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Should the New Law of Music Absorption alter your music business decisions?

Music absorption is the process that occurs between music discovery and the (self) conversion of an average music consumer into an active fan.

I believe the music absorption process is radically different now than it was just two years ago, and understanding how this process has changed should impact your approach to succeeding in the music industry.

The New Law of Music Absorption
Consumers are rapidly accumulating vast libraries of songs from around the globe at unprecedented rates. As a consequence, the speed (the time) that it takes the average consumer to absorb new music is increasing proportionately.

Music Absorption - From Average Consumer to Paying Fan
That rate at which consumers absorb songs varies. Absorption rates depend on the song, the song’s genre and on the song’s natural demographic.

Stage 1 - Artist Discovery: This post is about music adsorption, and not about how early adopters discover your presence on the Internet; for the sake of this discussion, they just do. For music to be absorbed, it has to be found one way or another. Create >> promote >> discover >> absorb, will become: create >> filter >> absorb. This will happen in the near future, but that’s a subject for another day.

Stage 2 - Rapid Review: Like it or not, billions of songs are being sold and downloaded by consumers that only review 20 to 30 seconds of a song. Moreover, confident music fans (they know what they like) can scrub though a song and make a consumption decision in 10 seconds or less using the scrub bar on any music player.

Stage 3 - Playlist Installation: After rapid review, songs are installed into playlists. Statistics show that music collections and playlists have grown substantially over the last 36 months, and this trend is only growing. A song may have to tumble around a playlist (set on random shuffle) for months before it moves into the next stages.

Stage 4 - The Substitution Challenge: Consumers are rapidly acquiring vast quantities of songs now - legally and not. To obtain multiple p-spins, which are spins within the portable/personal devices owned by music consumers, your song has to compete with every other song in the playlist and/or on the device. Every song is only a button press away from being substituted for another song that’s equally interesting and probably free.

Note: On my blog I have written about how vast quantities of songs coupled to recommendation engines are a far greater revenue subtraction problem than file sharing ever was. I refer to this problem as the Substitution Dilemma.

Stage 5
- Who Sings That Song? After obtaining multiple p-spins, consumers begin to connect the dots. A mental note or a physical act is made to move a song into heavy (p-spin) rotation, or to plop your song into a playlist designated as tolerable background noise, or to just trash your song all together.

Stage 6 - Public Proclamation: This is the stage where fans of new music test out their taste-making ability on friends or within a social setting (online and offline). I suspect that this stage is far more important to younger music fans than it is to confident music fans. In addition, this is the stage where others also discover new songs (go back to stage one).

Stage 7 - Imprinting: Someone said: “Songs are like memory sponges.” Memories and shared memories become forever tied to songs. However today’s consumers listen to a broad selection of music; seemingly delivered through anything that runs on electricity - from video games to mobile phones, consumers have more listening options than ever. As a consequence, imprinting is spread out over more songs, the impressions are probably shallower, the shared imprints are probably less frequent (think five friends with five iPods all in the same car), and the imprinting opportunity is spread over a longer timeline (consider today’s 15 year-olds imprinting on Led Zeppelin for example).

Stage 8 - Meaningful Patronage: Unless you have a truckload of money, you are relying on organic growth to convert numerous listeners into paying fans. Organic growth outside of the geographic areas where you perform is only going to happen (globally) when your songs have made it through the absorption gauntlet (funnel). On the other side of absorption, you should have name recognition, perhaps an email address tied to the fan or an RSS subscribe (better), the untapped willingness to attend a show, and probably even the inclination (from the fan) to purchase something that you’re selling.

Stage 9 - Rock Star Reoccurring Revenue - The music absorption process is taking longer than ever; competition (within devices) is increasing; legitimate substitution (fueled by recommendation technology) is a button-press away; and imprinting frequency is falling. It’s a lot harder to become a rock star capable of generating reoccurring revenue from music. Consumers are going to try just about every song before they buy you and/or your music. In addition, the entire process can take many years instead of a few.

