December 11, 2016

My Headphones, My Self


You see them on every block: people being propelled through their routines listening to their own individualized soundtracks, with the outside world serving as a stage set.

Headphones are now fashion statements. Status symbols. Fetish objects on par with luxury watches and limited-edition Nikes.

William Crosson, a 28-year-old executive recruiter and part-time D.J., wears V-Moda Crossfade Wireless headphones, a $270 set that looks like something a cyberhooligan might wear to a Berlin disco.

Alexander Gilkes, a member of Vanity Fair’s best-dressed list and co-founder of the auction site Paddle8, wears $400 headphones made by Master & Dynamic.

Martin Gaynor, a 27-year-old freelance app developer for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, wears Symphonized 2s, a pair of wood-covered, over-the-ear headphones that he bought on Amazon for $53. “The wooden earthy look just seemed to complement the subdued classical look I have on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “It just matched.”

Don’t forget the cultural bellwether Beyoncé. In her “Lemonade” video this year, she belts out “Sandcastles,” a ballad of a woman scorned, while wearing $550 Prymas.

Global headphone sales hit a peak of $8.4 billion in 2013, and two years later, that figure rose to $11.2 billion, according to the research firm Futuresource Consulting. The company predicts that sales will rise another $2 billion by 2018, meaning we have yet to reach Peak Headphone.

The combination of the iPhone and headphones in many varieties (in-ear, over-the-ear, shaped-to-your-ear and so on) gives city dwellers the ability to largely avoid an experience that was once arguably the whole point of living in the crowd — interacting with others.

In a fraught public sphere, headphones provide a measure of privacy. Those who fall deeply into a Spotify playlist or the latest installment of an addictive podcast enter a cocoon-like zone all but impenetrable to tourists, beggars and those do-gooders with clipboards.

“Headphones are the front line of urban social defense,” said Julie Klausner, a comedian, actor and writer. “I’m introverted and socially anxious by nature. My worst nightmare is sitting next to someone on a plane or someone who wants to strike up a conversation on an elevator.”

But Ms. Klausner knows she opens herself to experiences she may otherwise miss when she leaves the headphones at home.

“The other morning, I forgot my headphones and was on the 2 train going to physical therapy when I spilled water over my own seat,” she said. “Then this smiling older woman came over to talk. If my headphones had been on, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Alone Together

On a recent Thursday in Midtown Manhattan, Grimaldi Perdomo, 37, an architect, was on his way to work, wearing a Burberry trench coat and listening to the Weeknd’s new album, “Starboy,” on his Parrot Ziks, popular $400 black and titanium headphones designed by Philippe Starck.

A look through Mr. Perdomo’s black Banana Republic bag revealed that he, like other urban warriors, has headphones for all occasions.

Tucked into a small cardboard box was a pair of white Jaybird wireless in-ear headphones for the gym. Should the Jaybirds fail, Mr. Perdomo had a backup: trusty white Apple earbuds, the minimalist sound-delivery system that was all the rage not so long ago but has increasingly been replaced by more garish accessories. At home, Mr. Perdomo said, is an old pair of Beats.

“I like my music,” he said.

All the same, he believes something has gotten lost as many people navigate public spaces under the spell of the private experiences encouraged by digital media.

“Technology has ruined us,” Mr. Perdomo said. “You go to a restaurant and look around, and maybe 80 percent of the people are looking at their phones.”

Please Go Away

The experience of intense private listening in public settings is nothing new. It goes back to teenagers communing with the Shangri-Las via the earpieces connected to transistor radios in the 1950s and ’60s. It recalls the Sony Walkman craze of the ’80s.

But the latest round of headphones popularity may be an expression of our disaffected times, coming during a season when people holding different views on matters political and cultural struggle to open their mouths without triggering an argument.

Some headphones are chrome and accentuate the bass. Others are gold and boost the treble. The companies producing them can go from obscure to white-hot overnight.

Enormous growth has taken place for headphones priced from $99 to $500. But companies like HiFiMan, Audeze and JH Audio have built substantial businesses selling headphones that retail for as much as $3,000.

Alexander Wang and Proenza Schouler are collaborating with brands like Beats and Master & Dynamic on limited editions. Canali teamed with Pryma. Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Colette and Opening Ceremony all stock headphones.

There is even a Broadway show, “The Encounter,” by Simon McBurney, experienced through headphones. It opened to rave reviews in September, with its fancy listening devices given, free of charge, by the German headphones brand Sennheiser. The irony of “The Encounter” is that it relies on state-of-the-art technology to deliver a lament against it.

“For Sennheiser, it’s product placement and an indictment,” Mr. McBurney said.

Did they mind?  “I don’t think so,” he said.

The Shift

The paradox of the headphone experience — which somehow brings together, as Mr. McBurney suggested, isolation and intimacy — did not seem to be on the mind of Val Kolton, 39. A sports-car-obsessed techno fanatic, he founded a headphones company in 2004, naming it V-Moda because “‘moda’ means fashion,” he said, and all his favorite brands were Italian.

“Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace,” he said. “And I was really into motorsports. Lamborghini, Ferrari, Ducati.”

Before starting his business, Mr. Kolton was living in San Diego and working at Aviatech, a digital marketing company. Then he had an awakening on a dance floor in Ibiza, Spain.

“We were doing antismoking commercials, and I heard we were going to do another for Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” Mr. Kolton said one evening this fall, as he sat on a black leather sofa in his West Hollywood offices. “And I was having a drink and a smoke, and I thought: ‘You know what? Why am I doing all these “anti” campaigns? What’s next? An antisex campaign? Dance music is going to break through. House music is here!’”

Two years later, Mr. Kolton’s parents gave him money to produce candy-colored $99 earbuds. At the time, Apple was scheduled to release the first iPhone, with a recessed headphone jack that was incompatible with most headphones on the market.

Mr. Kolton got the bright idea of manufacturing his line to Apple’s market-busting specifications. He flew to Cupertino, Calif., and made the pitch. He figured he would be one of many entrepreneurs with Apple in mind, but that was not the case.

The market got more crowded after Beats by Dr. Dre, founded by Andre Young, known as Dr. Dre, and the music producer and executive Jimmy Iovine, introduced its first $300 headphones in 2008.

“Before Beats, $300 for a headphone was considered an outrageous amount of money to spend,” said Jamey Warren, the chief executive of “You could buy a Sennheiser HD 600 over-the-ear headphone for $300. It was considered the world’s best, and it was a stretch for most folks except audiophiles.”

Increased demand isn’t the only thing fueling the boom. Crowdfunding sites have given potential entrepreneurs new routes to capital, while manufacturing costs have fallen. The 2014 sale of Beats to Apple, for $3 billion, also ushered in a new wave of headphone hopefuls.

Steve Guttenberg, a contributing editor to the digital products review site CNET and a high-fidelity expert, explained how the business has changed.

“Thirty years ago, when someone said, ‘I want to make a headphone,’ he would probably try to make it here in the United States, or he might design it and then get on a plane and say to the people who make headphones in China: ‘Here’s the design. Can you execute it?’” he said. “Now, we’ve eliminated the first two steps. The requirement, quote unquote, is that the person who’s running the show knows what it should sound like and look like and feel like and is able to say, ‘Keep showing me your samples until I find it.’

By the time Jonathan Levine, 54, a former investment banker at Lehman Brothers, started the headphones company Master & Dynamic in 2014, it was clear that design and marketing were key.

Mr. Levine settled on the brand name Master & Dynamic because it sounded similar to established audio brands such as Bang & Olufsen, Astell & Kern, and Bowers & Wilkins. “‘Levine’ didn’t exactly scream luxury,” he said.

