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« Do most fans really want anything from you other than your music? | Main | Twitter is radically changing the way musicians are building communities of supportive fans around them. Are you still resisting it? »
Friday
Oct312008

Music Blogs - Are They The New Radio?

A couple of months ago I received an email from the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI). They asked me to remove a music file (MP3) of ‘Silence’ a track from Portishead. Under the rules of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the IFPI has every right to ask me to comply with the law as it stands. To avoid litigation I complied. I then received an email from the office of the IFPI asking me if I would agree to an email interview that would be posted on their sister site, Pro-Music.org; I said yes, here it is:

1) What made you decide to start Pampelmoose?

Pampelmoose is a company I formed in 2004 to help musicians (mainly in Portland, Oregon where I live) understand the benefits of online music marketing. The blog was started in January 2006 so that I could extend the conversation to the web. By the end of 2006 the blog was attracting so much traffic that we decided to switch our model to being exclusively online.
 
2) Do you think music blogs are the heirs to music magazines, radio stations, both or neither?

I strongly believe that blogs that have credibility and an authorative “voice” or are run by “influencers” are already the heirs to music magazines and radio stations. Through filtering of content the best new music gets exposed to a broad online audience. For example, in Portland Oregon where I live the local radio stations do not expose their listeners to much new music. They play hits from the 90’s mostly, otherwise they play songs that are already current pop hits. Music discovery is left to us bloggers and that’s fine. [NB: Portland’s 94.7FM alternative music station has now given me a radio show twice a week.]

3) You’ve described Pampelmoose as “fast becoming an online content company” – how is that coming about?

We currently have 1,638 posts with more than 3,000 comments. That’s our content. I also run the Indie music blog for Travel Portland, the city’s tourism office, and I run Social Cache for Nemo Design where I work as Director, Insights & Digital Media. The content of Pampelmoose and IndieMusicPortland already has “value.”
 
4) Do you think there is a blurring between blogging and social networking?

No. They encompass two very different spheres. Social Networking fulfills  a basic human need to remain constantly in touch with your family, friends and peers. Amateur blogs provide the ability to keep an online diary. My blog, like many other pro blogs if you like, falls into the realm of online journalism. I feel that I owe my readers new content daily. Pampelmoose.com gets about 130,000 unique users a month so I feel I have a responsibility to keep the content fresh for my audience.
 
5) Do you think in an era where anyone can record music and post it on the web that blogs are important cultural filters?

Yes, they are very important. And why they’re important can be exemplified by what happened to FM radio here in the USA. The radio DJ is no longer a filter, an influencer or a trusted source. Back in the day radio DJs programmed what they wanted to play on air, nowadays that programming is automated at corporate HQ, so as you move from city to city in the USA you hear the same songs on every station. (The sad part of this is that regional music in America is ignored by these big radio stations.)

Meanwhile music bloggers take great pride in discovering new bands and music and exposing the best new music as quickly as possible to their audience before the next guy beats them to it. I humbly consider Pampelmoose to be akin to the John Peel radio show although I will never match the ability of that great man nor would I ever use his name in vain. Like him, I look for the most worthy bands I can find and then I filter further with my audience in mind. I never run a negative review of a band whose music I don’t like, they just never appear in the blog. Our ability to turn a discovery around quickly is what differentiates us from radio and the print media. My email inbox is swamped everyday with incoming electronic submissions from PR companies and indie, unsigned musicians – that’s where my filtering begins every morning…..

6) Are there many examples of new songs that have been boosted by being posted on Pampelmoose?

I can’t take credit for breaking bands because the data is just not available plus we music bloggers tend to trend toward the same break-out bands at the same time. I can give some examples of data that I have tracked.  I received a MP3 from a PR company promoting the New Zealand outfit The Brunettes and I have noticed that their song is the most popular track on Pampelmoose for downloading and streaming. In April alone they had 11,798 hits and that number has stayed in that range for about 6 months – way more than Radiohead for instance.

I’d like to think that I can take some credit (along with other music blogs) for helping Santogold get off the ground. MP3s from her upcoming album arrived regularly in my inbox from her PR company in the form of remixes and as I am a big fan I posted them quickly and often. Her stats are huge on Pampelmoose and I hear she had a great first week of sales when the CD came out a couple of weeks ago.

