Friday, November 13, 2009

Billboard Magazine Shows Free Concerts Online


Billboard Magazine has launched a new website to allow fans to watch concerts by major artists online, and believe it or not, it's for free. Maybe the best part about the new site is that it also allows viewers to choose from five different camera angles while watching the show. And they've also made the concert application available for iPhone, although I can't imagine anyone sitting through a couple of hours of phone watching.

Upcoming BillboardLive.com concerts will feature performances by Alicia Keys, Usher, David Archuleta, Daughtry (who's next up on the 19th) and other artists yet to be announced. Fans will also be able to interact with Twitter or Facebook during the concert without leaving the performance website, which is a pretty good viral marketing tool for the artists (as long as they don't have a bad night).

Since Billboard is an industry insider magazine, it's interesting for them to try to brand themselves in consumer land. They're also up for sale (they've been shedding subscribers and advertisers for some time due to the industry downturn), which probably indicates that this is a motion to increase their sale price. That being said, it's obviously not a revenue generator, and chances are it never will be. Given how badly their Billboard Live clubs venture went, it should be interesting to see how this one plays out.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Digital Music Gaining Steam


Already this year, four artists have broken Rihanna's sales record of 9.9 million for digital tracks that she sold in 2008 according to Soundscan. The artists that passed her are no surprise since they are particularly hot these days:
     Michael Jackson (11.3 million),
     Lady Gaga (11.1 million),
     Black Eyed Peas (10.3 million)
and Taylor Swift (10 million)

Next week, the 2008 digital album sales total of 65 million will be broken, as well as the mark of 1 billion total track sales, which shows that despite what some industry pundits had predicted, the digital side of the business is still growing.

But CDs are still selling, with 5 artists this week (Carrie Underwood, Michael Jackson, Andrea Bocelli, the cast of Glee, and Sony Music's That's What I Call Music compilation) over 100k.

Speaking of Michael Jackson, his “This Is It” companion album — which is really an album of hits — sold a little over 200,000 copies last week and went gold, which means that it’s sold over 500,000 copies in two weeks. This makes you scratch your head a little since another greatest hits album from Jackson, “Number Ones,” sold about 33,000 copies as well. At least for now, people can't get enough of his music and are willing to part with their cash for both hard and soft product.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

So That's What Tone Controls Are For!


As a general rule, most musicians (especially guitar players) have no idea how to use anything that adjusts the frequency bands of their instrument, meaning the amplifier tone controls. The reason is that they're never taught what tone controls are there for, and there's not a lot of information in the manuals that comes with amplifiers either (if anyone actually reads them).

There are 3 general reasons to use the amplifier EQ:

1) Many instruments (like bass and guitar) have dead spots on the instrument where a few notes can drop in level. A bit of EQing can help smooth things out if you can zero in on the frequency band of the notes that are dropping out.

2) You need to compensate for a wide range frequency deficiency. This could mean a situation where a Strat might not have enough bottom when played through a Marshall Jubilee so you’d add some low end with the tone controls to compensate. On the other hand, a Les Paul through the same amp might be too bottom heavy so you’d subtract some bottom. And then that same Strat might just have a mid-range that’s like an ice pick through the eardrums on certain notes, so you’d back off on the mid-range a bit and pull the pick out of the ears.

3) And finally, to keep the instruments from clashing in a scenario where 2 players use the same model instruments and amplifiers (like two Les Paul into two Marshalls). In order to fit well together frequency-wise, one player would adjust his tone to have a bit more bottom and maybe scoop out the lower midrange while the other player would go for more top end with a midrange peak just where the other guy scooped it out. There you have it - instant blend.

Of course things are never quite that easy in real life. Most guitar players never get to audio nirvana with their sound in the first place (it's like finding the perfect wave - it's out there but rarely experienced), and once found, it's difficult to get them to deviate from anything they’re comfortable with, even if it makes the band sound better. But if a player hears how successful the above techniques work in a controlled environment like the studio, they’re usually a bit more open to experimentation afterwards. Of course you can always tell them that xxx (fill in their favorite artist) does it that way to get his or her attention, because he probably does.

Whatever the method used, a judicious use of the amplifier tone controls can make a huge difference in how a band blends together both on-stage and in the studio.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Competition For YouTube?


VEVO, the music video portal backed by Sony Music and Universal, is scheduled to launch before the end of the year, according to an announcement by both companies recently. Over the last six months there's been quite a buzz about Vevo, which is intended to be a premium content site that’s been called by those in the know a ‘Hulu for music videos’.

While you might be thinking that the world doesn't need another video portal, what's interesting about VEVO is the fact that the majority of funding came from the Abu Dhabi Media Company, which makes industry insiders believe that the company will have deep enough pockets to go after YouTube.

So it appears that VEVO is meant to be a revenue generator, unlike YouTube (although it now generates revenue, just not enough revenue), and the fact that both Uni and Sony have a deep catalog of not-yet-seen videos means that they probably won't need the massive viewership of YouTube to be successful.

About the only thing we haven't seen yet is the final user interface, which as we all know, will be the key to its success. You can have the best content, but if people have a hard time finding it or a bad experience using it, you're doomed. We'll see about VEVO soon.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

5 Predictions For The Future Of Music


An article on The Atlantic Wire called 5 Predictions For The Future Of Music has it all wrong. Granted, this is just a compilation of recent blog posts from around the web, but I think that some of these miss the mark. My comments in italics.

