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Thursday, January 8, 2004

active versus passive music “consumption”

the average american spends 3360 hours absorbing media in one form or another. that’s about 9 hours and 12 minutes of media attention per american per day, and it’s not going to change much. we’re not making longer days or sleeping significantly less, so if your business is media, your problem isn’t suing file-sharers, cd protection widgets, monetizing personal data, hiring enforcers, setting up an online storefront or plugging analog holes. your problem is squeezing your stuff into that 552-minute-per-day window.

sure, the total market increases with population (every new person brings another 552 minutes of attention to the party), but population growth isn’t fast enough to make impressive quarterly financial statements. that means you have to grow faster than the market to stay in business. that means you have to grab that attention from someone else.

media audiences operate in two modes, and it’s important to understand the difference, because it’s a social and human response to the discrimination problem.

* active, where the individual is seeking experience, putting forth effort, making decisions and generally focused particularly on the media experience of the moment. the current example here is swimming through the hundreds of thousands of songs on itunes and setting up playlists for that sexy ipod.
* passive, where the individual is letting the experience happen – effectively offloading the decision-making, time-consuming things that happen around the media experience. the counter-example is turning on the radio.

these aren’t mutually exclusive, in fact most media experiences are a combination of the two. what is interesting and relevant, is the ratio of active to passive participation for a given experience or a given individual.

most people spend most of their limited attention in a passive mode. they have 552 minutes a day to spend on experiences, and simply do not want to spend much of that time listening to new music (that sucks) just to find that next big band.

the discrimination problem (again)

one of the most important functions of record labels is solving what i’ve called the discrimination problem. if there are 500,000 garage bands in the us1, then somehow, that needs to be filtered down to a few tens of thousands of viable musicians and further filtered down to 160 chart-topping pop stars. not just once, but over, and over, and over again.

this is a huge, expensive problem. it requires a lot of time. it requires a lot of attention. and for now, there is no technological solution that’s going to make this any easier, cheaper or faster2. music, after all is a matter of taste (and it’s just no fun trying to listen to two tracks at once…)

watching the rise of the “net-era music business models” it seems that many of them ignore this problem completely, or, worse, rely on the efforts of the audience to make their own decisions. some of you that have been with me a while might remember some of this from back to plan g (and the two prequels, 1 and 2 – but that’s a lot of reading, and i won’t blame you for having better things to do…).

who’s your dj?

people are irrational and habit-forming. most people listen to what people tell them is good. watch what people tell them is good, read what people tell them is good, and once they’ve decided that something is good, they are likely to come back to it more than once. this introduces trust into the market – people need to find someone they trust to tell them what’s good. this passive group constitutes the big market that makes pop stars and blockbuster movies possible.

the active media seekers are a relatively small group of people, but they spend disproprotionate attention on their chosen medium, and wield amazing influence. that group constitutes the taste-makers and market-makers that [can] sway the more passive audience. these are the aggregators. these are the people that hold that trust.

filtering it up

my focus is the music business (well, that is the category), but this phenomenon occurs in every entertainment/attention market. it happens with books, it happens with movies, it happens with television, it happens all over. most of these markets have, over time, evolved a tiered solution of some sort that filters (often over several tiers) raw material before it gets anywhere near the precious conscious of the audience.

with books, we have literary agents and book reviewers. with movies, we have script agents and producers and thumbs (up or down). with music we have a&r reps and program directors and djs. these are the filters that keep the garbage out ot the media channels, and keep the audience from running away screaming to some other option, some other media. and trust me, the audience has options. nothing good on tv? plug in a game console. nothing good on the console? spin up a cd. no good cds? find a movie. nothing good in theaters? pick up an old classic on dvd. nothing good on dvd? find a book. if you’re in music, you’re not just competing with other musicians – you’re competing, for attention, with everyone else that produces content. right now, you’re reading this post on a weblog, and you could be watching the lord of the rings. i know that, and thanks for your attention.