To get out the message for his 1950s-inspired, produced-in-China headphones, with its cognac-colored headband, he hired Carolina Clouet, a Balenciaga-clad former consultant for Barneys and Neiman Marcus, as his director of sales.

In October 2014, Bergdorf Goodman, Opening Ceremony and Colette received the first shipments of Mr. Levine’s pièce de résistance, the $399 MH40. In December of that year, Mr. Levine’s team sent them as freebies to Art Basel Miami Beach attendees at the Edition hotel and the Standard Miami.

After David Beckham began wearing them around Los Angeles, GQ proclaimed them “The Most Stylish Headphones Money Can Buy.” By the end of 2015, Master & Dynamic’s staff increased to 36 employees, from eight, who now work in a loftlike space in the garment district, where the walls are adorned with artwork by Christian Marclay and Terry Winters. There is even a Chuck Close portrait of Philip Glass, who, Mr. Levine was pleased to say, wears Master & Dynamics.

While many celebrities serve as brand endorsers, unwitting or not, others are trying to become the brand. This year,, a longtime minority partner in Beats, started Buttons, a $200 set of wireless, in-ear headphones shaped like small saucers and sold through Apple. The fashion stalwart André Leon Talley is the creative director, styling the ads and the boxes, which star Naomi Campbell and Kendall Jenner.

“Nobody has made a fashion headphone that’s in-ear,” said by phone while on a break from taping the British edition of “The Voice.” “They’re all big headphones that sit over your head. The reason we went with earbuds is because we were designing it to be like jewelry.”

The countless options can be paralyzing to customers. The writer and radio host Kurt Andersen said he had trouble picking the right headphones as he perused CNET’s exhaustive review section recently.

“I like that the over-the-ears are not as dorky as they once were,” he said. “The ones from Beats seem fine. But then do I look like someone trying to be young, with groovy, hip-hop headphones?”

The Holdouts

A challenge for the industry is getting women interested in its high-end gear. Amy Uaarmorn, a 31-year-old staff member at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, received a free pair of Master & Dynamic MH40s last year. Yet she said she seldom wears them and cannot imagine spending any more than $50 or $100 on headphones

Never mind that Ms. Uaarmorn’s former boyfriend, Brannan Mason, 24, happens to be the co-owner of Noble Audio, a three-year-old Santa Barbara company that has received glowing notices for its in-ear earphones with prices that begin at $300 and go to $2,700.

Some of the ultraexpensive headphones are made to fit your ear exactly. To get a pair, you see an audiologist, who takes impressions of yours ears using a Play-Doh-like substance and ships them off to a manufacturer like Noble Audio.

This variety, known as CIEMs (short for custom in-ear monitors), started with touring musicians, who use them to block ambient noise and monitor their own sound.

Julie Glick, an audiologist who has a practice on Park Avenue, operates almost like a pharmaceutical rep for Noble Audio and other brands that specialize in custom, in-ear headphones. Matt Stone, a creator of “South Park,” and Daniel Villano, a colorist at Frédéric Fekkai, are among her clients who pop in to test demo units. When a sale is made, she earns a commission.

The trend really took off when JH Audio, a big player in this area, began posting photos of its famous customers and their CIEMs on Facebook and Instagram

But even as the boom shows no sign of abating, there are those who, like Ms. Uaarmorn, have no interest in spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a perfect listening experience.

Julie Klausner is also sticking to the basics.

“Apple earbuds,” she said. “I don’t really need anything else.”


Tony Visconti Talks The State Of The Music Industry And Producing For David Bowie

December 9, 2016

Hugh McIntyre 11/29/2016 @

Tony Visconti is a name known to anybody who has been in the music industry long enough to appreciate not just the biggest and brightest stars that have ever lived, but those that helped get them to the top. While not known as an artist himself, Visconti has produced and written music alongside the likes of Morrissey, Anti-Flag, Adam Ant, Elaine Paige, Iggy Pop, Sparks, and most notably and memorably, David Bowie, with whom he worked for decades, up until the beginning of this year when the rock star passed away. Visconti is a true rock and roll legend, and despite the fact that he could probably jump into the studio with anybody he’d like to, he opts to continue to discover new talent and work with lesser-known figures, simply because he finds them more interesting.I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Visconti at this year’s Reeperbahn Festival, where he was a judge at the first annual Anchor Award. Thankfully, he didn’t hold back when it came to topics like the new music economy, and what made artists he’s worked with so special.Hugh McIntyre: You have been producing music for decades now. How have things changed in your line of work from when you began to when you go into a studio now?
Tony Visconti: I started out in the days of 4-tracks, multitracks. 4-tracks weren’t a lot, but if you listen to, say, Sgt. Pepper’s or Revolver, you can hear that you can do amazing things with 4-track, or two 4-track machines. It’s a very inconvenient way of working, and as soon as the higher numbers of tracks were invented, things got easier, but essentially nothing has changed except the technology.But, something strange has happened. The better the technology, the lower the quality of the musical content . That might be related to how convenient it is to work nowadays, and how many more people have their hands on recording equipment who shouldn’t even be let near a piece of recording equipment. I think there is much more mediocre music in the world today. There are very few iconic people making music.You might have digital workstations and Pro Tools and Logic and all that, but people still want microphones that are 50 years old, and they pay a lot of money for them. They want equipment that has tubes in them that are rarely made these days. They’ll pay a fortune for something that was probably built in the ‘50s. These things, they sound beautiful. It’s like an old car that’s been well-maintained. People like analog tape nowadays. The trend is going back to analog, back to vinyl. It’s nice that the younger generation values these things, because when my generation dies, we have to hand on this legacy. There was never anything wrong with the old way of recording, and people are now just learning how to do it.
I just came from Kingston University, and I think the oldest student I taught was about 23 years old. We worked on analog machines for five days and they were just in heaven. Nothing’s changed really.McIntyre: Do you find it odd that young people value and will pay for an instrument or a piece of recording equipment, but not an album? They’d rather stream.
Visconti: It’s interesting. This entitlement to having music for free is really ruining a lot of things. The ideal situation for any artist is to earn a living from their art. If an artist has to do a 10 hour job so they can support their music, there’s the law of diminishing returns. The artist should spend all day making their music, and that’s not easy. Nowadays music is more simple, and more basic. It’s maybe because people just don’t have the brainpower to stay with it all the time. Not because they’re stupid, but because they just don’t have the time. There are so many distractions. A lot of young people are struggling to make a living. There are internships all over the place that don’t pay. You might find people as old as 27, they’re still doing internships. These are terrible times. I’m not talking about my generation, I’m talking about yours. You deserve better. If you want people to be like David Bowie, his last real job was when he was 19 years old, and he spent the rest of his life as a paid artist. Of course, it paid off.

People need to make a living making music. When you go to a pub with your band, you should make money. You shouldn’t do it for the exposure. A bank teller doesn’t work for the exposure. A doctor doesn’t work for the exposure. A scientist doesn’t work for the exposure. Music isn’t taken seriously, and it should be. Every part of our lives is affected by music. If you walk down any street in any city, people have earbuds in, and they’re listening to music. If you get married, you have certain music for your wedding. You die, you have certain music for your funeral. You have sex, you have certain music for sex. It’s behind every human activity. People sing, they dance…whether they are going to do it professionally or not. It’s really a shame how it’s been devalued.
People pay big bucks for a blockbuster film like the new Star Wars. They might even see if three times and pay. Music doesn’t have that respect anymore, and that’s a very sad situation.

