirate Bay is hiding behind at this particular moment.
If someone pirates something because it’s not on their service, then, we haven’t “lost”. Maybe that album in particular has lost some potential revenue, but it doesn’t automatically follow that this is bad for anyone else, or wider consumer habits. And any album that is an exclusive to a particular service is evidently getting something in return from that service, whether just in exposure or cold, hard dollars, so who’s to say whether that album has actually lost any revenue either. However, what’s interesting is that there’s a general perception that album exclusives and windowing will, in particular, hurt streaming adoption, because it means that no one service will have everything.
But, at least in the short term, I think it’s pretty clear that album exclusives are going to be a significant driver of streaming adoption. The Kayne anecdote above illustrates it, but it’s not an isolated case – every time Tidal has a big exclusive, like last week with Beyoncé, the app jumps up to the top of not just the free app chart, but the top grossing chart as well.
The music industry often has trouble seeing outside of its own little bubble. I’m as guilty at this as anyone else. We’re music people, we all live and breath music on a daily basis, so the idea of a service where you signup and get access to All Of The Music is a very compelling one. But most people don’t listen to everything, in fact, they don’t listen to a huge amount at all. So the value proposition for streaming services is really quite different for them, and a much harder sell.
If the very concept of “you can listen to anything you want” doesn’t sound that exciting to a lot of people, we need something else that’ll get people in instead. “This is the only way you can hear the new Beyoncé album” is a reason that could work for a lot of people. And that’s got to be a good thing.
Some brief words about Prince
I took my current job because I’d get to work with Prince.
As it turns out, it would only be for a few months until he ended up signing back to Warners, but those were a pretty incredible few months all the same.
Working with him was absolutely fascinating, because he made us question every assumption that we made. He understood his own value like artists, even massive ones, rarely do. I remember we had an ongoing debate with him about getting a new video for one of his singles on YouTube, rather then hosting it on his own site – which to us seemed like a no brainer, of course – and he always came back to “but what are they going to do for me if I give them one of my videos?”. It was a fair point.
A little while into our relationship with him word from his people got to us that he was going to be playing a series of shows in London. The first day he hit town he did a press conference in Lianne La Havas’ house in Leyton – I say press conference, but there was only two journalists there and he didn’t announce anything – and then at 9pm that night we got an email “Prince is playing tonight at the Electric Ballroom, stage time is 11pm – do you want to come?”
It was the best show I’ve ever been to. A small amount of fans had somehow figured out what was going on, but that still only amounted to about 40 people by the time he came on stage. I was on the front row. He played Purple Rain.
Over the course of the next month I ended up seeing him 6 times, including one memorable occasion where, due to our media guest list getting lost in the commotion of announcing a show 4 hours before it was happening, the guest list simply said: David Emery +40. I later discovered that they had actually got venues on hold across London for every night for a 3 week period. In the morning Prince would wake up, and decide whether he wanted to play that day.
In the end I never got to actually meet him, which is maybe for the best – what exactly do you say to Prince? – but I feel extremely privileged to have briefly circled within his orbit.