Thoughts on ECM joining the streaming world

Today’s big (ish) music economy news is that ECM are sticking all of their stuff on the various streaming services v. soon.

I’ve never really understood ECM’s economic thinking – I get that they have a historic and aesthetic attachment to CDs and vinyl, but their delving into digital has been seemingly pretty haphazard. For quite a while they had massive parts of their catalogue (perhaps all of it, I never checked) on eMusic – them removing their stuff from eMusic was one of the deciding factors in me cancelling my eMusic account yesterday, after 10 years.

They’ve recently stuck a few things on Bandcamp, but have priced them so high that they’re positioning themselves well outside the mainstream of Bandcamp’s internal economy (as an aside, in the last couple of years, the cost in real terms to a customer in the UK of a download that costs $10 on Bandcamp has jumped from around £7 to around £9, thanks to Brexit trashing our currency, and VATMOSS adding $2 to the price before we even get to that…)

Anyway, so ECM have pulled their stuff from eMusic (where I would pay between about a pound and maybe £3 or 4 per album, depending on the number of tracks) and put it on Spotify, and have put massively overpriced versions on Bandcamp.

Which at face value begs the broader question, why are SO many music people still so utterly binary in their thinking about music distribution? It’s either collect the scraps from streaming and hope that you can magically generate a big enough market to make it meaningful, or charge £10+ per album for CDs AND THE SAME FOR DOWNLOADS ?!?!

Look, thanks to Bandcamp’s pretty open architecture (not to be confused with open source – if that’s what you want, have a look at CASH Music‘s cool suite of tools) you have the chance to do interesting, experimental things with pricing and bundling stuff together, and thanks to social media – albeit in its withering, declining, fucked-up state – you have platforms where you can talk to your audience and explain the nature of the support you need. It may be that you discover that no-one gives a shit about any of that and just wants to stream your stuff occasionally via Spotify. In which case you deal with that, but to jump to streaming and the micropayments it generates from £10-per-album download pricing is insane, and ignores the totally different economies of scale at work.

So my advice is, experiment with price drops on Bandcamp, have a think about how subscriptions could work for your label (an ECM monthly listening club, with exclusive interviews and commentary and a couple of back catalogue albums a month would be an amazing use of Bandcamp’s feature-set – there are so many fun things that labels can do on there that seem relatively unexplored thus far), look at collaborating with other artists to offer better deals. If you have a subscription service (and you’re not overrun with stuff you want to release like I am), think about offering a compilation of amazing stuff by friends of yours with a PDF of info about the artists – your listeners get more interesting stuff, and your friends get some promo. Try setting your entire catalogue to ‘pay what you want’ for a day and spend that day talking about the value of music as an experience with your listeners.

There’s still nothing of mine on Spotify/Apple Music/Tidal (is that even still a thing?) etc. It wouldn’t make any sense for me to put it there. But you also don’t need to give me £10 per album to access the music. You can stream it for free on Bandcamp if you’re still at the discovery stage. You can pay me a yearly low price if you want everything but don’t want to have to go foraging for it, you can buy a USB stick if you want to gift it or carry it around with you… And it’s all yours for as long as the data still exists – you can download it, back it up, format-shift it, burn it to CD, press your own vinyl, do whatever the hell you like with it, and there’s no point at which the service folding or you stopping paying will take away what you already have…

This all needs a whole lot more deep thinking, and at the moment, everyone seems obsessed with hipster DRM strategies with block chain tech, and seems to be ignoring the conversation with the people who care about what they make.

Be warned, this kind of rethink requires you to drop your rock star pretensions. You don’t get to be an aloof wannabe superstar and then tell your audience that them buying CDs will help put food on the table. Part of that mythology will die. And that’s OK, it was always a screamingly tragic adolescent fantasy anyway.

Go be human and make beautiful music, and do your best to make a case for people helping support you in making it. It might fail. It could all fall apart – everything else is collapsing around our ears, there’s no reason why music should receive some special dispensation to still be a premium commodity in a world of epic devaluing of everything, but there are case studies and there are unexplored tools, and you don’t get to complain about the predicted failure of things you’ve never even tried…

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