McIntyre: From the behind the music side of it, how has the business of creating music or producing changed?
Visconti: Again, that’s not changed too much. That structure still exists where producers still get money. I get hired all the time, still. I get paid very well because I have a legacy. I’m proven. I’ve got a track record. Young producers are making a lot of money, EDM people. A lot of pop music. I love pop music. I’m not a snob. I don’t have to listen to prog rock or something. I love good pop music when it’s done well. I think they’re doing well because if you go into a studio, it costs a lot of money to build a studio, even a digital studio. You don’t use tape and all that, but a basic digital studio that’s really good and that’s really going to do all the necessary jobs, and a bank of microphones–that’s hardware, expensive hardware—and everything else not in the box, that’s going to set you back $25,000. Then these things become obsolete, and you have to buy the latest computer, the latest plugins. They’re getting cheaper and cheaper. I remember when a plugin used to cost around $600, and now some of those very same plugins are about $50.

There’s an economy involved, and it’s important to support that system. That system is directly supported by royalties, which are dwindling because companies like Spotify, and to some extent iTunes, feel that they don’t have to pay for the stuff because, we’re getting back to that word again, “exposure.” That’s your payoff. You find more money is actually made playing live gigs. I think that’s a healthy thing, but I don’t see why your recording income should be cut. I know a lot of big labels are taking percentages of the live gigs now because they can’t make money selling records. They’re actually stealing money from their artists. They’re saying, “We’ll take 30% of your door.” Well, what are you doing for it? “Nothing, but we want it if you want to be on our label, you have to give us that.”

The business of music right now is in an upheaval. It needs a really well-timed revolution, because the music business isn’t like the U.S. government. It’s just a business, and the healthiest thing for businesses is when you have competition. We have to build an alternative music business, which a lot of people have taken on anyway. There are so many self-released artists. You can go through iTunes, but you can also still sell CDs and vinyl at your gigs. The minute you put your signature to a contract with a label, you owe them money.  You’re in debt from day one. If you don’t do that and you sell 5,000 CDs, it doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it’s all your money. It all goes back into your band and your pocket. This alternative music business has already begun, but if it gets organized, it will leave the big labels standing saying, “Oh we missed out again.” They missed out on downloading when downloads and piracy first came out, they fought it instead of finding out how they could be a part of it, as if it was going to go away. Anyone who had a computer, which those old guys didn’t have, realized that this wasn’t going to go away. This was the future.

I’m in a funny position, I’m old school and new school. I reap the benefits of both in my work, but I feel for those that are just starting out. They practice in earnest and they write good music. This is my future, too, because when I retire, which will probably never happen, I want to hear good music when I turn on the radio or when I turn on TV! I want to hear really good bands and good singers who can sing really well, and not just have their only training be in the shower. I’d like people to take singing lessons again. Everyone does, and not say they do. All of the big stars have vocal coaching and all that, and I think that’s wonderful.

McIntyre: Since you brought it up, what would you consider a good pop song or album today?
It’s a couple of years back, but Amy Winehouse was a beacon in the dark. There was a woman who could sing, who could write. She had a lot of character, a lot of personality. She was a great pop star, really a great one. Adele to some degree is as big a personality, though it’s not my taste in music. Amy Winehouse was wonderfully retro, and yet recorded in a modern context, which was a great feat to pull off. I had high hopes for her. I was very sad the day she died.

McIntyre: Do you feel that the future of music, this revolution, is all direct to fan? It’s all artists running things as entrepreneurs?
I think it’s inevitable. Artists have to run it as entrepreneurs, and the fans are very loyal. Fans buy the music. They know it’s important to have the t-shirt and the CD and all that, and to pay for the downloads. Then in their own little private world they exchange bootlegs, but this is all very healthy. This has been going on for years, that aspect of it. I just met some young girls on the street who saw my South By Southwest hoodie. They must have been about 20 years old. They go to SXSW, and they want to learn about new music by going to festivals like this. They are now at the Reeperbahn Festival to see new bands. I believe you have to keep reinventing the music business. It is so important to have a festival like this.

More direct communication with the public, not from the ivory towers at the labels. Music venues in most cities are thriving. Little clubs. I go to them. You never know what you’re going to find. Usually run of the mill stuff, but occasionally… I think the next Freddy Mercury, the next David Bowie, the next Kate Bush, they’re all out there. That’s not going to happen once in the history of the universe. There are a lot of talented people at that level. Those people, unfortunately, are going to have to boost themselves through self-promotion and self-enterprise, because labels aren’t signing geniuses anymore. They don’t recognize it, it’s been devalued. They are following yesterday’s hits. They would rather have soundalikes and lookalikes. I’ll tell you something, if that system worked, you’d see sales rising. Sales every year are diminishing, even downloads.

Vinyl,  that’s making it go back up again, but that’s a medium, that’s not a genre. Vinyl is the thing that’s cool to put on your wall. You have to make vinyl these days to get more sales, but even that, that’s a fad. I’m glad that vinyl is now an option that exists. You can actually buy vinyl. There was a 10-year period where they just stopped manufacturing it. Nowadays, there are only three plants in the whole world, and they are backlogged by as much as six months. So if I wanted to put a vinyl out tomorrow, I’d have to get in the queue.

Then the labels are thinking, “Oh, that’s going to save the business!” That’s really small. It’s not going to save anything. What will save this industry is if they realize that people like Bowie, Kate Bush, and all that, were weird. They were very weird. Some people gravitate towards that. They are tired of the same old thing. They’re tired of their father’s music. They want to hear something of their own generation. Those people are out there. You’re not going to find them on a major label. I heard a rumor that the major labels are looking for weird people now, but I haven’t heard or seen any evidence of that.

McIntyre: It doesn’t seem like it .
Visconti:  Well, if Adele sells so many records, they clearly are looking for more Adeles. They would rather have more Adeles if such a thing is possible, but that’s pretty much an insult to Adele, who came up and decided to have this big voice and sing these big, dramatic songs. She was a little bit weird. That wasn’t de rigueur .

McIntyre: You have produced many genres of music. Rock, world music, pop, and several others. How do you decide what you’re going to do, even if you’ve never worked in that genre before?
Visconti:  My criteria is that I look for uniqueness. I still do. I still have faith in it. I’ve been offered a lot to do a run of the mill thing many times. To do the backing, put the singer up front, tune his or her voice and make it sound great. I find that I’ll get very bored doing things like that. I still look for a person who has a voice that’s unlike any other voice. In my history, for example, I’ve worked with Morrissey, who sounds like nobody else. Bowie, who sounds like no other person. Marc Bolan, who sounds like no other person. Even in my folky days, I worked with Mary Hopkin, who I married eventually, she had a great, great voice.

I nearly worked with Kate Bush. That would have been nice. I had a couple of meetings with her and a very long lunch all about working together. She transitioned into self-producing after that. She said, “I would work with you if I wanted a producer.” She called me, I didn’t call her. I gravitate towards that kind of person. There are plenty of people to work with.

McIntyre: Is there somebody you hear now where you think, “That’s an original voice! That person is unique! I would love to work with them!”
Visconti:  I just worked with such a person, Esperanza Spalding. I did her whole last album. I did the whole thing and then she went off and self-produced a few more tracks. I think about seven of my tracks are on there. There is a person who is quite unique in every way.

McIntyre: That was quite a weird album, I have to say. Very unexpected for her.
Yeah. That’s her attempt at being more widely accepted. If you listen to her earlier work… I think she did an R&B album once before. She is true to herself. She has no shortage of fans. She’s touring all the time, makes big bucks, plays to big audiences. She’s definitely not a top 10 pop artist, but she sells a lot of records. There are a lot of people who sell a lot of records who don’t make the top 10. They have their own specific audiences. Heavy metal doesn’t make the top 10, but they sell hundreds of thousands, millions.

