Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Meet the new middlemen...Part 1

As you can probably tell (if you've dropped by the blog before) I enjoy thinking about how new production and distribution models are taking shape in these ever-changing, highly digital times.  Let's briefly take stock: we've got free platforms with hundreds of millions of users, the ability to make high quality podcasts, songs, videos, and websites relatively quickly, cheaply, and easily. Global distribution happens with the upload of an audio, video, image, or text file.

Barriers to entry are now almost non-existent, so individual/independent writers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers, now have access to an international audience.  Unfathomable just a few short years ago. As the technologies and platforms become more user-friendly and plentiful, the floodgates open up, and everyone from the hopeful hobbyist to the professional has the same access. But now we have a logjam at the entry point to the market, because there are no content police standing there at the roadblock saying "excuse me ma'am/sir, can you pull over here so we can see your qualifications?" The price of entry is the doing. Period. And because this is the case, mere market entry brings with it less certainty than ever before.

What was once scarce, i.e. the ability to produce and the ability to distribute and/or publish those creations, is now abundant.

The digital era has changed a lot, indeed.  But...the idea that everything is now do-it-yourself, bypass the gatekeepers, go direct to fan, is somewhat overstated and oversimplified.  Yes, you can create and upload and share and use networks for large-scale, inexpensive distribution, and it's a fantastic and liberating thing which I'm all for.  But the likelihood of reaching a mass audience using solely these channels is slim. It can happen, but so can winning the lottery. The general rule, if there is one to be extracted from these musings, is that do-it-yourself and digital models are particularly valuable for niche products artists.  Using digital and social techniques and tools niche artists can find their audiences in a way, and on a scale, that previously did not exist. This means that niche no longer has to mean hobby, limited appeal, or money loser. In fact you could say there's never been a better time for niche. To this point note that the label with the biggest single slice of the music pie right now is not in fact a single label, but all the indies rolled up into one.  (Also note that Universal has since acquired EMI, and even with the sum of those two entities, the indies when considered as a single slice, are still larger. On the other side of this argument is that the 32% slice that the indies enjoy also counts indies that have major label ownership, either in whole or in part, but I won't be that much of a stickler for now. However you can be if you'd like to.)


What made many of the above points possible is the decentralization of power made possible by the Internet when it became a mainstream, consumer technology in the mid to late 1990s.  But for every force there is usually a prevailing counterforce and what we're seeing now are new intermediaries providing bridges that link, in the case of my area of interest, artists to audiences. This is not inherently a bad or good thing, but rather a way of understanding how marketplaces reshape as technologies change.

Time to meet some of the new middlemen. We'll start with the area of music and in later posts look at film and video. In music the biggest middleman is, of course, Apple, whose iTunes store launched ten years ago in April 2003, and which went on to account for close to 2/3 of all digital music sales. (The other third is split between vendors such as Amazon, Google Play, and CD Baby). What started out (arguably) with the objective of being a marketing platform for its iPod line of hardware has become a retailing juggernaut for not just music but books, games, apps, TV shows, and movies.  A full breakdown of the iTunes economy can be found here, but the condensed version of the story is large volume of sales, they take a cut of approximately 30%, and their profits have been estimated to be in the range of $2 billion for 2012. Whether they're better or worse than the labels is debatable. And I'm told that iTunes does not generally deal with independent artists. They require a middleman of some sort -- either a label (indie, major, it doesn't matter) or a distribution company...even though the product is digital. For rough comparison purposes the chart below, sourced here, compares the revenue splits for music on a variety of digital and physical platforms.

Software services that cater to the direct-to-fan, or D2F, market are many, and I'll use the rest of this post to introduce you to some of the more interesting and popular ones.  And note that I'm not endorsing any of them, but merely reporting on them. If you have an interest in using some of the services listed here I would recommend doing the usual due diligence by talking to others who use them or have used them, search around online for reviews, etc.  The basic point I'm trying to make is that many of the functions that were formerly the domain of agents, managers, and labels can now be accomplished with software.  And that direct to fan isn't exactly direct, but certainly is direct-er.

In the area of online marketing, merchandising, & fan communication some of the best known platforms are: TopspinTunecoreNimbit, and Fanbridge. Generally speaking these platforms make it possible for artists to handle a sizable chunk of the activities that had previously been the sole domain of managers, agents, and labels.  Email and newsletter blasts, social media dashboards, eCommerce for websites for the sale of band merchandise and concert tickets, and of course digital and physical sales of music.

If you want to book shows in people's living rooms there are sites for doing that. If you want to remove promoters from the picture there are sites like (the very cleverly named) Detour that let fans put their money where their concert wish is, thus reducing the risk to the promoter, and when enough dollars are in the kitty, the band comes to play in your town. If the show doesn't happen, you don't get charged. There are also companies that enable artists to work around the centralized ticketing systems of titans like Ticketmaster and LiveNation. For example there's GigSwiz, which bills itself as the "effortless ticket promotion tool for artists" and there are also services such as Tunezy and HugeFan that act as brokers between fans and artists, particularly in the area of enabling special fan experiences like dinner at home with your favorite indie band, or how about a custom song composition from them, or maybe a bowling party?  Those using the Bandpage platform will know that $2500 gets you a personal 30-minute guitar lesson, over Skype, with Ozzy's axe-man Zakk Wylde, or some of the more affordable indulgences below.

To me the overarching point is that rather than the industry being one giant monolith, a parallel system emerges, one made of many little pieces. Artists can cherry pick the pieces they want to use, and usually with little or no up front cost, and pay via revenue sharing as sales occur. This specifically digital business model is an attractive option for independent and/or niche artists as the incremental cost of doing business online -- compared to the world of physical objects for sale, warehouses, sales teams, print marketing, etc. -- is close to nil and like they say in those big box ads, the savings can be passed on to you.

Part 2: Meet the new middlemen in the world of filmmaking and independent and/or digital distribution here.

Related posts:

The economy of 'big enough'
Reintermediation Watch: The Tale of the YouTube Multi-channel Networks
Podcasting: Art, craft, or reaching the niches
...So you want to self-publish
The Creative Economy: Is the (3rd) Party Over?