• Michael Spencer

Soundings: the end of the world is nigh…Hermès bearing gifts

The end of the world is nigh… – Andrew Peggie gets to grips with what’s going wrong with music marketing. Hermès comes bearing gifts – maximum pleasure from the fashion house website, without having to spend a penny (AP) Sound Strategies News – Michael Spencer in Japan


The end of the world is nigh…

Most people, whether or not they have any connection with the music production and marketing industries, are aware of controversy surrounding ‘illegal’ file-sharing and cross-platform copying. Few – even within the industry – seem to have any reliable way of analysing what is going on, let alone figuring out what to do about it. So rather than indulge in a summer holiday, Soundings decided instead to try to unravel the complexities of new music marketing models and digital rights management.

At issue is an infrastructural and economic nexus which, as applied to music production, has always been liable to anomalous behaviour, compared to other product marketing. How to create economic value out of music? Should it indeed have any economic value?

Who profits?

There are plenty of music creators across the world for whom profit is not the point. Social, religious, cultural and personal or therapeutic goals are very often uppermost in their minds. However, the music itself often begins to take on a life of its own, and the possibility of exploiting its dissemination becomes more attractive.

Hot on the heels of direct word-of-mouth have followed all manner of communication channels, from paper-based publishing to audio recording and radio/TV broadcasting, all of which have required intermediaries skilled in managing both the technical and marketing aspects of dissemination, and in many cases the performance and interpretation of the music as well. Once the music is loosed from its originator it can of course be used by many different people for many different purposes, including profit-making. At that point, both creators and intermediaries have a legitimate expectation of remuneration.

Copyright law – the legal framework of rights and royalties designed to prevent the exploitation of the creative artists – has evolved in tandem with development of increasingly sophisticated means of dissemination. It is tempting to think of this as a fundamental human right, but there is no absolute moral element in the protection of the fruits of creativity or imagination. In many cultures, the individual creator is not important and music or artwork is considered a collective expression of identity. The singer or the song?

On the other hand, the combination of mass dissemination and the cult of the individual has spawned some pernicious assumptions.

One is that music is legitimised only by its mass media success – its economic value becomes its only value. But, since music is an infinitely reproducible resource (unlike visual and plastic arts, where value accrues to scarcity and uniqueness) monetary value often transfers to a key personality – creator or performer for example – thanks in the main to royalties emanating from copyright protection.

Another, which follows from the first, is that the dissemination infrastructures – CD production, broadcasting, internet, cinema, press, etc – are the music. Were they not to exist, music itself would apparently not exist. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase: the medium is the music. This is patent nonsense of course, but a large proportion of the arguments currently swirling around the question of legality and rights is based on such an assumption.

What has changed?

We have passed a tipping point in technological development whereby the means to circumvent conventional economic infrastructures has begun to outstrip their control and management capacity – a process which began in the 1960s with the advent of domestic tape recording. Not surprisingly, current discussions have been accompanied by a large measure of squealing and whingeing from corporate and legal functionaries whose careers have hitherto benefited from the status quo.

In a recent UK MusicTank newsletter the veteran rock music manager, Peter Jenner, neatly sums up the current dilemma:

The essential problem is this. Any system must start by competing with both the range and variety and the uncontrolled nature of the FREE option.  The un-licensable UGC (User Generated Content) of You Tube, MySpace etc, the bootleg recordings, the radio shows, the live recordings from festivals and gigs, the content from the non-English speaking world is as valuable as the licensable content from the big four record companies. Music from both out-of-contract artists and the not yet contracted artists is also hard to license if they are not going through one of the big licensors, as is music from the musician-owned and micro labels from all over the world, as are the podcasts, the radio streams and the music blogs.

Do it yourself

We now have easy access to the technological means to assert our creative and cultural values in ways which short-circuit the profit-based business models derived from remotely-controlled high volume dissemination. This is not to say that profit is a bad thing, only that – where music making is concerned – it can never be the sole motivation.

Music creators and listeners instinctively know this. People use music for all sorts of utilitarian reasons, from the profound to the trivial, for public or private consumption. At one end of the utility spectrum we have the ‘art for art’s sake’ creators who strive for originality, profound insight and cultural exclusivity; at the other end are those who are prepared to generate hours of undifferentiated background pap. But whether the end-users are concert audiences or computer gamers, their sense of music as a sort of cultural or spiritual fuel far outweighs any question of its monetary value. Listeners never go in search of the cheapest (nor indeed the most expensive) musical product. Cost is rarely, if ever, a factor in the music choices people make.

Music flows like water

On the contrary, creators and consumers alike think of music as a utility, like water or fuel. The comparison is apt, since most people understand the need to pay for utilities. But they expect the results to be on tap, relatively cheap, universally accessible and unencumbered by the delivery mechanism. Payment, content and delivery are dislocated. The commercial ubiquity of music, via radio, TV, cinema and the web, is part of the reason the consumer mindset assumes that it is universally available.