That’s my point. Big labels are concentrating on pop more than anything, and they’re concentrating on this imagined teenage audience with loads of cash to spare. It’s an old model. It’s not working anymore. They’re signing artists that they think teenagers are going to go for, but there are people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s that actually have good jobs and they’re making good money. They would spend money on good, new music if it was presented to them, and if they knew where to find it. If it was marketed the way records were marketed in the ’70s and ’80s. Some people go out and buy the best clothes that they can afford. They’re buying quality. They don’t go to a real cheap clothes store, unless that’s all they can afford. We live in a society now where people do have a lot of cash to spend. They take holidays. If you take holidays, you’re making a good wage. They’ll spend money on quality, and it’s wrong to just target the teenage market, who by the way, know how to download anything for free. It’s a no-brainer.I think in the ’70s, the difference was a label might sign 50 new acts a year and give them enough money to make their album. They would sign those acts on the basis of their uniqueness. It was already proven that the freaky artists eventually became the biggest stars.

Bowie is a weird, one of the strangest artists. He has two different colored eyes… Everything about him is out of the ordinary. He’s probably one of the biggest stars that ever lived. He started out as a very strange musician. When I met him, he was laughable. He’d been around the block a few times. He’d submitted a few demos and the labels thought, “He’s weird, we don’t want him. We don’t know what to do with him.” “We don’t know what to do,” I’ve heard that so many times. Then he busted through with “Space Oddity.” He did the first thing that nobody had ever done: he invented a stage persona. Everyone would go on as themselves, and he went on stage as this character Ziggy Stardust. Ingenious. I’m telling you, we have people like that. That can happen again, and again, and again in different forms. It’s something I haven’t thought of yet, something you haven’t thought of yet. There’s some band of geniuses that will come up with new formulas and that will come up with new ways to make music.


December 8, 2016

Richard Griffiths has worked in the music business for more than four decades. After breaking in as a London-based booking agent, he founded Headline Artists and became the first international agent for AC/DC. He went on to hold a series of senior executive positions on both sides of the pond, including Epic, CBS Records, BMG, Virgin Music and Sony Music. Griffiths and Harry Magee set up U.K. offices for The Firm in 2001, forming Modest! Management two years later. The company took off seven years later when Simon Cowell chose Griffiths and Magee to manage fledgling boy band One Direction, which he had assembled from contestants on the original U.K. edition of his show The X Factor. Griffiths and his partner haven’t looked back since, playing key roles in the development and breaking of clients 5 Seconds of Summer worldwide, as well as Olly Murs and Little Mix in the U.K. In the summer of 2015, Modest! simultaneously had #1 singles on 5SOS, Little Mix and L.A. teen quartet Hey Violet. Griffiths and Magee are now in the initial stages of guiding the career of 1D alumnus Niall Horan.

At what point did you know you wanted to leave the label sector and go into management?
I didn’t want to leave the label. That fucking idiot Rolf Schmidt-Holtz fired me and Harry Magee. We almost immediately decided to go in to management business together. Jeff Kwatinetz got in touch and we set up a London office for The Firm. Unfortunately, that fell apart soon after we started, so we set up Modest!

How did working at CBS/Sony prepare you for becoming an effective manager?
Working for Tommy Mottola changed my life. I was running Virgin Publishing in L.A., signing all the hit CBS acts. Tommy was getting pissed off, so we met and he offered me a job running Epic. Working directly with Tommy taught me so much, as well as dealing with Sharon Osbourne, Roger Davies and others. Even though we were rivals at Columbia and Epic, Donnie Ienner and I had a great working relationship.

Back in the Sony days with Ozzy Osbourne and band, Sharon Osbourne, Dave Glew, Michele Anthony and Tony Martell.

Who was your first client?
Lemar, who came third in a talent show called Fame Academy. He had three double-platinum albums, but we could never break him outside of the U.K.

Which label execs have you worked with most closely and effectively?
Steve Barnett and I have worked together both at Epic, where I brought him in to run international, and subsequently when he was at Columbia and now Capitol. We’ve shared huge success together over the years. I love working with Rob Stringer, who was the Epic label manager in London when we first met. Nick Raphael and Jo Charrington at Capitol U.K.—we had massive success with JLS, Olly Murs and now 5SOS. We have had a great working partnership with Sonny Takhar at SYCO. His influence on the career of 1D and Little Mix has been huge. We will miss him.

What role did Simon Cowell play in the evolution of your company?
Simon worked for me when I was President of BMG Europe. When he wasn’t sure about going on TV, I encouraged him. We have a strong personal friendship. He came to Harry and me when the first two series of The X Factor failed to produce an artist of merit. The first year together, we got Leona Lewis and broke her around the world. There followed five years of unparalleled success, JLS, Olly, Little Mix and, of course, One Direction. Working with Simon established Modest!, but at the same time we helped The X Factor break worldwide artists. I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but that hasn’t happened since we stopped five years ago!

What are your plans for 5SOS?
They are on a well-deserved break after finishing their tour last week. They did 102 arena shows and have sold over 750,000 tickets and 1.3 million albums. They are in a great place. The band will be around for a long time.

Do you have a strategy for breaking Little Mix in the U.S.?
I really believe we are going to break Little Mix big time with this album—not only in America but around the world. We’ve been close before but never quite got there. My good friend Scooter Braun has given us the Ariana Grande tour in the first quarter of 2017. I think this is going to be the perfect platform. No one works harder than those girls.

How does managing Niall differ from managing 1D?
Less cars for a start! Obviously, the guys were very young when we started so that was always a major consideration. Niall is now a young man with six years-plus experience at the coalface of the business, having had phenomenal success, so the approach is different. With 1D, for example, the writing was condensed and recording was mainly done in hotel rooms whilst on tour. Niall is writing and recoding at his own pace, which he is loving, and the results are a testament to his growth and emergence as a world-class solo artist.

Do you think 1D will ever reunite?
Not in the foreseeable future. They are all out there enjoying being themselves. I’m sure Harry and Liam will make records and have great success. Louis has some interesting projects he’s developing. But never say never to a reunion.

What are the biggest challenges for breaking a new act right now? How do you attack those challenges?
The new world that we inhabit evolves and changes on a weekly basis. Having a hit has become harder and harder due to the dominance of the major players that the streaming model favors. New acts need a mobilized fan base before going full-throttle. They need more time than ever to grow and develop.

Where did you get the name Modest! from?
When England beat Germany 5-1 in Munich, we registered FiveOne as a company. Then Ged Doherty, who was Chairman of Sony U.K., called me and asked me what name we were going to use. I told him, and he said, laughing “Why don’t you call it ‘modest’?” We loved the idea, but added the exclamation point to make it clear it’s ironic.

Who’s in your pantheon of great managers?
Irving Azoff, Sharon Osbourne, Roger Davies, Scooter Braun, Simon Fuller, Jeff Kwatinetz, Louis Walsh (that’s a joke!), Bill Curbishley, Cliff & Peter.

What can you depend on the major labels for today?
Well, it’s a very different world. Gone are the days when you could just hand a record over to a major and get them to spend too much money and you’d get a hit. It’s a far more collaborative process now. One big change is the labels are under-resourced and management must supplement their deficiencies. Modest! has a bigger digital department than any U.K. label; probably the same with branding. We have to do that because the labels are so understaffed. Also, so many of their people have no understanding of how hard an artist works. They sit in their offices coming up with stupid schedules because they have never experienced what an artist is going through.

What are some of the most difficult issues facing managers today?
The basic and most challenging issue is that it now takes much longer to break new acts. That obviously means more investment both financial and in terms of time. The other issue, which is also obviously both a gift and curse, is that campaigns now need to be thought through from a global perspective from the outset.

Is the impact of streaming on the branding process mitigating the impact of radio?
Not so much mitigating but providing another lane. The long tail theory hasn’t really materialized in the streaming world, however, so the same rules still apply—the big artists and songs dominate. There is no doubt that radio is going to have to revaluate its playlist strategies in the streaming world.