  • The End of the MP3 - Web sites that allow users to play (or stream) music files for free have been around for years, but one called Lala has been making noticeably larger waves. Lala has developed an application that will allow users to stream their entire music libraries on mobile phones (beginning first with an iPhone app). The company's co-founder says it will replace MP3s as the preferred format for digital music. Ironically, this puts Lala into direct competition with Apple's own iTunes music store. As Wired's Eliot Van Buskirk notes: "LaLa claims it already earns an average of $67 per user. That's 300 percent more than what the iTunes music store brings in, according to a 2008 Forrester study. If that figure is accurate, Lala is already proving that drastically lower pricing for music could spell higher profits for the record industry and more tunes for the people at the same time."  
I agree with the basic premise of this post - the importance of MP3's will diminish greatly in the next year or so, especially as subscription services become accepted by consumers.
    • Refined Music Search - Search companies are listening to users' complaints that finding music online is a chore. Last Wednesday, Google debuted a much-hyped new search function that allows users to play and purchase audio files directly from a search results page, thanks to partnerships with several burgeoning music services (Lala and Myspace's iLike, to name a few). The move comes a year after Yahoo partnered with Rhapsody to create a similar playable musical search function. Still, as PC World's Ian Paul finds, music search is far from perfect: "When I searched using song lyrics, Google often came up short...Yahoo's search results were less robust than Google's in my tests. I could only find music samples when I searched for artist names, not song or album titles. But if you're looking for a simple way to sample a particular song, either service will work just fine." The L.A. TimesJon Healey is similarly unimpressed with Google, and doubted the contention of some bloggers that the service would help grow legal music downloads: "It can help expose millions of people to legitimate Internet music outlets, which will help those companies compete with free (and, in many cases, unauthorized) sources of music online. Whether consumers will actually spend more on music than they've been doing, however, is a whole 'nother question." Meanwhile, Microsoft has begun its own talks with MySpace to host a comparable service.  
    Once people get used to music search (especially with Google Music) it will change the way that people consume music. Although the journalists mentioned above don't seem too impressed, try it for yourself. Type in any partial lyric, song title, or artist into Google Music and see what you get. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
      • Audio Algorithms  - The creation and production of music is also undergoing a revolution. At Discovery NewsRobert Lamb inspects uPlaya, a Web site launched earlier this summer that uses an algorithm to determine the "hit potential" of any audio file a user uploads. By mathematically comparing a song's features to past hits across multiple genres, the company claims to be able to predict its viability, allowing artists to adjust their new music to appeal to the widest possible audience. As Lamb explains: "Think of the technology as the artificial intelligence counterpart of Simon Cowell, except with more stats and less sarcasm." He also says that it has achieved an 80% success rate. Meanwhile, over at EurekAlert, Luke Barrington reports on a new project at UC San Diego that also relies on an algorithm to generate automated music playlists. Test users preferred the UC playlist to Apple's Genius recommendation system. Barrington suggests the technology will help bring new artists to the forefront: "Genius currently ignores relatively unknown songs because it lacks adequate wisdom from iTunes customers about how these songs connect to other songs. Systems like the auto-tagging music algorithms developed at UC San Diego could be useful in filling in the 'blind spots' in Genius and other collaborative filtering systems that rely on the wisdom of the masses to generate playlists." And yes, the Malcom Gladwell devotees are correct in thinking that the popular journalist caught wind of this trend years ago. 
      Music "discovery"is the holy grail of online apps according to every expert I've spoken with. While it seems that having an app that will predict a hit might be desirable, it's actually counterproductive in creating new music. A prediction app is just another step in the homogenizing of music (and we have enough of that now already). Most of the best new music and music trends go against consumer tastes, which can't be predicted.
        • The Music Gene - Over at the Huffington Post, self-proclaimed "provocateur" Gail Zappa offers her eccentric take on the state of the music industry and an outlandish prophecy of the future. Recalling an incident in which her husband, musician Frank Zappa, was blacklisted in San Francisco, she argues that modern music corporations have enough power to tell an artist "you'll never work on this planet again," and actually enforce it. She bemoans the increasing availability of recording technology and the sorry state of copyright enforcement as a result of Internet file-sharing. Finally, she predicts that "Scientists (?) [sic] will prove that there is a 'music' gene," which will bring about a cure for deafness and vindicate the notion that listening to music "is exactly like sex." 
        I read Gail's post and couldn't figure out her point exactly. It's true that most copyright owners are petrified about the state of copyright protection these days, but it sounds like Gail is still fighting the last war. She's a very smart and passionate lady, but all over the place on this one.
          • Radio Revival? - Over at the GuardianNicholas Lezard celebrates new figures suggesting that nearly 90 percent of people in the UK listen to radio at least once a week: "For those of us bewildered and appalled by the march of modernity - in other words, those of us over 40 - this return to bygone days is so welcome it almost induces tears. We may be being badgered to buy HDTVs, iPhones, nanowotsits and any amount of technocrap, but against all this babble we can erect a solid wall of good sense and bullshit-free information..." The only trouble is that the British station leading the charge is BBC Radio 4, which specializes in just about everything but music. However, the number of listeners for classic music station Radio 3 is also up 12.6 percent to 2.19 million listeners, suggesting that for at least a certain genre of music, radio still holds sway. 
          There will always be an audience for radio, but the only scenario that I can conjure is a return to something like early FM radio, which was totally about music discovery that was provided by the freedom the DJ's had. Unfortunately, corporate radio controlled by Madison Avenue ad dollars makes that an unlikely possibility. As far as music is concerned, radio is quickly becoming a non-factor in an artist's success.

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