Advice and Conclusion
Outside of what a smart record label with a lot of promotion money (contradiction?) can do for an artist, it seems to me that nothing can have more impact on the absorption process and the desire to achieve success, than to have an evenly paced plan and a vision to make lots of great songs over numerous years. Most artists don’t have enough money or time in the day to alter the process with DIY promotion in a meaningful (financially material) way; they have to do it with music. Even if you had the support of a label, you would flame out of the funnel if the quality and consistency of your music didn’t exceed the gravity of your promotion.

In short, you should be trying to persuade everyone around you to believe in a five to ten year plan, anything less is probably doomed to fail. If you are relying on organic growth, you have to reconcile your plan with the absorption patterns that are typical of the fans within your genre and niche.

Reader Comments (16)

Brilliant post. So many artists these days have the attention span of a gnat and simply don't give themselves time enough to a\ become good enough at what they do to succeed and b\ give their prospective fans enough time to accumulate and act.

Too many folks record a simple album, whack it on myspace and tunecore for 10 minutes and then wonder why no-one has bought it. Having patience and perseverance is a key ingredient to success in any venture, especially music. Give yourself time to get good at it!

December 3 | Unregistered CommenterMark Gibson

This is a very impressive thesis. It is elegant in its simplicity and it really resonates with a lot of what I think we're grappling with as artists. Thanks for posting it!

December 3 | Unregistered CommenterThe Motion Sick

It's the explosion in Bruce's Stage 6 that I've been seeing over the last couple of years - and sure - as a personal identifier - music is 'important' to the younger fan - but I'm seeing declaration and presentation of musical taste more often than ever before from pretty much every generation I come in contact with - I'm very Ok with this.

December 3 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Astute observations, succinctly stated - and while sobering, begs the question: what significant business endeavor (recognizing not every artist has a profit motive), requires less than 5-10 years? So why should any artist expect otherwise?

At least without significant capital combined with savvy marketing. So this post answers your own question from a previous one, Bruce, regarding the importance of capital to artist success...YES, still vital, unless looking long-term (and even then, likely very few will break A-level commercial success without major financial resources).

In Stage 1 do you really think promotion will become unnecessary? I agree filtering will become instrumental (oops, no pun intended!), but perhaps simply added to the process?


hmm...but as you say, that's a future discussion...

December 4 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

Very thought provoking post, thanks!

December 4 | Unregistered CommenterJim Offerman

After further reflection, it just hit me - as unfortunate as this is, doesn't it seem likely that marketing/promotion will be a factor in driving songs (artists), through the ENTIRE process, not just Stage 1?

I mean, most people are influenced to some extent by external factors (granted, some more than others - and we're talking about the general population here, not music afficianados), such as peer opinion (including social networking contact), media exposure/reviews (online and off, such as blogs, YouTube, magazines), advertising, etc., which are, in turn, ALL influenced by marketing/promotion, at least indirectly.

To believe that new technology will suddenly (or even gradually), reduce the necessity for marketing/promotion in music is naive and couterproductive, setting artists up for disappointment and distracting focus from vital activities (no, the artist doesn't have to handle it all personally and it's probably wise to delegate as much as possible in order to concentrate on creating GREAT music, which always should be an artist's top priority).

However, I do believe that business STRATEGIES must change to adapt to new music distribution/consumption trends, which will vary some by genre and artist, of course.

If we EMBRACE the power of marketing/promotion (however distasteful to our artistic sensibilities), perhaps there are effective ways to meld it with new technologies.

Otherwise, nothing will really change in the hierarchy of music distruibution and major companies will continue (in some altered state), to prevail in pushing vast amounts of mediocrity.

Can't we do better? Sorry, Bruce, not by taking promotion out of the equation.

December 4 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

Very great post, and quite close to what I have been seeing recently.

