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Saturday, November 21, 2009

A New Musical World

Editorial by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

Anyone in the music industry - anywhere across the world - will tell you that our relationship with music has changed forever.

We have entered the golden age of infinite music. It is no longer a matter of taking your money to the store to buy the latest album. Now, it's almost all free, instant and infinite.

iTarkan by empegzSome of us have already consigned our CD collection to cardboard boxes to collect dust with our LPs (for any of us old enough to remember what they are) in the attic. Some music fans will have never bought a CD in their lives.

Now, here in Europe and the UK, with Spotify - the free music service that's attracting thousands of new users every day - declaring war on the daddy of online music iTunes, the on-demand streaming service where we can instantly buy MP3s and listen to them on mobile gadgets is here to stay.

But whether in this dizzying future of technology we see spots before our i's, or vice versa, most honest musicians - those that give us the stuff we crave - are still very much wary of our new listening habits.

The Gimmick vs Social Media

Lady Gaga, to sell her latest album incarnation, is going for the gimmick. Reports say that while giving away a lock of her hair with every sale of a super deluxe box set of her latest music and artwork, also included in the package is a pair of 3D glasses to view "forthcoming Gaga visuals" and the definitive "book of Gaga".

So, it's not about her new eight track studio recording, then. But why should it be? We'll be able to get that at super fast speed, and possibly for free, if we don't mind indulging in some illegal downloading. Or we can just legally pick the tracks we like on Spotify, and skip the album as a whole.

Meanwhile, musical birds of a different feather believe that twittering with fans to flock together should be the way to go to boost exposure and album sales.

English veteran singer/songwriter Matt Goss - which some of us believed had been consigned to the attic during the time of the LPs - has popped up in Las Vegas, and is using social media to get his message out to his fans all over the world.

The Age of the Micro-celebrity

Following a similar point, the founding editor of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly suggests the future for musicians is to cultivate a small following of really dedicated fans. He's putting the magic number of fans to earn a living at 1000.

Of course that is based on the assumption that the so-called "true fans" will be buy everything - merchandise and all - the artist sells. One such micro-celebrity is musician Matthew Ebel, who makes makes 26.3% of his net income from just 40 hardcore fans.

Some dissenting voices have sounded out concerns that overlooking the importance of a mass of listeners who don't idol worship will bring on an age of infinite bad music. Although, I believe, with so much choice - quickly and readily available out there - it will rather force the musician to churn out good music, instead.

Audiences are now easily distracted. Getting attention is easy, keeping it focused is hard. With the social media creating musical celebrities like Susan Boyle, it's self-evident that there are all kinds of new openings for music. "Overnight success" has been a show business cliché for years, but it's only recently that it's been literally possible.

But even if they break through, much less concerted attention will be paid to it, and sales that amass over tens of millions - or even hundreds of millions - are the sort of figures that the music industry is unlikely ever to see again.

New Rules of Play

The endlessly playing of the same album so as to extract your "money's worth" is behaviour that will soon seem like something from the dark ages. And for musicians, stuffing an album with mere filler is no longer a sensible option, either - Boyle take note.

Her Youtube clip from Britain's Got Talent, however manipulative, brought out the best in people. What happened next brought out the worst. Her début album out this month will sell well, but it's a covers and standards album named after that moment she can't leave behind.

Or I pity the act that decides to make the kind of record that tends to be charitably described as a "grower" - something that may account for, say, the scant interest paid to the last U2 album No Line On The Horizon (2009).

The signals were there a decade ago. With British acts like the Arctic Monkeys making it via the internet rather than through traditional music industry channels, while American rock band The Strokes highly acclaimed album Is This It (2001) - cited as the album of the decade by NME - only managing 3.5 million in hard copy sales worldwide shows in hindsight this was a long time in coming.

So, yes, the record industry may yet have to comprehensively reinvent itself, or implode. Even if the music business manages to somehow crack down on illicit downloading and claws back a few quid via annual subscriptions in return for that self-same endless supply of music, the same essential rules will apply.

And for a good example of what can happen when an industry makes peace with digital technology, we need look no further than in a place we might least expect - the pages of Turkish newspaper Zaman, which has reported a boost to the Turkish music industry in 2009.

