And the “Beats” goes on

Filed under: Music Industry

This is too classic a smackdown to ignore.  This week, the marketing profession saw a textbook example of traditional marketing ideology failing to account for social media fall-out.

Last March, Bose sent the NFL a boatload of money and in return became the NFL’s Official Headphone and Headset Sponsor. But last Sunday, 49er Quarterback Colin Kaepernick wore his pink (read: breast cancer awareness) Beats by Dr. Dre headphones at a post-game press event.

The NFL, never one to let a pesky thing like breast cancer awareness get in the way of a sponsorship, slapped Kaepernick with a $10,000 fine.

So at yesterday’s press conference, Kaepernick once again wore his pink Dr. Dre’s but this time had tape over the Beat’s logo. For Beats, this must have seemed like manna from heaven covered in butterscotch sauce. First, its high-end competitor (Bose) became publicly ensnared with the NFL’s old-school, money-grubbing pettiness.  Second, Beats emerged as the choice of the rebellious types.

Guess which image plays better with the under-30 crowd?

The media coverage swirled like a tornado. USA Today: “The conversation has been stolen by Beats by Dre.”  CNet: “NFL players thumb nose at Beats headphones ban.”  AdAge: “NFL Pact With Bose Means Inadvertent Publicity for Beats.”

You get the idea.  Never mind that Dre has paid Kaepernick for years.  From a marketing perspective, and with the NFL’s unwitting (or perhaps “dim-witting” assistance), this is game, set & match for Dre.

May the farce be with you

RAMESES IIWall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Trachtenberg’s article this week on e-book pricing is a depressing reminder that Karl Marx was right: History does repeat itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.  Trachtenberg’s focus is on the inflated pricing structure creeping into e-book pricing but if you change the topic from books to music, his article could probably have appeared in 1998.

To put this in perspective, here’s a thought worth at least passing consideration: How did the music industry, with all its entrenched legal and financial heft among the major labels during the 1980s and 1990s, manage to be dominated by a computer company?  Call it arrogance in the sense that the guiding philosophy for too long involved a refusal to give consumers what they were clamoring for.  Meanwhile, the only pro-active strategy seemed to be launching lawsuits against tweens and grannies.

Remember Liquid Audio?  No?  OK, here goes: It started in the mid-1990s as a music download service and had the potential to succeed, driving home broadband adoption in the process.  Reportedly Steve Jobs nosed around the company early on, considering purchasing it as a way to jumpstart Apple’s nascent moves into the music industry.

But Liquid Audio never caught on because (gee, this is shocking) it could never secure sufficient licensing agreements with the music labels.  Meanwhile, even as two-hour movies on DVD were selling everywhere for $14, the music industry kept insisting that this same price was reasonable for a 45-minute audio disc with perhaps eight songs – in other words, the same product as Elvis Presley’s 1956 Christmas Album albeit in a more technologically sophisticated format.

Back to e-Books.  With the music industry’s pricing arrogance serving as a case study in how to anger consumers, the publishing conglomerate has a serious need for entry level marketing help.  This story has been told before and the ending is inevitable:

Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

R.I.P., Steve

Steve JobsDuring the coming days, there will be testimonials to Steve Jobs that border on hagiography. (Erica Ogg at GigaOm is already out with a good one.) He might not have changed “the world” but he certainly did change large parts of it. More than anyone else, Jobs convinced the music industry to stop the circular firing squad mentality that resulted in the perverse concept of engaging the next generation of buyers by suing or threatening to sue them.

But twenty years earlier, he also foresaw the role of the graphic interface in personal computing while most of the industry was fixated on hardware. Think back to 1980: IBM not only rebuffed Bill Gates’ proposal to sell the concept behind Windows’ forerunner, it told Gates that its OS/1 would push Microsoft out of business. That was the climate into which Jobs pushed Apple barely a few years later.

This author remembers it well. In 1984, I purchased my first computer. It was a 128 kb Mac preloaded with basic software (anyone remember MacWrite?) that Dartmouth made available for about $1,000. The word processing was definitely preferable to typing on a Smith-Corona but had its limitations. The maximum size of a text document was about 6-7 pages which meant that my senior thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre and European totalitarianism actually comprised three separate documents.

Apple would founder without Jobs. It suffered terribly under Gil Amelio, whose lack of foresight can be summed up by his brusque dismissal of the Internet in his biography, On the Firing Line.

Finally, it’s worth noting that in addition to the iPod, iPhone, Mac and everything else, Jobs had a hand in the greatest commercial in TV history. According to Apple lore, the Board was appalled when Jobs previewed the commercial in late 1983 but Jobs persisted. Nearly 30 years later, no other commercial has come close.

R.I.P, Steve Jobs.