I agree with Dg, promotion/marketing is a factor to drive songs through various stages, especially stages 4/5. Let's face it, promotion brings a lot of exposure to a track and when listeners hear it more often (in shops, on TV etc), they will be quicker at pushing the song into a playlist they listen to a lot (or deleting the song if they don't like it).

December 4 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie


Now that I have more time to reply to your comment below, I want to offer a proper rebuttal.

You said: "To believe that new technology will suddenly (or even gradually), reduce the necessity for marketing/promotion in music is naive and counterproductive, setting artists up for disappointment and distracting focus from vital activities.."

I have to strongly disagree with that statement. First off, artists are already repeatedly disappointed when they attempt to promote anything today. Most promotion does not fulfill dreams.

Second, If your goal is one of the following:
- signed to a major label
- license your song into something that leads to substantial exposure
- end up in 500,000 iPods
- achieve (slow) viral spread of your song on a global basis
Then yes - new technology, the technology I get to work with every day, and the technology that I know companies are building right now, will absolutely minimize the need to engage in wheel spinning promotion.

And, yes artists will be able to be less distracted by promotion, and yes they will be able to attend to the vital activity that is making music.

How can I be so confident? First, I work with the tools that will be game-changing. Second, the tools are desperately needed. There are 1,000,000 songs being uploaded to the Internet a year a catalog that contains over 20,000,000+ songs. Without the tools, everyone is just buying lottery tickets. With the tools, the people that plug songs, find artists, and write deals will be more productive and profitable.

Do I think artists should stop promoting? No. Do I think any artists should put more than 10% to 20% of his/her time into promotion? Absolutely not.

I will take this statement to the bank: If you are an artist reading this and you are trying to determine if you should spend eight hours this week on creating and improving songs, or eight hours this week promoting what you already created, I would advise you to create more and improve what you have for 7 hours and then promote for one.

99.99% of the promotion artists do doesn't do anything but boost your lottery ticket odds a bit, and if your number does come up, it's your songs that carry you forward. This has always been true, but it's more important now than ever. Your songs have to be able to survive the absorption funnel described above, and the type of promotion YOU can bring to the table is not going to influence organic adoption of your song on a global scale, only your music can do that.

One final note: All exposure helps, but the Music Industry Professionals that can give you substantial exposure, the type of exposure that makes a difference, they have to sift you out of a pile that is ten miles high and ten miles wide. These people will use filters, they do use MP3 players, and they can scrub through a song in five seconds. The promotion brushfires you start here, there or anywhere are all forgotten when someone has his/her mouse on the scrub bar of the MP3 player; it's only the song that prevents anyone from hitting the FF button.

December 4 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

It's interesting to consider how our listening technologies impact upon the significance of the music we listen to; although, despite a practical infinity of music, there is only so much one person can listen to. Music has an important social aspect (sharing and bonding of 'impressions') that I hope will never be lost... five iPods in a car is a quite disturbing image!

Regarding promotion, I agree with your time allocation - I think Derek Sivers does too, as indicated by his MuckWork project...

December 5 | Unregistered CommenterDan Foley

Disagree with you here. If somebody is hearing music on a service like Pandora, it's easier than ever for them to buy it. It's like a point-of-purchase gimmick in a 7-11. Click and you own it.

Tons of impulse purchases are made this way. In fact, speaking of Pandora, affiliate programs on this stuff is more or less the only way they're making money right now.

If somebody DOESN'T have the option of a "one click buy," then maybe I agree... Most of it, in my opinion, has to do with fewer record stores and the fact that they're not part of our social scene anymore. Kids used to hang out there. Now, if they want a physical CD, they have to buy at Starbucks or somewhere or get it online.

December 6 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Hooper

David - "tons of impulses purchase decisions" are happening - agreed. However, after an impulse purchase, which is not a lot of commitment, the song/artist still has to go through the absorption process to convert the impulse buyer / passive listener into a fan.

