February 14, 2008

The continued shift to online music promotion and the loss of a ‘middle man’

Over the past ten years, the internet has affected many aspects of daily life, but arguably nothing has morphed quite as much as the state of the music industry and the attitude and trends of its consumer. At the turn of the century, the initial shift was catalysed by sites like Napster, the prevalence of online file sharing and the numerous loopholes in the law that allowed people – in a broad sense – access to music at home for free for the first time. Napster had even spawned a worldwide hit for Afroman with his song ‘Because I Got High’, after he put it on the site as a free download. As laws tightened the attitude towards the music industry had already begun to shift. By 2003-4 a wealth of artists were making their demos for free on their home computers and putting up their music free of charge on Social Network sites. In a sense, artists were managing to negate the need for A&R men and the necessity of label backing (and other ‘traditional’ routes) to make their music heard. Musicians had acquired their own marketing power in that they could actively seek out potential fans of their music, rather than waiting for support to find them through the reliance of third party promotion. This DIY ethic and process has gradually spawned successful and continually flourishing careers for many notable groups, DJ’s and artists (Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen anyone?) and a more organically beaten path to success has become officially established.

Due to the already established points raised in my above – hugely inexhaustive, yet concise – historiography, a recent piece of research on the trends between physical (i.e. CD’s, Vinyl etc) musical releases and the amount of online activity that surrounds them served to highlight these modern trends further, rather than reveal untold revelations.

Over 8 weeks, 108 album’s sales ranking were monitored on Amazon, while a tab was kept on the online activity that surrounded each release, in order to discover if the power of the internet and it’s users had as profound an impact as everybody suspects. ‘Online activity’, although potentially an immeasurable variable, was calculated by the total of articles, blog posts and Myspace friends each album/artist had acquired/written about them. The results found that albums on both independent and major labels enjoyed increased success from increased online activity, so much so that if more than 250 blog posts were written about the release, sales of over 6 times the average could be traced. A higher number of Myspace friends also correlated strongly with better sales, although not quite to the same degree as articles.

The research couldn’t conclude whether online activity was the cause of better sales or simply a product of a band or artist being popular in the first place, as people who are going to buy an album are likely to talk about it before, during and after its release regardless. But obviously, a large volume of online activity is going to draw the attention of potentially new fans/listeners. The research also mentioned the importance of not discounting ‘traditional’ catalysts of better record sales; like an excellent review from a respected music publication for example.

What it can conclude however, is the continued importance of the internet, and the ongoing shift in the fluidity and the mechanisms of the music industry is as evident as ever. It will be interesting see where this goes over another ten years, and how many of the existing Major players in the record industry manage to adapt to this shift and maintain their position. Conversely, it will be equally as interesting to watch the ones that don’t.

Details referenced from a blog post that can be found here.