What are the most enjoyable and most gratifying parts of your job?
I still get a thrill from breaking a new artist. I love having #1 records and sold-out shows. Bill Curbishley once said the definition of management is doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful! That is true by and large, but we’ve been fortunate to work with some wonderful artists who work really hard, do a great job and say thank you. And then there’s the management rider. We say promoters have to provide two bottles of fine red wine. Simon Moran and David Zedeck know more about wine now than they ever thought possible.

What changes do you foresee taking place during the next five years, for the business and for yourself?
It is much harder and is taking much longer to break new artists. This makes our job even more challenging, but never has the role of the manager been more important. On a personal note, I’d love to find and break a great rock band. That’s where I came from, and while I love that we are the Princes of Pop, I miss a bit of headbanging!

Beyoncé Raised the Bar With ‘Lemonade.’ Now Others Are Leaping, Too.

September 29, 2016


Does every pop star these days need a “Lemonade”?

Among Beyoncé’s more influential tactics at the moment is her insistence that an album should not be just an auditory experience and that the standard music video — a sort of trailer for an artist’s current sound or creative era — is far from enough. “Lemonade,” her sixth solo album, had its premiere in April as an artsy and provocative hourlong film on HBO, raising the bar set by “Beyoncé,” the surprise “visual album” that came with videos for every track in 2013.

As the value of digital music continues to hover near free for many consumers, some brand-name acts are following Beyoncé’s blueprint with high-concept mini-movies that can add artistic heft to projects competing for attention in an infinite pile of content. These extended videos, with their headline-grabbing cameos and high production values, have also become the latest theater in the music streaming war as services like Tidal and Apple Music function not just as platforms but as creative partners (and sometimes financial backers) with artists, in exchange for exclusivity.

On Sunday night, Apple Music released “Please Forgive Me,” a 22-minute video with a loose action-movie plot that strings together hits from Drake’s “Views,” the biggest album of the year so far. Shot in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, “Please Forgive Me” is available only as an Apple stream — even screenshots have been disabled, minimizing Drake’s usual meme-ability — and credits Larry Jackson, the service’s head of content, as a producer and co-writer. It follows the release last month of Frank Ocean’s “Endless,” a 45-minute “visual album” and musing on the artistic process that was also exclusive to Apple. (The “Lemonade” film is available for streaming and downloading only on Tidal.)

“We are living in such a visual time, social media-wise, with Snapchat and Instagram, that every project needs to have some sort of multimedia component,” said Jeff Rabhan, a veteran artist manager and the chairman of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. But a single with an accompanying four-minute video “just doesn’t cut through the noise,” he said.

By advertising “Please Forgive Me” as a film that was “inspired by the album” — not simply a long music video — Drake and Apple cryptically telegraphed the premiere as an event à la “Lemonade” instead of another step in the “Views” marketing plan. In fact, by aiming for prestige, artists may sacrifice some commercial impact: “Please Forgive Me” came in lieu of an earlier stand-alone YouTube video for Drake’s chart-topping summer single, “One Dance,” which could have juiced its Billboard statistics and extended its reign. (Streams have been a significant part of Drake’s success now that Billboard counts them, along with album sales, when calculating chart positions.)

“For an artist who is really wanting a body of work to be examined as a conceptual whole, this creates that environment in a singles-driven world,” Mr. Rabhan said.

Beyond the artistic-credibility incentive, the immersive experience of an extended video can also serve as “a commercial for the tour,” he added. “Drake, Beyoncé — they’re not making their money on streaming or sales. They’re making money when we spend $180 to go to Citi Field and watch ‘Lemonade’ in person.” (With Drake as its most prominent artistic face, Apple Music has also partnered with him on a Beats 1 online radio show and sponsored his “Summer Sixteen” tour with Future, another Apple-affiliated artist.)

While high-concept promotional music films and event videos date back to the Beatles and Michael Jackson, with Lady Gaga and Kanye West picking up the torch to begin the post-MTV YouTube era, more recent video projects have taken advantage of new outlets for distribution, knowingly sacrificing wider audiences by partnering with closed digital platforms thirsty for buzzy products.

Tom Connaughton, the senior vice president for content and programming at Vevo, the online music-video platform that provides some of the top clips on YouTube, said that a video is twice as likely to be shared on social media than an audio track, according to his company’s data. As a result, he said, “You’re seeing big multinational companies involved in a music streaming war using video in addition to audio to drive their agenda.” That includes luring subscribers with exclusives.

And while a major label may be reluctant to fund big-budget music videos in leaner times, ambitious artists can capitalize on their clout with streaming services that are willing to shepherd and promote such projects.

“There’s an element of competitiveness among top-tier pop stars to making bigger, flashier delivery systems for their music,” Mr. Connaughton said. “They all want to outdo each other.”

Social Media Got You Down? Be More Like Beyoncé

September 29, 2016


In Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” characters carry around smart devices called äppäräts, which are something like iPhones on meth. The book is set in the near future. Staten Island is the new Brooklyn, and all the characters use their äppäräts to chat and shop and beam their lives out to the world, nonstop. Äppäräts are also equipped with a program called RateMe Plus, which constantly calculates (and broadcasts, of course) a status ranking based on users’ jobs, financials and online popularity, which is gauged by the quantity and quality of what they share. Live-streaming the most intimate details of your life is the only way to get ahead — job promotions and romantic prospects depend on it.

Shteyngart’s extrapolations from first-generation social media are beginning to prove surprisingly prescient. The biggest companies are now slaving away to bring his vision ever closer to real­ity. It’s not a philosophical or ideological statement on their part; it’s just that their business model is predicated on sharing, and finding new ways to extricate more and more from us. This spring, Facebook introduced its 1.7 billion users to a new feature called Live, which allows anyone to broadcast his or her life in a real-time stream to friends and family. The company also said it would prioritize personal posts like Live over those from brands or news organizations — a sign that, like Shteyngart, it thinks people are far more invested in voyeurism than in anything else. (And in theory, it should know.) In August, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, followed suit with a feature called Stories, allowing users to post photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours. The company described it as a way to “share all the moments of your day, not just the ones you want to keep.”

It all feels like harmless fun, but our online lifestyles have begun to make a real impact in our offline worlds, a trend that doesn’t seem to be reversing. In 2014, Facebook talked with lenders about the possibility of linking profiles to credit scores, and one recent survey showed that 40 percent of college-admission officers now say they peruse applicants’ social-media profiles in addition to evaluating G.P.A.s and essays.

Social media has, in its own way, provided us a means of generating other selves. We just haven’t yet learned to set them free. Beyoncé has.

Social media tends to reward those who share the most — which means we tend to see way more from certain people than we want to see. You probably already know what I mean, and have seen it in your own feeds, as friends, co-workers and complete strangers faithfully transcribe their inner monologues in a never-ending stream. Even those who make a living in the public eye aren’t immune to the perils of oversharing — on the contrary. Two recent examples come to mind: Jennifer Weiner, a very successful author by any measure (her 2002 book, “In Her Shoes,” was made into a movie starring Cameron Diaz), recently wrote an embarrassingly long diatribe on Facebook blasting Oprah for not selecting her latest novel for her book club; and the rapper the Game has posted obscene, near-nude selfies on Instagram that emphasize an enormous bulge in his underwear that may or may not be Photoshopped.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with either example — but they each clearly underline the ways that social media has stripped away our ability to tell what is O.K. to share and what is not. It’s not just that watching people vie for your attention can feel gross. It’s also that there’s a fine line between appearing savvy online and appearing desperate.