Music production and marketing organisations, on the other hand, are still thinking of music as a saleable product, often bundled with personalities, fashion and lifestyle goods and services, and channelled through approved retail outlets (whether real or virtual), with price, availability and access all managed to maximise profit.

The cognitive gap could not be more obvious, and it is difficult to imagine any new business models which fail to bridge this gap having any long-term success. Of course, the middle-men are unlikely to become extinct, and there will continue to be a market for premium music offerings, just as there is for bottled water at 1000% mark-ups.

But what needs to change is the economic assumption on which music production and marketing has depended for the last 150 years or so and which has been especially prevalent during the mass cultural explosion since 1950. The implications will affect not just record companies and broadcasters, but also the legal frameworks built around copyright, service agencies which commission or license music for use in marketing and other media, the cultural support agencies (both public and private) which channel funds towards music and – further down the line – the educational institutions which aim to shape or preserve musical aspects of our culture.

The age of the dinosaurs is over

It seems unlikely that change will be managed, let a lone driven, by any of the above. Digital Rights Management (DRM) – the industry attempt to control the usage of new digital platforms – has all but collapsed, and few young people it seems are taking seriously record company attempts to pursue illegal down-loaders and file-sharers. Copyright law is weakest in the world’s largest potential mass culture markets in China and the rest of Asia.

However, alternatives are already emerging via social networking sites and small-scale, localised initiatives which can develop on the web without reference to traditional marketing channels. But the big picture changes could be profound: perhaps we are reaching the end of a dinosaur era where musical superstars were manufactured, managed and marketed by global corporations.

Andrew Peggie

Hermès comes bearing gifts

The eponymous French fashion house exploits its connection to the messenger of the gods in a site of seductive charm, humour and compelling originality. Individual descriptions of the sixty-four separate ‘gifts’ to be discovered on les ailes d’Hermès [the wings of Hermès] site would not reveal the underlying strong artistic concept allied to a clever use of simple website technology. Equally impressive is the way the web artist (‘designer’ is really too prosaic a term) has exploited the full range of audio, video, graphic and textual media. Not, as is often the case, by filing them all away under their own separate headings, but by treating the visitor to a lucky dip of constant surprises. Clicking on any of the sixty-four images gives no hint as to what the presentation will be: a video perhaps or a flash animation; sometimes with a presenter, sometimes with recorded dancers and musicians; perhaps just a sequence of images; often with unexpected sound effects and unusual musical backing.

The result is addictive. Click on the ‘Travel the world of Hermès’ winged figure, then wait for him to plunge into the gift pool. One is compelled to explore every one of the subsequent links to discover what riches are waiting to be revealed. One of the most substantial is a video of a shadow puppet performance, filmed in full-screen close-up, with narration, sound effects and music as for the live performance. The Indian legend related reflects Hermès’ current seasonal South Asian theme. At the other end of the scale, a tiger painting suddenly roars to reveal a Hermès Tigre Royal Silk city bag. In one silent animation a dozen different heads, morphing one into the next, sport the same Hermès hat – a neat inversion of the usual fashion convention of using a single face to model a several different items, and a very clever way of demonstrating the potentially broad demographic appeal of exactly the same piece of headwear.

If there is a moral to Les ailes d’Hermès site, it is that treating strategy and concept as an artistic project rather than a web design exercise can noticeably raise the quality level and impact of a site. Moreover, the artistic approach seems to have been effective in reinforcing the overall brand image without creating either a monothematic straightjacket or blatantly literal connections. What the subtext of the site is saying is that the Hermès brand is underlined by creativity, originality and high quality. Of course, nowhere on the site do key words such as those ever appear. They do not need to spell it out.

If there is a criticism, it is in the leisurely way in which the homepage is loaded, via a silent cartoon animation of a top hatted and winged Hermes landing on the title text and plunging into the gift pool. Without sound, one assumes that the rest of the site will also be silent. Each individual presentation thereafter takes a few seconds to load and the small ‘page loading’ icon is not always immediately visible. A visitor in a hurry might easily think that there is nothing much to see or hear, and move on.

Andrew Peggie

Sound Strategies News

Managing Director Michael Spencer cements his ties with Japan ’s flourishing classical music scene. He is one of four speakers at a special seminar for the Geidankyo, a branch of the Japanese Arts Council specialising in performers. Other speakers are specialists from traditional and contemporary Japanese theatre, examining potential roles for the Arts in education and community settings.

A long-time visitor to Japan , he is also continuing to advise orchestras and concert halls on marketing and developing their cultural remit in the community.

Interesting venues come in many forms of course, but few are likely to be as exclusive as the Imperial Palace in Tokyo where Michael was recently a guest of the Empress, with whom he has the good fortune to play chamber music on occasion.

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