Happy New Year (or Begin Again, Again)

Well it’s been a good three months (that’s bad) since last I wrote here, so any summing up of the year gone by seems redundant.

I can still wish you and yours a Happy New Year, however.

2015 Duplo

 

And I do, with health, prosperity, and all of the other things in life that we wish for at the turn of the calendar, without knowing exactly how we’ll achieve them. I wish these for you much as I wish for my own improved writing regime, without having committed to any particular regiment or understanding quite where I would want such a routine to take me.

The week between Christmas and New Year is always prime time for reflection and commitment to self improvement. The talk can be talked but we can put off that exhausting business of the walk until the first day of January, party-coma permitting, or perhaps the first full day of our return to business as usual.

Wherein lies the paradox, as most resolutions are revolutions, to which “business as usual” is anathema.

 

Embracing Week Zero

With some exceptions, most of us have some time to kill during the odd week of holiday hangover and required revelry. The first day of the year is always a holiday (two days, if you’re Scottish) and those that follow often fold into the weekend, making Monday again the fall guy for all the

In any case, we have time to spare in what I’ll call “week zero.” 

As attractive as using this period to binge-view the latest season of [insert outstanding TV series I missed from 2014 here] is, I prefer to eke out every last second of uninterrupted time putting in place the building blocks for the weeks and months to come. All of those tiny yet personally important tasks that you expect to be pulled from as the masses return from the festive excess next Monday? Week zero is the perfect pre-remedy to get some of them done.

For me, part of that process is writing more regularly for myself, which I want to mean more writing for – and a reimagination of – this site. In my daily role as a digital marketing consultant and content creator I write thousands of words and publish several articles  every day. While this satisfies my productivity (and bank balance), it does little to develop my personal profile or aid those who can’t afford to keep an outsourced marketing arm of their operation on retainer.

Which brings us back to 2015 and regular writing…

CREATE tapestry

The original raison d’être of Above the Static was to help ambitious creators stand out from the crowd, and it remains so today.

My attempts in the past to channel only very specifically useful articles through these pages have kept content sparse and life-writing limited, so this year I’ll take another tack. That daily writing will happen one way or another, whether it be a full article (or rant, or remedy) here, or more truncated text on an outpost like Linkedin, Google+, or even Twitter (if it’s 23:59 and I’ve failed to publish everywhere else).

All of which is to say, Happy New Year! I look forward to writing to you more in 2015.

(And if you have to make resolutions, I urge you to start small and build, rather than go big and burn out. That way hopefully you can avoid this begin again, again cycle that can easily creep in to a twelve month cycle.) 

 

 

U2 and the End of Push Marketing in Music

Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the nadir. Push marketing of music can go no lower.

Last week U2 and Apple, under cover of hype, conspired to Like Santa, if he chose to deliver only one gift to everyone, regardless of the diversity of their pleading letters.

Listeners get new music. Apple gets renewed audio impetus. U2 gets global exposure. Win-win-win, no?

No.

U2 CD collection
Image Credit: Phillippe Grillot

Somewhere, Over ‘In Rainbows’

Most folks are looking this gift horse squarely in the mouth, with a steely gaze that says it’s time to make glue.

For every delighted fan there appear to be many more reports of spam, leaving Apple to back peddle somewhat and announce a U2 removal tool to rid iTunes accounts of the intruding album. While a part of me feels a pang of sympathy for a renowned band trying to find its way into the ears of a new audience, my remainder screams “messiah marketing gone too far.”

And the cynical side would be right.

For all those who thought the pay what you want experiment of Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” undermined the value of music, this is your new low; an album so stripped of its inherent value that it achieves junk mail status to the majority of recipients. Of course U2 got paid for the whole stunt by Apple, and their back catalog has seen the expected bump in sales on iTunes as a result, but for the wider sphere of artists the album as a piece of work worth paying for has perhaps heard its final death knell.

If one of the most recognized bands in the world is giving a full set away, why would anyone pay for a smaller band’s collection of songs?

Well some will, and they will always form the core of any artist’s fan base, but they’re no longer the norm and this isn’t a new situation.

The current climate has been building for years, as digital downloads liberated the single and unlimited streaming services made playlists the go-to tool for extended listening sessions. The value of music hasn’t so much been decimated as it has redistributed, meaning that artists need to know where to look to soak up new revenue streams.

Look to online ads. Look to associations with other creative partners. Just don’t look to the older artists desperately trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

 

Push No More

The Music Wealth GapIf any doubt remained that music can no longer be battering rammed into the listener’s brain, this should extinguish it. We’re overwhelmed by choice and underserved by time, leaving little opportunity to sample fresh songs and only the slightest space to pull in the new that we love.

With push marketing having run its course for all but the biggest artists, smaller acts are left to navigate the more complex world of pull marketing; being so alluring and/or ubiquitous that the music becomes unavoidable. It’s back to classic word of mouth marketing, the subtle art of being everywhere without being intentionally in your face.