In high-definition contrast, let’s look at Beyoncé for a moment. Unless televised live performances count, she has never live-streamed a day in her life. She rarely gives interviews, so what we know is scraped from her social-media presence — which isn’t much. I can tell you what outfit and hairstyle Beyoncé posted on social media last week, but I couldn’t tell you where in the world she was, what the inside of her house looks like or even which continent her primary residence is on. Her images tend not to be location-tagged, or even look as if they were taken with a cellphone. I couldn’t tell you who took the photos of her, because, unlike most celebrities, Beyoncé rarely posts selfies. I have no idea who comes to her pool parties, if she has a pool or has ever been to a pool party. I couldn’t guess what she wears to bed. And yet, when I speak about her, it’s as if we’ve been attached at the hip since birth. I feel, very intimately, that I know her. Beyoncé’s feed is the rice cake of celebrity social-media feeds: low in caloric content but mystifyingly satisfying.

Most people treat social media like the stage for their own reality show, but Beyoncé treats her public persona more like a Barbie — she offers up images and little more, allowing people to project their own ideas, fantasies and narratives about her life onto it. Take, for example, her response after a video leaked of her sister, Solange, attacking Beyoncé’s husband, Jay Z, in a hotel elevator. Rather than posting rapid-fire tweets explaining the whole thing, Beyoncé simply posted a series of photographs of herself and her sister having fun, quelling any rumors of a rift.

The Beyoncé we follow on social media is an illusion that feels intimate and real, one that (probably) provides the real Beyoncé space to exist privately. Credit Photo illustration by Adam Ferriss. Source photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images.

This logic extends to her creative work too. Earlier this year, she spent an entire album, “Lemonade,” stoking rumors of marital strife with Jay Z. Lines like “You’re gonna lose your wife” seemed to confirm that her once-dreamy relationship was on the rocks. The release of that album felt cathartic, an answer to questions about her personal life that her fans had been obsessing over for months. But then, before the fervor over that album faded, news of another album leaked: this time, a duet album. With her husband. In a single calendar year, Beyoncé managed to reveal what seemed to be a lifetime’s worth of secrets and pain, without it being clear whether she had revealed anything at all. If anything, that only made people want more.

Conventional wisdom casts Beyoncé as a control freak, and perhaps she is, but control isn’t such a bad thing. Lately, I’ve been thinking about her bifurcated self in the context of somewhat-forgotten cyberfeminist theory. In the 1980s, academics believed that technology would introduce profound changes for humankind, especially women. Donna Haraway, emerita professor of the history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an inspiration for cyberfeminism, wrote that new technologies could liberate women from patriarchy and other oppressive systems. In the distant future, she believed, people could assume virtual bodies, allowing for “permanently partial identities” that could exist beyond gender, beyond reproach and without limits.

The internet preserved many of the same biases and hierarchies Haraway so desperately hoped we could escape. And there are no true cyborgs yet. But social media has, in its own way, provided us a means of generating other selves. We just haven’t yet learned to set them free. Beyoncé has, in her own way. The Beyoncé we follow seems to live and breathe, and provokes a real emotional reaction. It’s an illusion that feels intimate and real, a hologram self for us to interact with that, in theory, provides the actual Beyoncé space to exist away from our prying eyes.

This isn’t a strategy that works for only the incredibly rich and famous. I believe it’s a useful way of thinking about how we could all behave online. Why fret about oversharing, or undersharing, or to what extent our online selves are true to our ac­tual self? We could instead use social media as a prism through which we can project only what we want others to see. We can save the rest for ourselves — our actual selves.

Fans still prefer music live to digital, Nielsen Music 360 report finds

September 17, 2016

By Randy Lewis 9/15/16

How do people most like to enjoy their music? Live, at least according to the Nielsen Music firm’s latest edition of its Music 360 report, which tracks how consumers take in music in today’s fractured, multi-platform world.

Of all the ways to experience music, Nielsen found, 36% of consumers’ money spent goes toward live events, far and away the most popular way of consuming music.

Of course, that no doubt partly reflects the fact that the cost of tickets for most live events far outpaces the cost of buying downloads, CDs or paying for a monthly streaming subscription.

But in an intriguing facet of the study into the changing habits of fans in an era in which music is increasingly defined by streaming services, 21% of overall music spending still goes toward physical CDs or downloaded digital singles and albums, compared to only 6% to streaming service subscriptions.

Among 13- to 17-year-old consumers, 38% of their money is spent on physical and digital albums and tracks, with a higher-than-average 9% for streaming services, and just 5% for satellite radio subscriptions.

Those are just a couple of highlights of the report, which Nielsen has excerpted for public consumption from the full paid study that goes out this week to its entertainment industry subscribers.

“Fans are interacting with music differently,” the report’s summary states, “but their passion for music remains strong. In fact, listeners are spending more time and more money on music-related expenses in 2016 than they did in 2015.”

On the streaming front, Nielsen reports that 80% of music listeners used such a service during the 12 months preceding the study. The report was conducted from July 14 to Aug. 5 of this year, among 3,554 consumers “reflective of the population of the United States.”

That figure is up five percentage points from a year earlier, when 75% of respondents said they had used a streaming service in the prior year.

In terms of the time spent listening to music, Nielsen reports that radio is still the most popular method, accounting for 27% of the time people spend listening by format. Digital music collections accounted for an additional 20%, followed by streaming of on-demand audio (12%), programmed audio (11%), and music video and physical music collections (tied at 10% each).

Demographically, Hispanic consumers (as defined by Nielsen) spent on average 90% more on music than the general population and also scored higher numbers than average for attending DJ events and smaller live music sessions.

Hispanics also posted higher numbers than teens or millennials (ages 18 to 34) for attending live concerts with one main headliner, small live music sessions, live concerts with multiple headliners, music festivals, club events with DJs and club events with a specific DJ.

The survey also explored music preferences broken down by political affiliation, with Democrats scoring higher than the general population in money spent on club events with DJs (124% more than average), small live music sessions (+54%), digital music (+43%) and video on demand or pay-per-view services (+38%).

Republicans, meanwhile, spent more on premium TV subscriptions (76% above the general population), comedy performances (+65%), sports events (+35%) and satellite radio services (+32%).

Entertainment options that appeal the most to independent voters were video games (+42%), live music concerts (+31%) and paid online streaming (+14%).

The study also digs extensively into how consumers respond to branding affiliations at concerts and festivals they attend, with nearly two-thirds of festivalgoers saying they viewed a brand more favorably if they offered product giveaways at live events and nearly as many (64.8%) saying the same if a brand sponsors an air-conditioned tent at a festival.

More than half (53.7%) said their estimation of a brand improves when that brand sponsors an existing festival, while 46.3% said they view the brand more favorably for producing its own music festival.

Songwriters Sue Justice Department Over Licensing Rules

September 14, 2016

By BEN SISARIO 9/13/16

When Michelle Lewis, a Los Angeles songwriter, gets her quarterly royalty statements from Ascap, she receives a stark reminder of how songs are valued in the digital age. The tunes she writes for TV shows like Disney’s “Doc McStuffins” bring in thousands of dollars, but streaming outlets like Pandora and Spotify yield less than $100 combined.

“The honest truth is that if it weren’t for the TV stuff, I’d be working at Starbucks,” said Ms. Lewis, who has writing credits on pop hits by Cher, Little Mix and Katharine McPhee. “There is no way I could afford to be a songwriter just on streaming and digital radio.”

As the reach of streaming music has grown, songwriters — an essential but often invisible part of the music world — have become increasingly vocal about their unhappiness with the amount of compensation they receive from digital outlets. Those complaints have reached a peak since last month, when the Justice Department ruled that Ascap and BMI, the two largest royalty clearinghouses, must change their licensing procedures to comply with federal regulations.

