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Keith Jopling: Does Google understand music?

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In this guest post, Keith Jopling, consultant and former director of strategic analysis
and research for the IFPI, wonders – ahead of he planned launch of Google Music – if the web search giant ‘gets’ the music business yet…

Google’s worldview of where content businesses are headed is unequivocal. There are five inexorable forces impacting on music, news and presumably all other content-based industries:

1. The dismantling of national borders in consumers’ minds thanks to global internet access (online consumers representing 90% of global GDP by the way).
2. The slow but sure ascent of mobile – thanks to inevitable universal smartphone adoption.
3. Consumers’ drive to disaggregate content – the lifeblood as Google sees it, of all content businesses – newspapers, albums, TV channels, networks – all aggregation plain & simple.
4. The immovable force that all entertainment content is going digital and then as it does, the growth of available content is exponential and cannot be served by traditional routes to market.
5. The Cloud.

Since these forces are irresistible – the message is clear to content businesses.

At the annual general meeting of the BPI (the UK recorded music industry association), Nikesh Arora of Google certainly made a message clear to his audience of music executives – evolve your business or continue to wither on the vine. However, he also admitted he had no specific solutions for music or content, beyond that underlying message.

He made it clear Google did have ambitions to launch a cloud music service – soon – and that he and his team at Google had clearly had a rough ride but were determined to obtain global licenses from the laborious combination of licensors across the music’s label, publishing and collecting society frameworks around the globe.

He stressed consumers’ desire to want to re-aggregate content according to the wisdom of crowds, not creative tastemakers “sitting in a room somewhere”. And his statements about unbundling are of course, supported by industry download stats, shifting away from albums to tracks as they have.

His message – and more than that his slick, confident delivery, made for an intoxicating experience. He was very close to being unassailable. In a nutshell, Google wants a global license to ‘solve music’ – so, should the music industry grant this wish?

Perhaps, up to a point. The subtext however – that music (and all content) has no choice but to become a utility – is far less palatable and less credible too.

Do we really envisage a world where music is commoditised to the point were simply releasing it (and granting the license for it) is pretty much the music industry’s future role? Here is the territory that really needs to be better understood.

Google one feels, sometimes wears the mask of consumer behaviour, when really the only behaviour they really understand fully, is search. There has to be more – much more – to a music service than search, cloud streaming and playlisting. Nikesh might wish to download playlists from his Facebook pals more than albums, but vast swathes of music consumers would disagree with him. The album has shown incredible resilience throughout digital music’s first ten years.

There are millions of crap playlists online, demonstrating perfectly how much real skill is involved. Social programming cannot be the panacea for content and my own prediction is of an ever more important and relevant role for – yes – the aggregators – as the ocean of content grows ever deeper.

However, subtext point partly taken. The industry’s ‘product’ needs urgent review and some transformation. Better albums, better aggregation, improved metadata and features would all do well for digital music even before the service package and payment models kick in.

Finally to that global license. Should the music industry grant Google its wish?

Perhaps it would be better for Google to ask for more than a license. Could the industry actually be a more active partner in understanding customer needs, designing and developing the service and educating consumers about it?

Music is not just a licensing business. Music is still a consumer product, even as it changes to digital. And the music business must do partnership, not just licensing. Otherwise Google, despite its awesome brand power, might find its cloud music service underwhelms in a way some of its other recent products have.

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