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October 31, 2020
Industry Insider: Why Ad-Supported Music Sucks PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 10 June 2008 17:37
johnm.jpgAd-Supported is a term you hear more and more as it relates to copyrighted music and video content, and while many in the music biz see it as the only logical alternative to continuing this post-Napster free-for-all culture, and the continuing lawsuits against customers, there's much to explore about A.S. before the whole industry dives in head-first. Although many in the music biz see this battle as lost, or at least over, with the (relative) success of Spiral Frog,, Pandora, and many others. (Full-Disclosure; I'm listening to Pandora while writing this article, as I often do while working, though I always feel kinda guilty for it!).

I see lots of high-dollar sponsorship on these sites from auto makers, liquor makers, and countless other sponsors. There's money being made, but I don't see the trickle down yet, though I know some of our titles are doing well in various places. I think the issue is that it's being done in the typical corporate way, something that's being forced by the major labels with their demands for massive up-front licensing fees so these sites can have a decent volume of content upon startup. A major problem with many of these startup sites is small catalog content, which doesn't keep people interested for long. The public might check back for new additions once or twice, but I don't believe people will visit beyond that if there's not a substantial increases in content updated constantly, which has forced the startups to make public stock offerings to raise the massive funds needed to buy off the major labels for their participation. If the majors would believe in some of these ideas and allow their catalogs to be used to build up the startup site with a bang, there'd be far fewer hands in the pot dividing the proceeds. The IT aspect of operating a site like this is not the major expense, the major-label content is the bulk of the budget, and not in paying the majors royalties for streams that take place after the site launches, it's the cost of getting them to participate in the first place.

Last year, I got very discouraged after researching some numbers for my GJD columns, as I saw that illegal to legal downloads were easily 40 to 1, and that's probably conservative, so for every $1000 check I get from my distributor for legal digital downloads via I-tunes, E-Music,etc., I'm not getting a check for $39,000 for the illegal ones! Yes, that's painful, and very tough to explain to the artists who are busy being artists and depend on me to keep track of all this depressing stuff for them. Only the most savvy of artists keep up with what's happening to the biz, and I love them for it. They tend not to kill the messenger. Like anything in life, the more you educate yourself on the subject, the less you can be caught off guard or get blind-sided by slick talkers and well-funded con artists, since you'll be able to see right through their contracts. (See my previous article)

I had to come up with a plan for the future of my label, so I began exploring A.S. as possibly the only alternative to just throwing in the towel. I put together a plan that would allow me to do it tastefully and on my terms, and avoid our titles being used to sell tampons or malt liquor.

First, I was going to end all other distribution of our titles outside I-Tunes, which pays well, and I was going to set up our site to allow the visitor to download every title in our catalog, with cover art, posters, the whole bit, for free, but full-albums only, no single tracks. In exchange for this privilege, the downloader would see ads and vids for products that we approve of, mostly music-related, since our catalog appeals largely to musicians. But something didn't feel right about this, and I consulted with some of my super-smart friends about what I was working on, and got some very enlightening opinions, but the one that stuck out was from the manager of one of our bands who's on the rise in the industry.

He had me step back and realize one major point that was crushing for me; once I place the value of our catalog at zero in the eyes of the fans and consumers, there's no going back from that, I can't decide later it has value again, regardless of the direction the industry takes in the future. I realized I was guilty of precisely the thinking that has devalued music in the public's eye; and that's allowed the public to get the impression that music is theirs for the taking. I was willing to use our music to sell products, as long as I could choose the products.

I recently saw a TV commercial for a medical product of some sort, maybe an allergy pill, and it was put forth as a music video for some band, with the title of the song and the band name in the lower corner like a video. The song sounded like a commercial, and I thought to myself that almost everything new I hear today sounds like a commercial.

Is it true that everyone who sets out to write a commercial pop song today is actually in their head writing a commercial jingle? Does a guy in LA working on his big-label debut write a new song and proudly scream "this would be PERFECT for a Doritos commercial!"? Or does he write the song with a product in mind, hoping to secure the endorsement later, or worse, is it all pre-planned with product endorsements before the songs are even written, in a big marketing plan with the label? Ugh.

Or are we just subconsciously beginning to associate music with products and marketing? Maybe not specific products, in that you'd be driving down the road and a new song brings a Twix to mind if that song hadn't been used in a Twix commercial, but especially for those under 16, is the public beginning to see music as part of a larger ad campaign? And if this is happening on a subconscious level, isn't it later confirmed when a song you heard on the radio is then a few months or even just weeks later used in a commercial? Or in the case of John Mellencamp and the Chevrolet debacle, the commercial was in full-saturation weeks before the album was even released?

In the general public's mind, it seems the cycle is then complete from overhyped album release, complete saturation radio airplay, and then product endorsement. And I think the numbers show that it doesn't sell records. I keep asking people the question, have you ever heard a new song on a commercial and felt the need to find out the artist so you can rush over to the record store and get the album? (Is there still a record store for you to rush out to?) I don't know a single person who's said they have, though I know people who've heard an old song they liked in their youth on a new commercial and bought the album again because of that.

So I wonder if the general public realizes that when they see on a site that it's "sponsored" by some product, that it means "the music you are about to receive free-of-charge is being paid for by...", or, as when viewing a news site, the public just sees ads everywhere and ignores them? Have you ever clicked on an ad? I think most people find the ads for mortgages, dating sites, and credit scores insulting.

I can honestly say the only ads I've clicked thru are ads for new musical instruments and related products. GuitarJamDaily exists upon this concept, and has proven that with genre-related sponsors, people see the relationship between website and sponsor as a tasteful and fruitful one. In the world of musicians, the release of cool new products is often the biggest news of the week! So it stands to reason that these manufacturers would want to reach the reader with ads, and the site thrives on that relationship. As with any news source, the public has to decide for themselves about journalistic integrity and the separation required between the advertising and editorial departments, and trust the sources you get comfortable with over time.

But music is different. It's art, and should only be sold on the artist's terms, or not at all. And not at all means not available to you for free. The cream always rises to the top, and it's not free. If that means we can only sell albums to the top 5% of music fans who are willing to pay for better than they can get for free, then that's who we're making albums for.

In the near future, Ad-Supported may be the way most music is sold, to sponsors, as parts of much larger marketing plans for products, and free to the public. But I still believe that with all the crap out there that gets released week after week and is available for free, our stuff is in the top 5% that's worth buying, and I plan to keep it that way. Thanks for reading!

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