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Music In LA – Episode 2

I’m considering delaying this post a week since I’ll be attending a highly anticipated concert on July 31 featuring the captivating jazz soul quartet from Melbourne, Hiatus Kaiyote, but what the heck, I’ve got time now and this is overdue.

Since March I’ve attended several stellar concerts, including one this Wednesday at The Grove LA of rising electro-pop band Capital Cities. If you haven’t heard of this band yet, you will now. They’ve been together over two years, but their star has really begun to rise in the last nine months, following their agreement with Capitol Records (formerly EMI now UMG). With major label backing comes radio play, and that’s exactly what has propelled Capital Cities to #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Their hit single “Safe and Sound” has taken pop radio by storm; I hear it almost every day on my commute.

 

It’s an incredibly catchy track, with high energy, substantial lyrics, and an excellent chorus line. Apparently I am not their only fan. I showed up to The Grove on Wednesday just in time to catch the start of their set, and I was amazed at the vast audience they drew. Elbow to elbow, people huddled together around the stage (see below).                                                                   Image

I also appreciated that they performed with a real live band, including a veritable trumpet player who had his share of spotlight moments throughout the set. These guys are on the rise, watch out!

Back in May I returned to The Roxy to check out one of my favorite R&B artists, Bilal. His fourth official studio album came out in February and immediately entered my regular Rdio listening rotation. Bilal’s vocal artistry and his willingness to take chances with less traveled melodic combinations on the album make it one of the best R&B releases of the year.

But the highlight of his performance was the older tracks he shared, from his debut album, an album I listened to and loved as a teenager. An album featuring production by music empresario Dr. Dre, and notable beatmakers J Dilla, James Poyser, and kindred artist Raphael Saadiq. Check out Saadiq’s production below on the classic groove “Soul Sista.” Questlove on drums.

Among these two highlights I also attended my fair share of EDM (electronic dance music) events, which culminated in experiencing the sublime Kaskade at the Marquee in Las Vegas. Yes, Vegas. Saturday, May 18th (and technically Sunday May 19th as well) will forever be remembered as the day I fully embraced EDM. I’ll always be an R&B lover above all, but I’ve welcomed EDM into my musical fold.

I first heard this above track in April 2012 while interning for FanBridge. One of the graphic designers there shared it with me as he talked about seeing Kaskade perform it at Coachella. I liked it at the time, but I didn’t really listen to it again, or EDM for that matter, until coming to LA. A coworker, yet again, (re) introduced me to EDM when I moved to LA and it’s been on my radar since. But back to May 18th, Kaskade @ Marquee. It was an ethereal evening for me. I’ve never had so much fun at a “concert.” Hearing Kaskade DJ is an adrenaline rush of the highest order, and hearing him at one of the most prestigious nightclubs in the world only added to the drama.

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You get the idea!

– SC

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Music In LA – Episode 1

It’s been so long since I have blogged that WordPress has undergone a UI overhaul! I approve the changes, clean, streamlined, and simple. The general tech design move towards simplicity is a welcome trend, but I’m off topic. 

I recently relocated to LA from the San Francisco area, and naturally one of my first objectives is to experience the vast local music scene that the City of Angels has to offer. Apart from mozying through a small vinyl shop in West LA to hear my friend’s band Manzanita (who are fantastic by the way), I’ve attended two shows so far at well-known music venues, The Roxy and Hotel Cafe. Although the two performances, by Outasight and Bernhoft, impressed in numerous ways, ultimately most noteworthy was that for both occasions my pre-conceived notions met with a different reality.

Last spring during my indoctrination to the musical mayhem known as SXSW, I discovered an up-and-coming WMG artist by the name of Outasight. Perhaps I identified with, even envied, Richard Andrew from Yonkers, NY, part rapper, part singer, full entertainer, showcasing catchy pop melodies above hip hop dance beats. I kept tabs on him ever since, and when I noticed he was gracing the Roxy stage, I pulled the trigger. Friday night, headlining at the Roxy, one of the premier music venues in the city, I was convinced he would bring down the house. That expectation did not materialize, and not for lack of effort or performance value. 

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I observed several factors contributing to what I would almost call an anti-climatic concert environment, including audience demographic. Outasight’s music certainly appeals to a young crowd, centered in the 18-25 demographic. I was expecting these folks to show up in droves for a Warner Bros. artist, with marketing clout, radio play, and promotional power behind him, yet they did not. This led me to wonder if the Roxy crowd (at least on this evening) was composed of more compulsory teetotalers than not. Not that you need to imbibe to enjoy a concert, but given the circumstances I was expecting slightly more debauchery.

As I rocked out to his set, and I give myself credit for trying to stay oblivious to the listlessness around me, I noticed that the crowd had slightly dissipated from what it was a half hour earlier during the performance by The Ready Set, another Warner artist on the Sire imprint. Thus, my second conclusion was that concertgoers on this eve were more keen on the opening act(s) than the headliner. On the other hand, perhaps Warner/Roxy made a mistake in setting that set order as opposed to appointing Ready Set as the headliner. After all, they are the ones with a platinum single – “Love Like Woe.” My expectations for a raucous sold out show of screaming fans for a party artist on a Friday night at a big Hollywood venue fell flat.