It was only a few years ago when many recording artists in Turkey had vowed that they wouldn't release any albums of new material until the struggle against copyright piracy was won.

Dissolving the Bitter Pill of Piracy

Although making no such vow himself, music piracy has always been a bitter pill for Turkish music's trendsetter Tarkan to swallow.

In an attempt to thwart copyright pirates after some of Tarkan's demo English tracks had been leaked onto the internet in 2005, Tarkan had struck a deal with Turkish GSM operator Avea weeks before his début English language single was slated to come out so that subscribers could legally listen to the finished product.

Three years on, Tarkan would use the release of his 2007 record Metamorfoz to raise awareness against piracy in the music industry and to push for legal internet downloads, by endorsing a campaign fronted by telecommunications giant TTNet in 2008.

Digital tallies began to be treated as seriously as hard sales, making domestic artists and music producers realise that sitting around and waiting for the fight against pirated copies to be won would be to no one's advantage.

Hande Yener signed up with Turkish GSM giant Avea for her 2009 albumFemale singer Hande Yener followed the same concept when her production company signed a deal with Avea days before her 2009 album was slated to come out, with the digital sales of the songs on her album starting in advance of the album actually hitting store shelves.

Notwithstanding that interest for her output waned too soon as the album took time to grow on people, Zaman reports that Yener's digital sales were not bad at all, with 40,000 on the first day.

Despite fluctuations in the music sector caused by the global economic crisis, Turkish music had fully entered its digital age on its home turf.

A Brave New Musical World

What's more, this new Turkish world of listening to music is a place where the new rules of play can be seen at work.

New listening habits have forced artists to release better quality albums in the Turkish music market. The old style of "let me get an album out as quickly as I can" and pushing a record full of just one or two hits seems to be a thing of the past.

Sloppily prepared in a matter of months, it had been a different era when Tarkan had churned out his forgettable first record in 1992. However, the artist broke with that norm for the sake of the music, not technology, when he released the album that would revolutionise the Turkish pop music industry just two years later (A-acayipsin, 1994).

He became an expert on reinvention, but currently, the elusive Turkish pop star Tarkan has done very little to reinvent his game within the new rules of play - apart from finding ways from curbing piracy during the latest release.

With his most recent albums the epitome of the "growers", Tarkan says he makes songs that brew, but news that he might be inviting fans to high tea with US shlock celebrity Pamela Anderson shows that the artist is more prepared to go the gimmick route than pursue avenues opened by social media networks and connect directly with his fans.

Staying Connected

Productions manager for the Turkish branch of Sony Music, Yasemin Kağa, highlights the importance of social networking in the Zaman report - or more specifically fan clubs.

She is quoted in the Zaman report as accepting, "It is no longer possible, though, for our company to make profit simply from album sales. This is why we need to take our share of profit from digital sales and concerts.

"Those who want to create new artists need to know that it is no longer possible to do this by solely selling albums. Artists who are not supported by a company simply fade away - which is why there is a lot of work in all this for fan clubs."

Tarkan has been ignoring this new reality for quite some time. For instance, it makes no sense for Tarkan to finally do what I've been advocating and get himself a Twitter account, if it's going to be as spectacularly ignored as Tarkan.com - and a birthday message thrown at an official site lying dormant for over half a year doesn't count.

UPDATE: Tarkan changes Twitter account (2010) >>

It's the only social connection Tarkan's fan clubs and the artist have at the moment, which is ironic for a star who is known to value the line he has to the hearts and minds of the Tarkan faithful. Now, neither side knows what the other is doing or what it wants.

Some would say it's good that the artist has found interests outside of music. He's been a busy campaigner for nature in between the usual photo shoots and trips to America.

Would I that some of our celebrities here in the UK would take the government to task over their energy proposal plans for 10 sites in England and Wales for new nuclear power stations - which ultimately some believe have far more long term risks than building a dam to sustain a country's energy needs.

However, rather than campaign for dusty archaeological sites and for domestic fruit packers, at the moment he'd do better to campaign for himself and bind back the ties that had once so strongly held him in his home nation's conscience.

Because it's a brave, new world out there for the music industry.

But you have to be in it, to win it.

The views in this article are those of the author alone.
Read more Mark Mayhey articles on Tarkan >>

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