Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The future of the music industry

On our recent trip to San Antonio, struck by a sudden hankering for coffee, we headed over to the Riverwalk in our search for Starbucks. We found it. As Tom put it, once we had climbed to the street level where it was located, "But this isn't a coffee place, it's a music store."

And so, indeed, it was. A music store with hip, minimalist displays of actual cds and a series of flat-screen lcd "listening stations" with stools poised in front of them. A music store that happened to also sell coffee. The merchandising was, IMO, brilliant.

The music that was now playing over the store's sound system showed in a corner of the screen, so you could, at any time, pull up the album it was from and listen to the whole thing. If the cd you wanted wasn't in stock, you could compile a custom cd of your own at a fixed price for the first seven or eight songs, and a lower price for each successive song. But, if the cd was in stock, it looked like you'd have to shell out the label price in order to get your desired songs. They also seemed to have a setup that anticipated some sort of "upload to the mp3 player" option down the line.

Fascinating indeed to see these various adaptations to the changing music industry--ways to allow people who don't want to steal music, but who also don't want to spend mucho dinero on a mediocre album with one good song, to legitimately test drive the music and buy just what they want. Which of these service provider adaptations will survive and propagate, I wonder?

In theory, this should raise the bar on the kind of music that gets produced. As with the mp3 format, the variety will likely increase, but at the same time, the competition for airtime in establishments like the Starbucks will grow fierce, and the backers with the sheckels will be the ones whose clients will be heard (the "check out the whole album from what's playing" system works, btw--I bought both the cds that I explored after hearing one of their songs playing in the cafe).

In practice, the need for songs people will buy a la carte (as opposed to using the "menu du jour" format of the traditional cd) could be problematic. On the one hand, it means that fewer people will be willing to take the plunge on an album they don't love right away--and so there will be fewer instances of discovering a "gem" on the b-side that, after a few listens and a bit of getting used to, becomes a favourite. The "raised bar" of having songs that are catchy from the first listen is also counterbalanced by the radio syndicates, all putting the same "lowest common denominator" music into high rotation across the continent--though in turn, those could be counterbalanced by the democratic medium of the podcasts...

So, it will be interesting to see the lay of the land, once the dust settles. Where will the new borders and battle lines be drawn?