some ideas occurred to me after my recent post about the music industry, and then erin said something that i thought was not only genius, but perfectly summed up the kind of thinking that needs to happen to save the music business: if you want to figure out what people will pay for online, look at the porn industry.
now, i’m not condoning looking at porn; in general, i consider porn addiction to be similar to smoking — a seemingly innocuous habit that is just as difficult to quit, and causes numerous side-effects, mostly invisible or under-the-surface (only instead of being something somewhat quantifiable and medically recognized like second-hand smoke, the side effects are sexism, objectification, and a generally unbalanced gender appreciation — all social issues, and therefore less tangible). in this case, however, it’s a perfect analogy. there’s plenty of porn you can get for free. you only need to google, turn your safe search filter off, and bam! porn. i’ll probably get some porn spam just by saying the word porn in this post. and yet, the online adult entertainment industry (by which i mean: porn) is one of the largest, most lucrative, and fastest growing online business industries. it makes tons of money every day. so much so, that no one can really, accurately tabulate exactly how much. these guys aren’t worried about their stuff being stolen, and they aren’t telling porn addicts to please pay first before downloading their stuff. they know that they’ve got the goods, and the people will come back for them.
let’s take a look at what’s happened to porn in the last 10 years or so. for this, i’m gonna briefly pull out my old person voice: you kids may not remember this, but once upon a time, porn came in magazines, printed on paper, and the only way to get it was to a) creep into a bookstore and ask for the stuff behind the counter looking guilty, b) go to a sleazy corner magazine and/or liquor store and hand the trashy magazine to the clerk, looking guilty, c) slink into your parents’ closet and steal your dad’s collection, or d) go to the same sleazy corner liquor store and shove the dirty magazine under your shirt and take off — chances are, you’d only get away with that one once or twice before you’d have to switch liquor stores. there was sort of a fifth option, too, which was find one of the newsstands that sold the cheap, $1 newsprint rags that was 80% personal ads (you know, like the craigslist adult personals, before there was such a thing) and 20% black & white, amateur-ish photos often with stars over the goods. this was the easiest in terms of the guilt factor, but the least rewarding in terms of getting your rocks off.
when the internet exploded, the porn biz was probably one of the first industries to make the transition online. as they did, the physical magazines took a nosedive. why suffer the guilt and shame of having to ask a dweeby, greasy-haired nerdboy at Borders for the latest issue of Hustler when you could get the same stuff at home, and you don’t even have to get dressed? now, it’s second nature; does anyone buy Playboy magazines anymore? porn and the internet are as natural as peanut butter and jelly.
so let’s go back to music, how does porn apply to music?
well, one thing i was thinking about, that’s been discussed in various forms around the ‘net — and is being done in various forms already — is the idea of a paid membership site. sort of like a netflix for music. here’s one way it’s being used: Zune Pass lets you access thousands of songs, download unlimited music for $14.95/month (or something to that effect). you get to keep 10 of those a month, the rest — if your membership ever expired — die or expire or self-destruct or something like that. it’s an interesting idea. there’s the new neil young archive, which — when it is completed — will essentially allow access to an expansive online archive of everything he’s ever recorded ever (for a hugely exorbitant price).
here’s my $0.02: think of your favorite record label — what if they put everything they ever recorded online. everything. including live concert videos (either professionally produced or bootlegged and uploaded by fans), b-sides, outtakes, interviews, some new, exclusive content, etc, etc, etc. you pay a monthly fee, say $10/month, get unlimited, unrestricted access to download decent (but not perfect) quality mp3s (say 128 or 192kbps), and access to watch and listen to all the extra bonus stuff. just for kicks, let’s suggest the possibility, too, that members get other bonuses, too, like discounts on merchandise and CDs. now, let’s widen the perspective here: what if a bunch of indie labels went in on this together? you get unlimited downloads of thousands of great songs, old and new, a huge online music library at your fingertips, most of which would never hit the radio, plus access to exclusive online content and goodies and discounts on real merchandise you can wear or pop into your CD player, for one low price a month. wouldn’t you pay for that?
there would be the argument that the labels would lose money doing something like this, but i don’t think so. with the kind of downloading that’s going on already, i think it would instead legitimize the downloading that’s already being done, putting cash back into the pockets of the people who made the music happen. not only that, but kickbacks on actual merch would put a demand back on physical goods and possibly encourage some extra sales of disks and clothing. the key is that the monthly cost would need to be low enough that the extras balanced out the fact that the people you’re targeting can get half of this stuff for free.
i’m not a marketing genius. i’m not in the music business, i don’t know what it’s like to run a music label. this is just vaporware; pipe dreams of things i wish would come true. but there is something i do get — i get the tech. this idea is both very possible and already being done in other industries. it would be easier to do this with music than it would for, say, movies or television, like what netflix and hulu are doing, because the files are so much smaller and easier to stream and download.
the only way to stay ahead of the game is to think like a web 2.0 startup — use existing technologies to market and make available your product in a format that your audience is already familiar with. people aren’t going to stop downloading just because you tell them to. there needs to be an alternative that actually entices people to pay. as any parent should know, negative reinforcement doesn’t work very well. instead, reward your fans for good behavior, and they will come back to you with their wallets open.
fantasize about that.