On Tuesday, Ms. Lewis and Songwriters of North America, an advocacy group she helped found a year ago, sued the Justice Department, saying that the agency overstepped its authority and that its ruling violated the property rights of songwriters by potentially nullifying private contracts between writers who have worked on the same song. The suit is the latest step in an extensive campaign by the music industry to fight the ruling, but it is the first organized response by songwriters.

In the suit, Ms. Lewis was joined by two other songwriters with extensive résumés: Tom Kelly, who helped write hits like “True Colors” and “Like a Virgin,” and Pam Sheyne, who was a writer on Christina Aguilera’s hit “Genie in a Bottle.”

“Songwriters want to have a seat at the table,” said Dina LaPolt, an entertainment lawyer who is advising Songwriters of North America on its suit.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Last month’s ruling by the Justice Department has to do with one of the most complex — and most bitterly disputed — issues in music copyright. For songs to be played on the radio, on streaming services or even in public places like restaurants and retail stores, performing rights organizations like Ascap and BMI collect royalties for songwriters and music publishers. In the United States, these fees amount to more than $2 billion a year.

But the music industry has long been unsatisfied by the rates paid by online companies, and two years ago Ascap and BMI asked the Justice Department for changes to the regulatory agreements that have governed the organizations for decades. Last month, the agency declined those requests, and instead ruled that to comply with their existing rules, Ascap and BMI must institute what is known as 100 percent licensing: When a song has multiple writers, the organizations must have the legal clearance to represent the entire song or remove it from their catalogs.

Broadcasters and digital companies hailed the ruling as a cleareyed application of copyright law. But music industry groups said it would disrupt decades of practice and cause tumult throughout the business. (Songwriters don’t always belong to the same rights organization, meaning broadcasters and digital outlets would have to have deals in place with various groups.) BMI has said it will challenge the rule in federal court, with a hearing expected on Friday.

The lawsuit by Songwriters of North America contends that the Justice Department’s ruling on 100 percent licensing violates the property rights of songwriters, since it would mean that private contracts among songwriting collaborators — a common arrangement — might not comply with the new rule. In its announcement last month, the Justice Department suggested that writers with such agreements would need to renegotiate those deals.

The songwriters’ lawsuit argues that this change violates the Fifth Amendment by removing property rights without due process and seeks a declaration that the new rule is unlawful. In addition to the Justice Department itself, the suit names as defendants Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Renata B. Hesse, who oversees the agency’s antitrust division.

“The 100 percent mandate,” the suit says, “is an illegitimate assertion of agency power in gross violation of plaintiffs’ due process rights, copyright interests and freedom of contacts, and needs to be set aside.”

In preparing its suit, Songwriters of North America was also advised by Jacqueline C. Charlesworth, a former general counsel of the United States Copyright Office, which has argued that 100 percent licensing would conflict with copyright law. The songwriters are represented in their suit by Gerard P. Fox, a Los Angeles lawyer known in music circles for representing the Isley Brothers when they successfully sued Michael Bolton for copyright infringement in the 1990s.

Mr. Fox is representing Songwriters of North America on a pro bono basis, Ms. Lewis said. The organization has about 200 members, and it began with a meeting early last year when Ms. Lewis and other writers, confused and exasperated by their minuscule online royalties, asked Ms. LaPolt to explain to them the complex system of online copyright licensing.

Ms. Lewis said she hoped the lawsuit would reveal more about the lives of songwriters, who, even when they write major hits, are often little known to the public.

“We are the worker bees churning out the songs,” Ms. Lewis said.

Amazon and Pandora to Gauge Music’s Value in the Internet Age

September 12, 2016

By BEN SISARIO 9/11/16

How much are people willing to spend for streaming music?

For years, thanks to rigid pricing structures at streaming services, the answer has been stuck at $10 a month or nothing. But that model may soon be challenged by two giants of online media: Amazon and Pandora Media.

Both companies are set to introduce new versions of their streaming services in coming weeks, charging as little as $5 a month, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process was ongoing. The plans will put pressure on incumbent players like Spotify and Apple Music and offer the music industry a major test regarding the value of streaming music — including the crucial question of whether discounts will be enough to entice people to pay anything when virtually every song is also available free.

The pricing model of $10 a month, the standard rate charged by most on-demand streaming services, has been compared to the 99 cents that Apple charged for song downloads when it opened the iTunes music store in 2003 — a simple and comprehensible amount that established in consumers’ minds the value of music in the internet age.

But many in the business have argued that $10 a month is too high for casual listeners. At $120 a year, it costs more than most people have historically paid for music. According to MusicWatch, a market research firm, the average music customer in the United States will pay about $67 this year on recorded music, up from $55 last year but down from $80 in 1999, around the peak of the CD market.

“Even with the presence of free, you can still get tens of millions to pay for streaming services — and possibly much more — in the event that you get the price much lower,” said David Pakman, a venture capitalist and former digital music executive who has long argued that lower prices would lead to greater sales over all.

The streaming market is divided between internet radio services like Pandora, which offer songs tailored to listeners’ tastes but do not let them choose exactly what songs to hear, and so-called on-demand services, like Spotify and Apple Music, which let users pick specific songs and create playlists.

Pandora is expected to make the first move by unveiling, perhaps as early as this week, an expanded version of its $5 subscription platform. That service, which is currently limited to removing ads on its internet radio streams, will soon begin offering customers new features like the ability to skip more unwanted songs and store several hours’ worth of playlists online, according to three people with direct knowledge of the company’s plans.
By Christmas, according to these people, Pandora wants to introduce a fully developed competitor to Spotify and Apple Music, with a catalog of tens of millions of songs that a listener can gain access to on demand. That version is expected to cost $10 a month, in line with the current market.

Amazon’s ambitions may pose more of a challenge to the existing services. The company already offers a limited catalog of on-demand music to members of its Prime program, which costs $99 a year for free shipping, streaming movies and other perks. But in coming weeks, Amazon is also expected to introduce a music service with a full catalog, charging $10 a month or about half that amount for customers who use the Echo, Amazon’s voice-activated speaker system, according to several people who have been briefed on the plans.

For both companies, the new streaming offerings represent variations on the existing models, with a mix of new features that are intended to entice casual listeners into paying a minimal fee without eroding the ranks of customers who are willing to pay more.

Amazon and Pandora have spent months negotiating new licensing terms with record companies and music publishers to allow their new streaming offerings, and they are close to completing those deals, according to the people briefed on the plans. Representatives of both companies declined to comment.

To some degree, these deals reflect a new willingness among the major record companies to experiment with pricing and shore up a wide field of competitors. Just last year, when Apple was negotiating with record labels over Apple Music, its streaming service, the company wanted to charge customers $8 a month. But the labels balked and held out for $10, giving Apple no price advantage over competitors like Spotify, Rhapsody and Deezer.

That episode, technology executives say, was a window into a little-understood reality of the streaming business: that prices are indirectly enforced through the licensing contracts that services sign with record companies.
Yet while the headline prices have been stuck at $10 a month, analysts and music executives say that a range of discounts and promotions has made it difficult to gauge what customers are really willing to pay. Most offer family plans, student discounts and introductory trials.

Other services have also made brief and inconclusive attempts to offer online music at lower prices. Last year Rdio, a struggling streaming outlet, introduced a $4 subscription plan that let users listen to 25 songs of their choosing each month. But by the end of the year the company had gone bankrupt, and its assets were acquired by Pandora.

Another service, Cür Media, announced its intentions this year to introduce limited streaming plans for as little as $2 a month. But by the summer, it appeared that the company had been unable to raise the $15 million that it said it needed for expenses like licensing deals with record companies. Last month, in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Cür Media reported that it had laid off all of its employees, and that its chairman and chief executive had resigned. Attempts in recent days to reach any representatives of the company were unsuccessful.

