Music-Industry Chatter Has Echoes For the News Business
SAN FRANCISCO -- I spent Monday talking shop with various tech types about the state of the music industry, but I gained a little insight about the newspaper business along the way.
The occasion was a daylong conference on the intersection of technology and music, the SanFran MusicTech Summit, which drew an assortment of musicians, Internet entrepreneurs, developers, lawyers and bloggers to a hotel here.
This isn't the sort of event that necessarily merits a trip out of town for me. But it coincided with some travel I'd been planning on my own and gave me the chance to lead a fascinating discussion about mobile-app development in which one developer likened Apple's App Store approval process to "a root canal." (So my ulterior motives are clear, public appearances like that get me some extra credit around here.)
I was glad I made the trip, as the summit turned out to be an excellent way to catch up on one of my favorite technology stories: the music industry's transition from plastic discs to digital bits. That business was among the first to have to figure out how to deal with a shift from physical to digital media. And while record labels did some unaccountably stupid things along the way, over the last few years they've gotten smarter about listening to their customers. At this point, other companies could learn a lot from the music business.
And as I took part in various discussions at this conference, I kept realizing that my own industry and my own employer were among them. Consider three points:
Connect with your customers. At one of the day's first discussions, representatives from big and small music businesses agreed on the same point: You need to engage in a conversation with your fans, not just push information out at them. And when they say particularly insightful or expressive things, recognize and credit that input publicly, because people like knowing that their input found an appreciative audience.
This isn't without risks: Jeremy Welt, of Warner Bros. records, said some artists don't react well to criticism: "I've seen bands melt down before going onstage just because they're looking at the message board." It's also possible to geek out a little too far when seeking feedback -- one panelist cited the example of a band that suggested onstage that its fans use a particular hashtag to talk about the show on Twitter.
This blog is all about your feedback; I try to read every comment and add my own replies as needed. I've also been trying to do the same for comments posted on my print stories, using the "recommend this" link when I think it's appropriate. But some weeks, that falls by the wayside. Also, because I can't link to individual comments, it's difficult to call them out later on. I know that people here want to make it easier for us to give you credit when you add to the conversation, so I hope we're working on these things.
Realize the importance of the mobile Web. At a discussion on Webcasting, Pandora chief executive Joe Kennedy cited some amazing numbers about the interactive-Web-radio service's mobile-phone applications: half a million listeners a day just on its iPhone and BlackBerry applications, tuning in for an average of an hour and 45 minutes a day. Similarly, Bill Goldsmith, who runs the excellent Radio Paradise, estimated that about 8 to 10 percent of his listenership comes through mobile devices and predicted that "we'll soon have more people listening to Internet radio on the go than who carry around an AM or FM radio."
The Post, of course, has a mobile-Web site, but it's... uh... ahem... not good. (I've seen much stronger language used about it in the newsroom.) We're now redesigning it and should have a new, far-better mobile site up this summer, hopefully by July but no later than September.
Try different ways to make money. An old programming motto simply states that "there's more than one way to do it," and people at the conference seemed to be heeding that advice in their businesses. Pandora's Kennedy noted that the company could only do so much with advertising -- an ad longer than 15 seconds is considered "punishing" -- but was also raking in good money from affiliate payments on the $1 million a month in music purchases made through links on its site and in its mobile apps. (Yesterday, Pandora announced a premium, $36/year option with higher sound quality and a better interface.) Goldsmith, meanwhile, doesn't run ads at all on Radio Paradise, instead relying on donations from listeners, supplemented by affiliate payments and sales of merchandise with the site's name and logo.
At the discussion I ran on mobile applications, I asked four developers how they decided whether to charge for an application or give it away in an ad-subsidized version. Darryl Ballantine, chief executive of LyricFind and the author of that root-canal comment, had the simplest answer: "You don't." The Toronto-based developer offers its iPhone application in both free-with-ads and paid-without-ads versions and lets listeners choose.
We and other newspapers, however, seem to be sticking with traditional ads. I don't think that charging people to read our stories will work, but there must be other, smarter ways for us to cash in on the extraordinary interest people can show in our work. What are the news equivalents, for example, of some of the crafty marketing strategies dreamed up by conference speaker Ian Rogers?
I'll turn the discussion over to you on this third issue: Assuming that you can still read anything on this site for free, what sort of convenience, service or extra feature would be worth paying something? It doesn't have to be something that we offer now... though, come to think of it, if you say "come to my house and fix my computer," I reserve the right to veto that request.
May 20, 2009; 4:15 PM ET
Categories: Music , The business we have chosen
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