A local Portland example involves the Australian band Cut Copy. They are friends of mine so I had an incentive to help with their show here in town. They had the unfortunate job of playing on a Monday night at an over-21 club so their core teenage audience was shut out of this show. Radio wasn’t playing their music either. By the previous Wednesday ticket sales were around 50% sold, on Thursday I ran a video interview of the band that I shot in Austin, TX during SXSW. It included live performance and a great chat with the guys who are very out going and very personable. I noticed that views of the video went through the roof and by Friday lunchtime the show was sold out. Of course it’s not an exact science but I’d like to believe that by showing the band live it helped persuade the hold-outs that it would be worth their $10 to go to the show….
 
7) As a blogger, how can you ensure you don’t infringe the rights of artists that don’t want their music made available for free online?

Before answering I have to ask a question in return – Why would artists or labels not want their music, say just one track, available for music fans to hear or download? There have been so many past examples of music being made free or close to it – one that jumps out is the Columbia House record club where CDs could be had for five cents! Talk about devaluing music…. The usual outlets that provided free access to music – radio, TV, MTV have all been co-opted in the USA so music fans looking for the latest and greatest are forced to the internet to discover what’s new. If artists, especially new and upcoming artists, are to get heard through the white noise of media they have to work closely on their relationship with their fans. Andrew Dubber, who runs a site called New Music Strategies, has this to say:

“The new (music) model is about starting an ongoing economic relationship with a community of enthusiasts. It’s about attention and repeat engagement. It’s about letting go of the idea of the individual transaction and the ‘lost sale’ of a pirate download. CDs and mp3s are increasingly souvenirs of an engagement with a musical experience, rather than the occasion for the experience itself.”

Back to your question - In all honesty the recent communication I had from the IFPI about an infringing file on Pampelmoose was the first one since the blog began 2 ½ years ago. That notice made me check back through the server files to ensure that I only had files up there that had been sent to me either by unsigned bands, record labels or PR companies acting on behalf of record labels. Of the 496 MP3s on our servers I found two major label artists whose files I was hosting that could be considered infringing – The Roots and Portishead, so I took them down.

What it comes down to ultimately is that I have to steer clear of major record label artists because I don’t have a daily rapport with their PR folks. Most indie labels and their publicists I actually know personally and they literally plead for space on Pampelmoose as well as ensure that all the files they send me are completely legal. I don’t scour the internet looking for files to host, I don’t need to because the PR system still operates the same way it did before the advent of the internet – albums are promoted at least three months before release date so I get music well in advance of most people.
 
8) How do you feel artists and record companies should create relationships with bloggers?  

Good question. First, all labels and musicians need to ask themselves the question “What do my/our fans want?” or “How do I get my/our music in front of thousands of music fans?” The answer to the first question is “a free MP3” and the other is “music blogs.” Second, understand the power of the internet and word of mouth. Third, don’t fear the MP3. Finally, embrace the big music blogs just as you would radio, the press and MTV. The old adage “Never under estimate the power of a free T-shirt” can be updated to “Never under estimate the power of a free MP3.”

Let’s try an anology – In grocery stores over here you will often find a person at the end of an aisle cooking up food, maybe some hot dogs or pasta. They give this food away all day long to anyone who wants to sample it. It is very successful in stoking sales of that particular brand of food because two things happen – the customer can taste it, and it also removes the decision making problem from the customer, the dollar versus satisfaction risk has been reduced. In the music world, radio and MTV used to offer this ability to sample before you buy but not any longer. Indie labels already do this by sending me and other music bloggers MP3s - the major labels need to embrace this too.

When I worked at EMusic.com and Intel in the late 90’s and in 2000 respectively, I read many pages of research that showed the majority of illegal file sharers were just taking one file not an entire albums’ worth. (Yes there were students on campuses using fast servers and broadband to swap entire albums but they were actually in the minority.) I argue that music fans were looking for the ‘single’ that the music industry had foolishly discontinued. They could also dig deeper through an album to see how much filler was in there before they dropped their $17.99 on it.

Whatever they were doing music sales were remaining steady according to the data. The data also showed that the average music fan bought about seven CDs a year! Of course there has been a downturn in sales since but music is a cyclical commodity that is buffeted by economical concerns and demographics so it’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause. Also the music industry has been shedding jobs rapidly so the very people who could turn things around have left the companies.