Major corporate players like Amazon and Pandora do not face such basic questions of financial viability. But there are still doubts about whether lower price points will make any difference to consumers. YouTube makes virtually any song available free, and, much to the chagrin of the record companies, it is widely considered the most popular online source for music around the world. Spotify, in addition to its $10 premium service, also has a free version supported by advertising.

Russ Crupnick, the managing partner of MusicWatch, the market research company, said his research showed that subscribers to premium services like Spotify were pleased with the product and willing to pay. Furthermore, such customers were also likely to pay for other media subscriptions, like to Netflix, Showtime and so on.

But for less engaged consumers, he said, particularly those who are satisfied with radio or free streaming on YouTube, it may take much more to get them to buy a subscription.

“I don’t know that you get the casual listener to automatically be a superfan just by lowering the price,” Mr. Crupnick said.

People May Be More Cooperative after Listening to Upbeat Music

September 7, 2016

Study subjects hearing songs like “Yellow Submarine” shared more than others hearing hard metalcore


By Kathryn Doyle

(Reuters Health) – The right mood music can influence how well people work together, a new management-oriented study suggests.

Many retail establishments carefully select the music they play in order to influence consumer behavior, such as encouraging shoppers to buy more, the authors write. But employees hear the same music and its effect on them hasn’t been studied.

“In our case, the new article focuses attention on the role of music in relation to management questions,” said lead author Kevin M. Kniffin of Cornell University in New York.

In the first of two studies, 78 participants were randomly divided into two groups: a “happy music” group that heard songs like “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles and the theme from the television show “Happy Days,” and an “unhappy music” group that heard less familiar heavy metal songs like “Smokahontas” by Attack Attack!

The participants in each group used a computer application in which they played a sort of economics game with other unidentified participants in the same room, but players didn’t speak to one another.

In the application, each person was given 10 tokens corresponding to monetary value and was paired with two other people. Over 20 rounds of decision-making, each person was prompted to either keep their tokens or allocate them to a group pool which would be split among the participants at the end. Tokens in the group pool were valued 1.5 times as much as those held individually.

Consistently, people listening to happy music contributed more to the group pool.

In a second study, the researchers repeated the design with an added no-music group, and also measured participants’ moods.

Again, those hearing happy music contributed more to the group pool than those hearing unhappy music or no music at all. Unhappy music elicited a worse mood than both other conditions, and a happier mood was tied to more token contributions to the group, according to the results in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

“The bottom line is that emotions count,” said Neal M. Ashkanasy, professor of management at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who was not part of the new research.

People in a positive mood are more cooperative and more creative, while those in a negative mood tend to narrow in on solving individual problems rather than group problems, Ashkanasy told Reuters Health.

“Interestingly, we find that mood helps to explain some of the relationship – such that people’s moods get lifted by happy music – but we also find a statistically independent effect for happy music in relation to cooperation,” Kniffin told Reuters Health by email.

“Given that having a good rhythm is a definitional feature of happy music, our article suggests that people are partly motivated to cooperate when happy music is being played because of the rhythm’s tendency to get people into sync with each other,” he said.

Retail outlets already use things like music, lighting, paint color and even smell to influence customer behavior, in some cases encouraging lingering in the store and in other cases encouraging “churn” through the doors, Kniffin said.

“Our article calls on people to recognize that the atmospherics — including but not limited to music — that are designed to influence consumer behavior should be recognized for their potential importance in relation to — and potential conflict with — employee behavior,” he said.

“In terms of the potential for ‘bad music’ to adversely affect employees in the workplace, it is interesting that in the context of our lab experiments, at least, there was no harm done in relation to cooperative decision making when Screamo music was played when compared with no music,” Kniffin said.

Epic Records Whips Up Hit Album Out of Thin Air (and Online Streams)

August 9, 2016


You technically can’t buy the digital compilation album from Epic Records featuring hits by French Montana and DJ Khaled that has been a steady presence on the Billboard chart this summer. In fact, the album has sold a total of zero copies since its quiet release seven weeks ago.

Yet thanks to an updated formula for determining positions on the Billboard 200 that accounts for online activity, as well as some savvy opportunism from the label, the album, “Epic AF,” has become a disruptive presence on the charts, landing in the Top 10 four times by exploiting — or mastering — the new system.

It works like this: Since late 2014, Billboard has counted 1,500 streams or 10 paid downloads of a song as the equivalent of one album sold. But if a hit single comes from an album that is unreleased, the millions of plays it tallies on services like Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music go nowhere.

Epic has collected its album-less artists’ most popular summer songs across streaming services — “Lockjaw” by French Montana and Kodak Black, “Don’t Mind” by Kent Jones, “Pick Up the Phone” by Travis Scott and Young Thug — into one digital playlist, giving it a hip title and some generic cover art. In 2016, that’s enough to call it an album.

Now, when Billboard counts the weekly plays for “Don’t Mind,” which has 139 million Spotify streams to date, they are attached to the album, catapulting the digital compilation over traditional albums from artists on competing major labels. Chart position equals bragging rights — and its own form of marketing via brand visibility.

Dave Bakula, a senior analyst for Nielsen Music, which supplies the data Billboard uses for its charts, said that some could see the tactic as “trying to manipulate the charts.” But “if they’re living within the rules, good for them in being creative and having enough of a stable of big-name artists and big songs,” he said.

“It feels a little bit like a ‘Now’ record for streaming services,” he added, referring to the “Now That’s What I Call Music!” CDs, which peaked in the early 2000s.

Billboard declined to comment on Epic’s methods. But this week, the chart company opted to change its rules slightly so that paid downloads of singles included on this album do not count toward its chart position but streaming numbers do.

Still, the system is flexible.

The album which has added tracks since its initial release, includes current hits from DJ Khaled (“For Free,” “I Got the Keys”). Before the release of DJ Khaled’s own album “Major Key” on July 29, the streams for those songs were going toward the compilation album. This week, however, they were counted toward “Major Key,” which hit No. 1. (As a result of losing those streams and all song sales, the compilation album dropped to No. 32 from No. 5, having accomplished its goal as a placeholder hit.)

“It did what it was supposed to do,” said Celine Joshua, a senior vice president for commerce at Epic and its parent company, Sony Music Entertainment, who oversaw the project.

“It was born out of a need and a problem,” she said. “I was thinking about our hot roster and the cycles of which content was coming out when, albums that were around the corner and how young fans on these platforms are behaving — consuming in the playlist manner.”

For hip-hop and R&B especially, streaming has become the dominant mode of consumption. Streaming activity nearly doubled in 2015 as traditional sales and digital downloads fell; this year, on-demand audio streams are up another 97 percent. As a result, the online discovery of new artists increasingly comes from streaming playlists like Spotify’s influential Rap Caviar, with its more than four million subscribers.

“Why don’t we design a product that behaves the way our consumers do?” Ms. Joshua said she had asked, bringing the idea to Epic’s chief executive, L. A. Reid, who gave the green light and helped to pick the track list. (The associated costs — “none,” Ms. Joshua said — helped the process along.)

Buoyed by the label’s biggest names, including Future and Puff Daddy, the album also features lesser-known artists, like Lotto Savage and Rory Fresco, who the label hopes will take off with young fans.

The album title, which includes a popular online abbreviation for a vulgar phrase, was designed to speak to millennials as well, Ms. Joshua said.

Assuming Billboard does not further adjust its rules to block digital-only label compilations, imitators can be expected. Already, within Sony Music, more versions are planned, including another from Epic featuring more pop-leaning acts, and a potential follow-up from sister label RCA.

“Streaming,” Ms. Joshua said, “is the now and the future.”