Soundcloud – now with advertising!

I’m all for Soundcloud making money. I think it’s a fantastic service and a great vehicle for promo, for works in progress and for allowing people to listen to your music.

It’s just a shame that when great services are looking to “monetise”, the answer is always advertising.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that I used to make radio commercials for a living, and I believe there’s such a thing as good advertising. You can entertain, and make a difference for a client (especially gratifying when it’s a small business trying to get a message out to people who would really appreciate what they do).

But when I hear “We’re adding advertising and paying the content creators – and you can pay to have the ads removed”, I always hear “we’ve made our service worse and broken the user experience, and you’ll need to give us money to fix it back the way it was, in order to stop the record labels from suing us”.

All of that is entirely unpleasant. And not just for the listener.

If I was an advertiser, and I was told that my commercials were essentially going to be used as a repellent to drive customers to pay to get rid of my message, I would not be excited about advertising on that platform.

Spotify is a case in point. Spotify wants paid subscribers. In order to do that, they make terrible, annoying and unpleasant ads. Who pays for these ads? Are they insane?

In an ideal world, businesses like Soundcloud and Spotify would choose between either making a service that people genuinely want to pay for (and giving artists and rights holders an equitable share of that revenue), or providing a service that is sustainable through the creation of great advertising that creates positive associations for the client and genuinely entertains, informs or at the very least, doesn’t piss off the target audience.

But the default message seems to be “give us money to make terrible and intrusive ads for your company, and we’ll use them to annoy people into paying us to make you go away.”

Which makes no sense to me at all. Hope that’s not what Soundcloud end up doing – but fear it might be.

Toward a sixth media age

Over my years as an academic, I have developed several pillars of my research. These are ideas I return to time and time again as a leaping off point for understanding other things. I thought it was time I started to put some of them in a form that I can point to as a shorthand so that I don’t have to rehash old territory over and over again. Thankfully, we live in the Digital Age, and I can just publish my ideas and be done with it.

This is an article I have written in a number of different ways over the years. The idea of ‘five media ages’ has appeared in a couple of blog posts, and it also forms part of the setup in my book Radio in the Digital Age. But I’ve never quite been satisfied with the way in which the idea is stated, and it’s never managed to be something standalone that I can refer to in other work, point people to or bring out to discuss.

I’ve also wanted to have it in a form that is easily readable and shareable, not too bogged down in academic language, but thoughtful and scholarly at the same time. I think it’s an important idea, as ideas go, and it helps make sense of a lot of things. I use it to make sense of the media and music industries, but you may find it a helpful tool to apply to other areas of endeavour.

There are key phenomena that mark out the era in which we live. These are times in which government bodies of foreign nations can intercept and examine every piece of communication we exchange. In which we can go grocery shopping in the middle of the night, without leaving the house, in the name of convenience. In which we can quantify every aspect of our day to day activities through the use of a wearable device. In which we can speak face to face with relatives on the other side of the world as a matter of course. In which we can navigate to places we have never been with the aid of a speaking device that always knows the way. In which 10 million private homes around the world have their floors cleaned by a robot. In which national revolution is plotted and organised within a context provided free of charge by a global commercial corporation, supported by advertising. In which the vast majority of what we read, watch, hear, write, say and do takes place in a computer-mediated environment.

Very few people would dispute the notion that we live in a Digital Age. It’s almost a redundant statement – something taken for granted when speaking about anything at all that takes place here in the 21st century. Of course it’s the Digital Age – I mean, look how digital. But the phrase needs a little unpacking. We don’t simply “use a lot of digital things”, we live in a digital age. That is – we inhabit digitalness.

This is a period in history. There have been others. If this is the digital one, what were the others, and is there a pattern emerging between them? What can we learn about ourselves, about culture or even about the future by periodising history? How long will the Digital Age last, and what comes after it?

Essay: 5840 words / 23 mins
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The next 100 artists

I’ve been looking at music business figures in the news today. I really shouldn’t.

The problem is that macro-economics tell a story without meaning. There is no useful knowledge that can be gleaned from Online music licensing revenues pass radio for first time. Why? Because the fortunes of a very few artists skew the results every single time.

So focusing on online music licensing as a business strategy only becomes a reasonable response if you’re Ed Sheeran, Adele, Coldplay or Mumford and Sons. It’s not just unhelpful information, it’s scarcely even descriptive.

Take, for instance, a headline like “UK album sales up on previous year”. That might simply mean “Adele released a record recently”. In aggregate, it gives a false picture.

Or what about the idea that physical sales for music are down? Other than in aggregate, maybe, it’s nonsense. It might say something about the fortunes of a sector, but it’s no basis for strategy for an individual act.

What if the sales of physical products are actually UP for the top half a dozen acts, significantly DOWN for the next 100 artists or so, and UP for pretty much everyone else (the so-called ‘long tail’)? The fact that those 100 next-tier artists are collectively so significant financially means that the overall aggregate is down.

My point: it adds meaning to the results when you start to slice the data up. Even only a little bit. Even with an arbitrary, rhetorical number like 100.

Coincidentally, I also received a press release from the PRS this morning, claiming that more money had been paid out to their members over the last year than ever before. I sent back an email asking if that information could be subdivided so we could see the relative growth between the top 20% and the bottom 80%. They declined.

But without even very simple analytical dividing tools like that, aggregation is utterly meaningless as a method of understanding the music business. If one artist (or five, or a hundred) can utterly skew the overall results, then a total is empty information.

And that’s what nearly every ‘state of the music business’ report is based on.

Not terribly far away day

BCU Media Away Day #bcumediaawayday

We had a BCU School of Media “Away Day” today – though it was just a few blocks up the road in another university building called The Pavilions, at our sports ground. Food and coffee and an opportunity to do a bit of blue sky thinking with a bunch of colleagues you don’t always get a chance to spend much time with.

The morning had three main strands to it, which were sort of inextricably interwoven. The first was the extent to which our courses are vocational, the second related to the 50/50 balance of theory and practice we’ve always emphasised, and the third was the range of skills that are taught on the course and how the shift in the media landscape impacts upon things like specialisms within the degree.

In the afternoon we talked about more pragmatic things like student retention and completion, the new building for the school, and the funding cuts faced by universities in general and media departments in particular.


Media as an occasion for protest – and vice versa

My work with Punch Records on Protest, the internet and the notion of Remixhibitions took an interesting turn today.

Local community radio station New Style Radio is in the midst of a battle between its staff and the board. Station volunteers have been locked out of the building and are trying to raise awareness of their struggle.

They maintain that the station itself is entirely sustainable, but that the board has been siphoning money into the Afro Caribbean Millennium Centre – the building that houses the station.


How the brain evolves: the five ages of media

Photo by “lapolab”

I’ve been talking about this a lot recently, and it seemed appropriate to try and capture my thoughts about it here in blog form while it’s still pretty fresh.

Most of the ideas aren’t mine, but like all academics, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants in order to see a little further. The particular giant carrying most of the weight in this instance is Marshall McLuhan.

The central premise of this is that media are environments. That is, we don’t consume media – we inhabit them. That sounds a little needlessly obtuse, but it’s really quite simple: throughout history, we have lived in a world saturated by one media form or another, and that changes over time. And by ‘media form’ I mean ‘the main way in which we take in our information’.

Our brains get information about the world through our senses. Our senses are connected to whatever the main media happen to be at the time. And when those media change, we change. And like a frog slowly boiling, we generally don’t realise it’s happening to us while it’s happening.