“When words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain”

Renowned Shakespearean scholar and former Dartmouth professor James Shapiro has this oped in today’s New York Times:

Almost overnight [in the 16th century, when audiences in Britain began having to pay to watch plays], a wave of brilliant dramatists emerged, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. These talents and many comparable and lesser lights had found the opportunity, the conditions and the money to pursue their craft.  The stark findings of this experiment? As with much else, literary talent often remains undeveloped unless markets reward it.

Shapiro co-authored the oped with Scott Turow and Paul Aiken from the Authors Guild.  The three go on to argue for better legal protection of copyrighted work, especially online.  The gravamen of their focus is legitimate, though their casual dismissal of the counterproductive role played by a backward-looking music industry during the past decade is unfortunate.  (For more about the music industry’s errors, click here and here.)

Still, as Shapiro showed in Contested Will, few people are his peer on matters of the Bard.  What fates impose, that men must needs abide; It boots not to resist both wind and tide.

Fair is foul

Filed under: Music Industry

GimmeShelterMovieThere’s something beyond ironic in the new Call of Duty: Black Ops commercial that’s blanketing the networks and picking up an impressive 2.7 million YouTube streams.  No, it’s not Kobe Bryant looking spectacularly ill-suited firing his converted AR-15 with the large mag.

The uber-irony is in the choice of “Gimme Shelter” as the background music.  Forty years ago, this song was the 1960s definitive anti-war anthem.  As Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995, “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.”  But that was more than a generation ago and (irony alert) fortunately America is no longer committing tens of thousands of troops to a land war halfway around the world.

Twenty years ago, the Beatles’ “Revolution” became a self-parody when EMI and Michael Jackson licensed it to Nike for the company’s TV ads.  Now it looks like another defining theme of the 1960’s has gone down that path, inspiring legions of home-bound Americans to harness their inner David Hackworth and take arms against a sea of troubles.

As a once-great rock group once sang, “Sad, sad, sad.”

Sir Paul: Still believing in yesterday

Filed under: Apple,Music Industry

BEATLESThere’s something remarkably ironic in today’s news that iTunes will begin selling Beatles songs.  Paul McCartney released a statement saying in part, “We’re really excited to bring the Beatles’ music to iTunes.  It’s fantastic to see the songs we originally released on vinyl receive as much love in the digital world as they did the first time around.”

The comment is risible for the leader of a band that for so many years defined the musical avant garde but now acts more like a quaint anachronism.  Itunes launched in January 2001 and earlier this year commemorated its 10 billionth music download. Yet only now are the songs that once defined rock’s leading edge available.  In short, it’s long past the time that legions of Beatles fans have grabbed Abbey Road or Magical Mystery Tour off Limewire.

That said, no one likes a curmudgeon so it’s worth a shout-out to the best aspect of today’s announcement, namely the availability of the 1964 Live at Washington Coliseum concert.  As Randy Lewis at the LA Times describes it, the concert was “never before released officially.” Loose translation: All you had to do before today was to fire up gnutella.

A Long & Winding Road

Filed under: Apple,Music Industry

(New York) Prior to Apple’s announcement yesterday about a revamped iPod line and new iTunes Store, speculation was rampant that the company would announce its long-awaited deal to put the Beatles on iTunes. ‘Twas not to be, alas. So nearly three years after Apple and Apple Corps Ltd. (the Beatles guardian) settled their long-running trademark suit, “Love Me Do” and “Eleanor Rigby” still aren’t available on the world’s most popular online music store.

For Apple Corps Ltd., this is a mistake on the order of General Howe sending his grenadiers up Breed’s Hill instead of sailing up the Mystic River. If the experience of the music industry during the last decade teaches anything, it’s that users can quickly get whatever songs they want. When the music industry makes it easy and legal (i.e., iTunes), they profit. When the industry digs in its heels, the loss of revenue is brutal as users flock to P2P and Limewire (or for old-fashioned types, there’s always passing around a CD).

That’s why Apple Corps Ltd will have only itself to blame as music revenues drop — with love, from me to you.

RealNetworks’ Humble Pie

(New York) John Paczkowski, who writes the “Digital Daily” blog at The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece this morning about Apple and proposed RealNetworks app. According to Paczkowski:

RealNetworks has submitted to Apple a free application that will bring its $15-a-month Rhapsody subscription music service to anyone with an iPhone or iPod.. Apple [is] in a uniquely uncomfortable spot: Accept into the App Store an on-demand streaming music application that will compete [with] iTunes users or reject it and suffer. a nasty public relations nightmare.

The irony is downright amusing. RealNetworks rejected the underlying concept of the iPod back in 2000. That sent Tony Fadell, grandfather of the iPod’s technology, into Steve Jobs’ welcoming arms and the rest is history.

If Apple is smart, it will swallow its pride and approve this, which will eviscerate any PR problem. Meanwhile the roughly 500 people in the country who want to pay for Rhapsody on their iPhones will get it, while just about everyone else will be content with iTunes. Done deal.