Last night, attending the Bernhoft show at Hotel Cafe, I encountered that energetic environment when I least expected it. Hotel Cafe is a much smaller venue in scale and prestige, and Bernhoft is an obscure Norwegian singer. Or so I thought. Only one night with Bernhoft was originally scheduled, but the Wednesday appearance sold out so quickly that HC organized a 2nd show for him – the Tuesday show I attended, which was also sold out. As I was entering I overheard the doorman letting a prospective customer know that this was “not a night to just show up.” Not for Bernhoft. Yes, Bernhoft, not Bowie. If you need further proof of the power of YouTube, look no further. A Norwegian with one highly-viewed YouTube video sold out back to back shows in the United States’ second largest music market. See the video below:

I do not mean to discredit Bernhoft at all. That video alone compelled me to buy a ticket. Bernhoft is also a major label talent, and was for a time signed to Universal Music Norway, so he is proven by traditional industry standards. And yet even now I am still wonderstruck at his popularity. I expected a modest turnout with a more subdued audience, which again was off base. This crowd, noticeably older and rowdier than the other, sang along to half of Bernhoft’s set, and even knew the lyrics to his songs! On a Tuesday night no less. I guess I’ll have to head to the next show with no expectations. That could be difficult.

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Spotify vs. Rdio

Since the spring I have been using Rdio to stream music on demand. As their free version allots you a given amount of listening time before waiting for it to replenish (not sure exactly the quota), I preferred it to the free version of Spotify that plays advertisements after each song. I probably used the free Rdio for about 6 months, until sometime recently when my listening allotment was no longer able to be replenished. I surmise that with this strategy they are attempting to convert longtime free users into paying subscribers. My reservations towards getting the subscription are primarily financial. I say that not as someone who has reservations about paying for music, but as someone evaluating a monthly subscription service. Paying to own is straightforward, paying to access is less so. Would I use the service often enough to warrant the $9.99 monthly charge?

I wanted to test this out before committing money to a service. Interestingly enough, Spotify offers a month trial period (though they cleverly require your CC to begin the trial) whereas Rdio only offers a 7 day trial. In addition to Spotify’s better offer to me, I was pondering if joining either service would be more beneficial to music creators. I theorized that since Spotify has a substantially larger user base and is paying out more total $ to music creators, my joining Spotify would theoretically benefit those creators down the road by growing that service. So, two weeks ago I started Spotify premium for a free month, granting me unlimited on demand streaming access on any web/mobile device.

Since then, I have enjoyed using Spotify but I have started to reconsider my assumptions about the advantages of choosing it over Rdio. Thinking solely as a rational consumer, I should want to subscribe to the BEST service possible (in my best interests), not the service that is in the best interest of others. The theory being that over time, users will flock to the best service above all else. [So I started the Rdio 7 day premium trial, to compare the services]. Which brings me to the real discussion: which service is better from a user experience standpoint, Spotify or Rdio? The criteria is: a) catalog – is the music I want available? b) functionality – does the service/apps work well/fast/do what they’re supposed to do c) user experience – is it enjoyable to use/are the features laid out well?

As far as catalog, it’s basically a wash. I can’t say that I’ve spent hours and hours scouring both services’ catalogs in search of what is or is not available, but for the most part the same albums that are on Spotify are on Rdio, likewise the same albums are mostly unavailable on both. I might give a slight edge to Rdio since they and not Spotify have one of my favorite albums, Glenn Lewis’s “World Outside My Window.” In all seriousness, I imagine that because it’s perception is less polarizing than Spotify’s, there are probably a few more older albums available on Rdio. But new releases I can’t imagine an advantage for either.

Functionality is a tough category to judge, and granted my entire assessment can only be so objective. Again, I think it’s virtually a tie. In terms of desktop computer use, Rdio offers a desktop client and in-browser web-based streaming, whereas Spotify forces you to use their desktop client. As far as basic usage, they both work very well. Spotify has its famous Facebook friend column on the right side of the application, enabling users to see what their Facebook friends are currently listening to on Spotify. Rdio has not incorporated as much sociability into its app, although it does send notifications to Facebook of each track/album you play. Both of their respective mobile apps are very serviceable. From limited observation I would say Spotify mobile streaming is a bit faster/more reliable. Songs perhaps load a bit quicker and play with fewer interruptions in Spotify. Overall, I’m impressed with both mobile apps.