The single is important to the music consumer. iTunes is seeing it as people buy single tracks from the iTunes store not whole albums. In fact the idea of an “album” is fast becoming archaic but that’s a whole separate story….
 
9) Do you believe many blogs can become viable businesses or will most remain essentially hobbies?

The transition is already underway. Stereogum, Paper Thin Walls and Brooklyn Vegan are three music blogs that I know of that have either been acquired or have been brought into bigger entities. Pampelmoose is technically a viable business as I get paid to blog and consult around it. My blog is basically the storefront to my other ventures. The real issue about blogs turning into businesses is – what happens to the “trusted source” or the filter? I can’t see how a blogger who is being paid can continue to keep tightly filtering when someone else is looking at the bottom line. It will be hard to remain editorially untarnished too. These issues point to how influential blogs like Pampelmoose can be and also underline their important role in music discovery. We’ll see how it all unfolds.

In closing I’d like to share a thought about the future of music. As the music landscape continues to shift, what’s at stake are the livelihoods of people who work at labels, big and small, and of artists who actually make a living recording and performing music. The media, especially in the USA, has latched on to the story that they repeat ad nauseum – “the music industry is dead, let’s bury it.”  I don’t believe that’s true as most areas of the music business are thriving. The music business hasn’t changed but it is changing.

Marshall McLuhan wrote - “Any history of technology is filled with an unexpected reversal of form resulting from new advances.” I will over simplify that statement by applying it to the decline in CD sales. CD sales have suffered due to the inflexibility of the medium; the music fans have spoken, they want to be able to get at least one free song as a mp3 music file and they want to be able to share the file across various media, iPods etc, as well as with their friends.

Musicians and labels need to embrace their customers – music fans. They have made it abundantly clear how they’d prefer to access music. And as the head of Nettwork, Terry McBride, pointed out in an interview at the Grammy’s MusicTech conference in Seattle last November – “You can’t litigate behaviour.”

Reader Comments (3)

"Before answering I have to ask a question in return – Why would artists or labels not want their music, say just one track, available for music fans to hear or download?"

Indeed. Honestly, the fact that we're even still debating this question in 2008 really ticks me off. Obviously, there's nothing stopping me from offering my own band's catalog for free - or not free, or some combination thereof - but the dead weight of the mainstream music industry is keeping the rest of us from achieving escape velocity in our attempt to move on to a 21st century music business model.

Every minute that someone like Dave has to spend explaining something as thuddingly obvious as the promotional value of a free song to the Cro-Magnons of the music establishment is a minute that he's not helping to create a new music ecosystem that better serves musicians, labels, bloggers and fans (hmmm - quite a run-on sentence there, but you get my drift).

There's an enormous opportunity cost that we've all been paying for several years now, measured by the long list of companies, technologies and amazing new visions for linking music with listeners that have been torpedoed by the sheer intransigence and plain idiocy of the ancien regime.

If I'm reading Dave's post correctly, Pampelmoose is now a "viable online content company" that is completely free of material that the IFPI would consider infringing.

If the IFPI gets its way, the entire music blogosphere will be reduced to nothing more than a collection of viable online content companies, completely free of music from IFPI's constituents...sounds great, doesn't it? Where do I sign?

October 31 | Unregistered CommenterMike Baker

As well as steering clear of major label acts, mp3 blogs might want to steer clear of any act that might one day be signed by a major. Recently, mp3 blogs have had entire posts - written when the acts were struggling indies - about Johnny Flynn and Glasvegas deleted.

November 1 | Unregistered CommenterAl

I have a clarification to make in my post. Brooklyn Vegan is still heroically independent! Here's an email I received from Dave at BV:

Hey Dave,

Just thought I'd correct you here:
http://www.musicthinktank.com/blog/music-blogs-are-they-the-new-radio.html

Though I have now have more than a handful of contributing photographers and writers, BrooklynVegan is still 100% completely independent and being run by the same overworked person that it was started by (me).

(also, though Paper Thin Walls, a site that was started by a group of business people to begin with, was bought by Getty Images, it's latest status is out of business)

(also, Idolator, originally Gawker's music blog, was, like Stereogum, bought by Buzznet).

Let me know if you have any questions.
Thanks!
Dave
http://www.brooklynvegan.com

November 1 | Unregistered CommenterDave Allen

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