Turn on the Tube

08.03.14

Five Lessons the Faltering Music Industry Could Learn From TV

As record labels repeat tired formulas and watch their business model collapse, they should turn on the television to see how another outmoded industry came back from the brink.

Of all the lies told to musicians, here’s the biggest lie of them all: you have to give your talent away for free.

Creative people in a wide range of fields keep hearing the ridiculous mantra that “content wants to be free.” The music industry is the worst offender. Many label execs tell artists—maybe the execs even believe it themselves—that musicians shouldn’t expect to generate income from their recordings. But no worries, mate, you will make it all up by selling T-shirts at your gigs.

The experts who offer this bad advice need to watch some more TV. While record labels have been shrinking, TV networks have reinvented themselves by selling content via a profitable subscription model. TV has reversed the trend: households once got it for free, but now they are willing to pay for it. Yes, you can still get broadcast TV channels without paying a monthly fee, but only seven percent of American households go that route.

Not only has TV switched successfully from “giving it away” to a subscription model, but the shift has also spurred a new golden age of television. The same economic pressures that are killing the music business have led to the highest quality shows in the history of the medium.

Film director Bernardo Bertolucci recently declared that TV series are now better than Hollywood movies. I am forced to agree, and much to my own surprise. After graduating from college, I lived for 15 years without even owning a television set. I never missed it, except when breaking news stories or a major sporting event made me wish I had a “boob tube.” I certainly had no interest in the formulaic, brain-dead content on most TV dramas and sitcoms.

I never expected a TV renaissance. But when I finally stumbled on The Sopranos, I was awestruck. Something had changed in the world of TV, and I needed to check it out. A host of outstanding shows followed in the Sopranos’s wake, and for the first time since I was in fourth grade, TV became a key part of my life. From The Wire to Breaking Bad to True Detective, the new golden age of television came to life under my shocked and delighted eyes.

Music is the only branch of the entertainment world to embrace progressively inferior technologies.

What happened? Well, the same thing that is happening in the music business right now, namely the need to convince people to pay for what they previously got for free. HBO and its peers have proven that consumers will embrace a subscription-based model for content, but you need to give them a reason to do so.

Let me spell out how it’s done. Here are the five lessons the music business needs to learn from TV.

1. Target adults, not kids.

This should be obvious to the music execs, but somehow they haven’t figured it out yet. Fourteen-year-olds will not support a subscription-based model for music. HBO realized that the dumbing down of network TV left a large group of consumers under-served, namely sophisticated grown-ups—and these were the same people with the most disposable income to spend on entertainment.

In contrast, the major record labels are still stuck in kiddie land. No wonder they’re convinced they have to give away their product for free: their core target market is the poorest demographic group in the country—and also the group with the time and know-how to use complicated pirating tools.

Put simply, the recording industry needs to grow up, because the high-potential consumers they need to survive have already done so.

2. Embrace complexity.

Have you noticed how complex the hot new TV shows are nowadays? A few days ago, Malcolm Gladwell pointed to TV as proof that attention spans aren’t getting shorter. “Thirty years ago,” he explains, “you could go and get a sandwich in the middle of a Kojak episode, come back and still follow it. Today, if you get a glass of water in the middle of Homeland you have to pause and go back.”

Complexity appeals to the sophisticated grown-ups mentioned above. But also, more complex content inspires repeated listenings and greater long-term loyalty.   The subscription TV networks have figured this out. Meanwhile the music industry is hoping that simple songs, without harmonic modulations and built on repeated-note melodies, will solve their problems. They won’t.

3. Improve the technology.

Fifty years ago, most households still owned clunky black-and-white TV sets. The picture quality was lousy, and the set was always breaking down. How times have changed! Television has gone high tech with big screens, crystal-clear pictures, and concert-hall audio.

Meanwhile, the music business has moved in the opposite direction. In a telling repudiation of its corporate priorities, serious music fans increasingly want to own vinyl from 50 years ago. It’s a hassle tracking down those old albums, but who can blame these audio junkies? They are tired of the flattened, compressed sound from today’s digital devices, and want something better.

Think about this: music is the only branch of the entertainment world to embrace progressively inferior technologies. Movie theaters have upgraded their experience. Video games have achieved unprecedented standards of visual quality, far beyond what the inventors of Pong and Pac-Man ever dreamed of. No one wants to watch TV shows on a 1964 console. But music devices sound worse than they did a half-century ago.

4. Resist tired formulas.

My big gripe with the old TV shows was their reliance on predictable formulas.  How many times can you watch a sitcom featuring a family sitting in the living room insulting each other? How many times can you sit through the predictable cowboy shoot-out, medical cure by the star doctor, or even arrest by the good-looking crime scene investigator?

Every one of the old shows suffered from the same obvious problem: you could predict how the story would end even before it started, so why watch at all? But the beauty of the smart new TV shows is that you still aren’t sure how it ended, even after you’ve seen it—hence the endless debates about the conclusion of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. At every step in the process, the masterminds behind the award-winning new TV show are resisting the formulas of the genre, and striving for fresh, unpredictable narratives.

The music industry should learn from this. Every album and song nowadays is marketed as part of a genre—rock, hip-hop, country, jazz, etc. But the very decision to sell songs to targeted genre fans has turned into an aesthetic straitjacket. The labels rely on formulas and rules because their genre categories are defined by them. Yet much of the best new music defies genre classification; great artists take chances and cross boundaries. Record labels struggle to promote and sell this music because they have created an entire downstream system defined by the old formulas. They need to emulate the boldness with which the leading pay TV networks have sabotaged genre recipes.

5. Invest in talent and quality.

An amazing battle between two different philosophies has taken place on our TV screens during the last 15 years. The reality TV model, embraced by broadcast networks, is built on the radical view that you don’t need trained actors or high-priced talent. You can take Snooki off the streets of New Jersey and turn her into a celebrity star.

HBO and its peers have adopted the opposite approach. They believe in traditional metrics of talent, and are willing to pay for those who measure up. HBO spent $18 million to get Martin Scorsese behind the pilot of Boardwalk Empire. In recent years, they’ve hired Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon and other leading literary authors to work on pilots and series. When Netflix decided to back House of Cards, they were willing to pay top dollar for Kevin Spacey—Snooki wasn’t good enough. These were both daring and expensive moves, and not all of them worked, but the overall impact of investing in highly-trained talent has been decisive. The new renaissance in television would never have happened without this commitment to excellence.

The music industry is still stuck in the old model. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told that traditional standards of musicianship don’t matter any more. Singers don’t really need to know how to sing, because Auto-Tune will fix it all. You don’t need a real drummer, because a cheap machine can do the same thing. We can argue about each of these statements, but you can’t debate what’s actually happening at the major labels. Do you see them hiring the best graduates from Juilliard or Berklee? They would laugh at you if you even suggested it. They know that the Snooki path to celebrity is the model to follow, because the public doesn’t really care about musicianship and those tired traditional metrics of talent.

Maybe they are right. But, then again, maybe the music execs ought to turn on their TV set, and pay close attention. Some folks are backing old-school talent. And guess what? They don’t have to give their content away for free.