The rules of U2 – and Beyonce and Led Zeppelin and Jay Z before them – are not those of today’s rising artists.

The game has changed and these acts are playing their last few hands before slipping out of the popular spotlight. There won’t be another flash holiday release, because it’s been done. And Samsung won’t stump up another $5 million to release an album on its newest device, because that’s been done as well. And none of these tactics matter to the little guy anyway, because they can’t be replicated at any level other than superstardom.

When your local band releases a surprise album, the only surprising element is that they expected anyone other than hardcore fans to pay attention. With the best will in the world, and a burning desire to see new bands succeed: We. Have. No. Time.

Unless you come highly recommended, of course. If we trust the source or catch your creativity ourselves, then you’ve made the breakthrough. That means making your music available and ready to listen when a potential new fan finally comes calling. Be everywhere, be engaging, and be on the radar of influencers who make it their business to spread new songs that they love.

Most importantly, it means not pushing harder every time like the legacy artists you’ll never emulate, but instead being everywhere and inching into our ears with each subsequent spin.

Let the listener find you and be eager to explore every avenue that you’ve made available, audio, video, and any other medium you can exploit. The fan relationship will be all the better for it, and no-one will be forced to develop an app specifically to get you out of my music library.

Quick Cuts: The Gaslight Anthem – ‘Get Hurt’

Release dates have all but faded into music industry history, to my mind. 

There was a time, probably not so long ago as it now feels,when I’d scour the release schedule – particularly at the start of a new year – to make a mental note of the artists lined up to deliver new music. The Gaslight Anthem - Get Hurt

Between increased productivity from bands, and the battered barriers to entry so unceremoniously torn down by the move online, there’s now so much music coming out that a scheduled release feels more like a formality for the artist than a foundation for the marketing campaign.

Two established bands both proved and rejected that hypothesis for me this week, as I completely overlooked a new release from Mastodon, yet took to Google to find the drop date for the next album from The Gaslight Anthem.

It’s the latter I’ll take a quick look at here, as the two advance singles – ‘Rollin’ & Tumblin‘ and ‘Get Hurt‘ – caught my attention on Spotify and did their job of piquing interest for the main release.

 

The Gaslight Anthem – ‘Get Hurt’

It’s a song I can listen to repeatedly. There’s a quiet beauty… some distant, vague longing… that lends the song a subtle but deep impact.

The lyrics aren’t exactly challenging, but the universal application of Brian Fallon’s laments is perhaps what makes ‘Get Hurt’ resonate so quickly. There’s an inevitability to lines like “I came to get hurt. Might as well do your worst to me.” The refrain speaks to all those times you committed to some course of action in full knowledge that it would probably end in heartache. There’s both comfort and contempt in that unerring alignment of our decisions and fate.

“And maybe you needed change. And maybe I was in the way.” 

More than love, this relates to any important relationship. How often do we see the negative impact of our own selfishness too long after the fact? It’s a call to

And it brings us back to the music industry.

It has indeed changed, and our attachment to previous ways of working have been in the way for more than a decade. As much as I adore record stores and the memories of countless afternoons lost to browsing the bins, Millennials are largely confused by the concept. “But, I can get it all on my phone at home…?!” And there’s no argument against convenience.

When all’s said and done, even though my interest has been stoked by the pre-release activity, I’m still unlikely to buy the physical album. The game has changed. It’s an attention economy now and merely breaking through the noise to be spun and heard is an achievement.

Play the long game: attract ears, aim for spins on Spotify et al, and build lasting relationships with fans. We can still make memories with music, but it’s time to accept that far fewer of them will be through albums and physical releases.

On Spotify’s Train Wreck Recommendations

Back in secondary school, resting on one’s laurels would earn the dreaded “Must try harder!” remark from the teacher.Spotify recommends the Black Keys

Fast forward to 2014 and that’s exactly the treatment that hardcore music listeners should be giving to Spotify for its frankly appalling email artist recommendations.

I enter for the court’s consideration, exhibit A:

“Because you listened to: The Gaslight Anthem

…. drum roll…

The Black Keys!!

Hooray!”

 

Exaggerated for effect, sure, but a train wreck recommendation for a regular listener if ever I saw one.

And before I come off as some elitist nerd music buffoon (too late), here’s a raft of reasoning as to why this is just a boring, basic recommendation with no thought for user experience:

  •  The Gaslight Anthem are popular, but The Black Keys are another level entirely. They crossed into mainstream awareness a few years back and can sell out Madison Square Garden. If I know about The Gaslight Anthem, there’s very little chance I’ve never heard The Black Keys.
  • This isn’t an isolated incident. In every recommendation mail I give another chance, Spotify will send a handful of fairly well-known artists, most of whom I’ve listened to before. There is no discovery happening here.
  • There’s no way to adjust the recommendation settings to tell Spotify’s algorithm I’m okay with it getting a bit more adventurous. I get that users with less listening history than me may want popular recommendations, but this is a service dedicated to all kinds of listener and with 20 million tracks at its fingertips… we need some control!