Searching for songs – this overlaps between the categories of functionality and user experience but is a crucial aspect of using on demand streaming services. I give the edge to Rdio here. If you search on Spotify by artist, you get the “top songs” by that artist, plus their discography in chronological order from most recent to oldest. On Rdio, you get the artists’ top albums first, then their top songs. In my opinion, this is a huge distinction and advantage for Rdio. Finding a song is equally easy on both services, but finding an album is much easier on Rdio. On Spotify I have to scroll down through numerous albums, often cheesy compilation albums (if it’s an old artist like Marvin Gaye for example), but Rdio points me directly to the Marvin Gaye albums I want. Big win here for Rdio.

To user experience, in terms of design and aesthetics, I give Rdio an edge, but there is a caveat. Rdio’s color scheme is not original. It’s white and blue, just like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and who knows how many other interactive brands these days. As for Spotify, it’s black. The functional design works, but aesthetically it’s uninteresting. One aspect of Spotify I prefer is in regards to mobile playback (iOS). When you are playing a song, Spotify offers a scrub fast forward bar on the bottom of the screen, while Rdio uses a scrub bar in the same location for volume control. To fast forward a track in Rdio’s mobile app, you have to tap the screen and scrub forward on a much smaller drop down bar. The distinction is subtle, but for me Spotify’s way is much preferable. No other features have really stood out, but I may revisit this in the near future.

I don’t know if I can crown a clear winner just yet. A combination of each platform’s best features would be ideal. Here’s to hoping something like that comes along in the near future.

Do Streaming Services Make Sense For Labels/Artists?

Metal record label Century Media was recently in the news for deciding to bring (at least some of) their catalog back on Spotify. Without going into the pros and cons of using streaming services from a consumer perspective, I want to address from a record label’s perspective a few basic issues I see with distributing music on streaming services.

Century Media is not the only label to vacillate back and forth on the streaming services question, and for good reason. It’s clear without a doubt that direct profits from streaming plays are negligible (there are many variables that impact the actual payout figures, but as a rough estimate it takes over 150 streaming plays to earn $1). Labels do earn money from streaming services, but the profit amounts are meager in comparison with regular retail profits. Still, publishing your music on streaming services has benefits, but not universally. I believe labels have to consider their artists individually and whether it’s appropriate for that particular artist to have their content on streaming services.

(Huge caveat for my argument: I don’t have a confident answer as to whether or not streaming use erodes potential retail sales. Are streaming and retail complimentary? I’m assuming they are not completely complimentary, and that more people would purchase a given song if they were not able to stream it for free. Of course, that’s what everyone thought before Napster came along 10 years ago. And now we have Pirate Bay / Bit Torrent, which is Napster on steroids. But hear me out…)

I think artists can more or less be grouped into 3 categories, although the distinctions between these categories is very subjective as well.  The categories are: emerging, established, and stars. Unequivocally, emerging artists should have their music on streaming services. It helps gain exposure and build a fan base. On the other hand, stars should not have their music on streaming services. From a business perspective, there is no reason why Taylor Swift, Beyonce,  Justin Bieber or any artist selling a million records should be on Spotify.

At some point in the future, selling recorded music may not be feasible, and then the conversation changes. But today music still sells. Artists like Taylor Swift have fans that are willing to pay for her music, so why give it away to them for fractions of pennies? I heard an anecdote today about digital sales along those lines. A track on iTunes typically costs .99 ($1.29 for higher quality / premium artists). Taylor Swift’s manager allegedly wants to sell her tracks for twice that much, and they’d probably sell almost as many units at that price.

However, stars like Taylor Swift represent 1% or less of all artists. But it does raise the question of whether variable / demand pricing should be applied to music sales. Taylor Swift tracks could sell for $2, while an artist like Michael Kiwanuka could sell tracks for $.25. I would buy his debut album for $2.50, but not at its current price of $7.99. Why should all tracks and albums be worth the same? Why should we restrict music sales to traditional retail pricing tiers? What if the lead single was $.99 but all other tracks $.69? (I didn’t see my argument going in this direction, but at the moment this seems like a compelling idea, aside from the accounting nightmare it would inflict, and no doubt other serious ramifications).

To rehash the main point, making your music available on streaming services is a yes for emerging artists but a no for stars. Most artists would likely fall under the “emerging category,” but I would say about 10-20% fall under the “established” category. For these artists, it’s less clear whether or not having their music on streaming services makes sense. Established artists gain the same marketing and exposure benefits as emerging artists, and the detriments (decreased potential retail sales opportunities) are less since potential retail sales for their music are less. I think an important variable is whether the artist is on tour or planning to tour. If they are on tour, it makes sense to utilize streaming services to help build fanfare in other states and countries. If the artist is not on tour, it’s perhaps best to concentrate on retail sales. Of course, getting into the practice of toggling an artist’s catalog on and off streaming services based on these types of variables could alienate fans. There are so many unknowns in this entire equation.

What is clear, ultimately, is that music is more popular than ever. Digital music sales are still increasing, while physical sales continue to decrease. Touring is accounting for a larger portion of revenue than ever before. The sales are in there somewhere. I look forward to returning to this topic in 6-12 months, I’m sure the landscape will have changed again.