today, music suffers at each end of the discrimination process with the demise of both the label a&r rep and the local musigeek. label reps are literally paid to discover new talent. the problem is that the modern machinery of the label doesn’t allow for development of this talent, so in most cases, it’s a discover-promote-discard cycle driven as rapidly as possible to make room for the next discovery. musigeeks, the other obvious filter for music, suffer because there isn’t an obvious model to keep the them gainfully employed and fully immersed in this discovery and filtering process. long, long ago, they could get a job at a local record store and literally spend all day absorbing new material and making judgements. today they get distracted by questions about refrigerators at the big box retail outlet, if they’re involved in selling music at all.

the audience perspective

people want the illusion of control over their entertainment choices, without having to do the work. they want a limited set of choices, so they don’t have to spend hours making decisions. they want the choices pre-filtered, so they don’t have to deal with too much garbage. and on top of all that, they want enough control to feel like they’re in control.

i guess the great example here is the car radio. there may be dozens of radio stations in a city, representing a wide array of “formats.” there are the country stations and the rock stations and the oldies stations and the talk stations and a bunch of others. there are maybe six buttons on the front of the radio, and those make access to a dozen stations pretty easy. many consumers are willing to spend a few minutes setting up their radio to suit their personal tastes – the rock fan programs the 4 local rock stations and the one that does traffic reports. that’s it. that’s the extent of the active participation they are willing to devote to this issue. the rest is on the program directors. actually, many people aren’t even willing to devote that much effort – they find the one station they like and it never changes, so there’s no reason to program the buttons. does anyone have statistics on how many radio preset buttons go unprogrammed by the passive radio listening audience?

once the buttons are programmed or the dial is set, listening to the radio is pretty much a passive experience – with one exception: if you hate the song (or commercial) on one station, you might hit the next button to get away from it.

the broadest audience hasn’t demonstrated a lot of desire to “get active” – imagine if they’re not even willing to program their radio, just how little time they’re willing to devote to loading up their ipod or setting up playlists or screwing around and updating this widget or gadget. my conclusion: they’re not.

drawing some comparisons

we can even find a ready model of this behavior in the geek universe itself. with geeks, we have mac-fans and linux-fans and windows users. apple creates fans with high-style, high-concept, pride-forming placement. once converted to mac, you really are a fan – and you go out into the world and share that fandom with every geek you meet. it’s an entirely valid approach, and it’s earned mac about 3% (i think that’s the recent figure) of the market. then there are linux fans. the prototypical geek. the equivalent of the musigeek. people willing to get in and muck around a bit. people willing to – even demanding – to know everything about their platform of choice. they’re willing to experiment, learn, fail, reboot, reload, do-over and keep at it until they get their own, custom-tailored, personal supermachine on their desk. that’s worth another 3%3 of the market. the rest – the windows users (and decidely not fans) – are the passive media consumers of the geek world. turn it on, use it, don’t bother me. (and, by the way, willing to put up with minor annoyances…)

it’s difficult to get this perspective when you’re the gadget-designing ubergeek – it’s natural to assume that most people want the things you want. apple made great success catering to the musigeek population with the ipod, and i had high hopes that apple would get this clue with the ipod mini. almost, but not quite.

the future is not now

it’s still early in this new music business, but most of the “solutions” so far involve some level of “active” participation in the music-filtering-and-selection process – and generally a lot more than most people are willing to invest.

once someone’s fallen in love with you – once you’ve established a relationship with your audience, then you can count on some active participation on their part – they’ll come to your concerts, they’ll visit your website, they’ll wade through p2p networks and join your fanclub and create social groups, but you’ll never get there if you demand these things up-front from your audience. they simply have too many easier options.


1 picked that number out of a hat, i’m still looking for someone who can find me a decent source for this top-line number.

2 there are efforts to build software that can “identify hits,” but even these cannot overcome the same limitations that human hit-pickers have – periodically, someone, somewhere has to “break through” with a new (or new old) sound. once that happens (and is recognized), too many “of that type” are piled on. it’s a grunge thing.

3 this article gives mac 2.9%, linux 2.8% and windows 93.8% of the desktop market.

posted by roj at 10:23 pm  

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