Black Keys listens on my LastFM profile

  • Finally – and most importantly – Spotify has my listening history, so it knows exactly how many times I’ve used its service to listen to The Black Keys. I can’t access the exact number in their database, but most of my plays on Last.FM are sourced from Spotify, so a good proportion of those 331 spins are on Spotify’s books. How the hell are you recommending a band to me that’s almost at the top my listening count?!  This is the antithesis of discovery!

Getting Recommendations Right

I get it, this is a minor gripe in an otherwise excellent service, but it’s just because I’m rooting for you, Spotify.

Apple, Google and Amazon are all lining up for our streaming dollars as part of a much wider master plan, but I at least credit you guys with a passion for music… for satisfying listeners. With that in mind, I have the following suggestions to get music discovery right for every listener, every time:

  1. Cross-check recommendations with listening history and filter out artists with a significant number of spins. Better still, allow users to import listening history from services like Last.FM so that speccy nerdy music geeks can get a head start on discovering gems in your vast archives.
  2. Set up easy-to-use filters that let us customize the recommendations. Safe to adventurous. Similar styles to new genres. Closely related artists to loosely connected. Any of these and more would help users to tell you what they want to see.
  3. Have a clear recommendation notification sign up from the get-go. It’s been so long since I first signed up that I forgot what I agreed to, but guiding listeners to a variety of ways to receive suggested new music (recommended playlists, email notifications, app notifications etc.), combined with those filters we talked about, would make for a much better user experience.
  4. Make it easy to completely opt out of all recommendations and discovery. Some people like what they like and don’t want to be bothered with anything else. I don’t understand them in the slightest, but we should respect their desire for musical ignorance all the same.

What else would you add? Have you actually found an artist you’ve never heard of but now love, thanks to Spotify’s suggestion emails?

Let me know in the comments here or on Twitter/Facebook. Together, we can discover better music.

 

(And for anyone who truly hasn’t ever heard The Black Keys, here’s what the fuss is about…)

 

Change is Inevitable. Growth is Intentional. Songza is ?

Google Sharks
Will Google support Songza, or swallow it whole?

Just as I’m struggling to decide the best way to get the writing rolling again, up pops suggestive streaming app Songza with the required inspiration.

Unusually though, it isn’t the service’s music that’s inspiring this time, but its news: Google is swallowing… sorry, “joining with” Songza.

There goes the (Street View-scoured) neighbourhood.


Sic Transit Songza Mundi


I enjoy Songza.

It’s always been a reliable alternative to the tedious automation of other radio-style streaming services, or the sheer volume of music on Spotify (which is both blessing and curse to the Swedish streaming champ). I like the personal touch, the hand-crafted playlists, and the general feeling that the app’s team have built around their service.

So despite the reassurances that the service will remain in tact, I have my doubts. 

Google is operating on a much wider scale in the music industry than the niche that Songza currently occupies. Streaming radio is a viable business, as Pandora has proven, but it’s a field full of competition and limited in its potential as a standalone offering. Songza the independent company can be proud of its 5.5 million monthly active users. Google the international behemoth, meanwhile, would deem that figure a disappointing volume of hourly search queries.

Of course Google has deep pockets and the potential to vastly expand the service. I’m a paid up Google fan boy myself in some ways, with Nexus devices and plenty of business pushed through the Play Store in terms of movie rentals and app purchases, so I don’t decry the general trend for tech companies to improve their entertainment offerings.

What troubles me is their distance from the personal listening exprience, and the pleasant alternative provided by curated platforms like Songza.

 

Cutthroat Consolidation

The worry for listeners on any independent streaming service must now be that the big sharks are circling in their shallow waters.

It’s not so long ago that Beats swallowed up MOG, only to itself be acquired by Apple for an eye-watering sum last month. After several years of experimentation, the industry is in consolidation mode as the big boys see the potential of Spotify’s model and look to head it off at the pass.

But for the likes of Google, Apple, and Amazon, this is about even more than all music, it’s about offering all content. 

These tech giants want to lock consumers into their ecosystem for years to come, most likely via mobile devices. Music is an important factor in attracting consumers to play in their respective sandpits, as are movies and television. The important decision for the wider game that they’re playing is which device you choose to consume this content on, rather than the individual listening or watching choices you make, hence the new Amazon Fire phone.

All this leaves music – and more generally entertainment – as a possible loss leader for Google and its rivals; a piece of a much larger puzzle that needs to be delivered en masse as audiovisual bait for more lucrative transactions in future. Today the new Black Keys album on Amazon Music, but what price a new bog roll subscription for life on Amazon Prime?

Songza Shark MascotAnd therein lies the antithesis of what Songza offers music fans, a carefully curated listening experience with a focus on the personal side of songs.

The algorithm-driven approach of Google in itself is cause for concern, but the wider worry must be that the company simply swallows up the Songza experience and bakes it into the more anonymous Google Play ecosystem.

So, Songza Sharky… sink or swim?

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