- Impulse purchase does not represent the majority of music consumption decisions.
- Most music is downloaded first and perhaps 'something' is purchased later.
- Can't agree that more than 10% of the population is inclined to purchase CDs.
- The social scene is happening on MySpace and Facebook.

I should have included impulse purchasing as akin to downloading in this thesis. Thanks for pointing that out.

December 6 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

this still does not address the issue of the majors hiding when the tech thing came up; cheaper tech to make music made more people get into it, and then the internet made indie confusing to the point where they may want you to think that you should be doing this for yourself on the internet. With all the crap music that spews out the industry, you think they would care about good people, who you assume would be provided for. but no one is, and everything sucks because of that.

December 10 | Unregistered CommenterLars

promotion smotion
when i was sixteen my older brother took me to see a new artist at massey hall in toronto. the artist was 23 years old. there were three networks and fm radio. when he walked out with a guitar and a harmonica no one moved except for thunderous applause and in between you could hear a pin drop. the artist's name ... bob dylan.
so riddle me this. how did my brother know. why did 2000 people show up to be transfixed.
it's the music stupid, it's the music.
fuck marketing.
as artists we are in the applause business not the music business. only the music business is in the music business. no applause = no fans = no music business.
my definition of marketing is "idiots selling crap that doesn't work to people who don't need it at prices they can't afford so they can buy different crap that doesn't work they don't need at prices they can't afford. :-)))
if you have the music you will find your audience. long live the audience.
david in toronto

December 20 | Unregistered Commenterdavid ray

Hey people,just a little interjection on thoughts for marketing music. The market place is flooded by hundreds of millions of songs due to the technological advancement. I'm an old guy with old school ways. I love to get out and play anywhere any place anytime! I do this from a great love from within my spirit. Music is a great part of our heritage of being human beings. I see a lot of scrambling in this "business" for fame and celibrity and wealth. If that is your only drive for success then your fooling yourself. I started really getting turned off from the time music became so commercial and marketed in a greedy corporate way. Get real people,just go out and do your gigs and never forget that saying by the late great RAY CHARLES "Thers two kinds a music! Good and bad"

January 21 | Unregistered Commenterjimmy liggett

Re: Stage 9

How do you account for the so called "blog bands?" Vampire Weekend is an obvious example. This is a band that went from playing dorm rooms to stadiums in less than a year - on the strength of nothing but a self-produced EP. It seems to me that this is a case of consumers finding the music, absorbing it, and becoming rabid fans in less time than it probably took to record the songs.

I think it's safe to say that as the sea of music becomes ever deeper and wider, people will rely more heavily on trusted content filters/recommendation engines. These in turn will determine the rate at which music is absorbed. Like many other things on the internet (MySpace excluded) it will happen very fast.

Of course you will ask, will popularity generated by a medium that encourages a quick ascent be sustainable? Hard to say. One of the things about a band that works for years to become popular is that they have a chance to grow as a unit and develop a bond that will take them through years of success - or failure. You can't say the same thing for a band that blows up just months after their first practice. That's why indie bands break up at such an alarming rate.

But then again, maybe it's simply better to burn out than to fade away...

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterEthan K.

On a higher paradigm level, there ARE some significant similarities with how the "megastars" were made. There has always been what felt like a plethora of music out, and people have always had to filter out somehow to find some focus - so they could decide what to buy.

(Of course now you've got free in the mix....)

But now it isn't the marketing dept at the label that has to deal with this - it's the artist.

So some differences, but I'm not sure it's teh cataclyismic change that everyone talks about.

... and about the 5-10 year plan - most "overnight sensations" take that long. Remember Hootie and the Blowfish? I was at the U of South Carolina with Darius Rucker in 84-86 (he was an undergrad, I was a grad - we were both in the same performing group). It took him and the band a looooong time to become overnight sensations!

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterMacMusicGuy

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