As a marketer it gives me shudders of appaling delight to see phrases like “moving up the Value Funnel” in a music comments box, so you can imagine I’ve found Hypebot’s posts on “the rise of the Musical Middle Class” very interesting. (He’s using a specific definition of “middle class”, by the way – talking about bands who cut out the middleman and make a reasonable living essentially through good fan relationships, and he’s suggesting that this is the model to follow in music 2.0)
If he’s right – and there’s plenty of debate on Hypebot’s own site about whether or not he is – then there are two main implications that worry me.
Well, there’s a third one, which is “Is this music going to be any good?”, but we’ll leave that aside.
The first one is a problem of experimentation. If you cut out middlemen and make money directly through fan service – giving the fans what they want – then you become enormously vulnerable to what they expect. Sudden shifts in musical direction, innovation, experimentation – if your ‘brand image’ includes these things anyway then fair enough, but otherwise can you afford to go in an artistic direction which only 20% of your existing fanbase will enjoy (at least immediately)? Of course if you’re signed to a label these questions also crop up but there’s surely more of a cushion in terms of getting it wrong. Maybe I’m being overly cynical about fans, though.
The second one is a problem of communication. In the middle-class model, where every band caters independently to its fans, what happens to a shared context? One of the delights of music is that you can talk about it with almost anyone – you’re pretty much bound to find some stuff you’ve both heard, even if you disagree about it. What happens to that under the middle-class model. Since the model is “core fans pay, casual fans don’t”, it might not matter – but you’re very reliant on word-of-mouth and word-of-web to win those casual fans, and the nature of the model means you have to focus on the paying fans. As with the first issue, the big unanswered questions are “what percentage of music listeners actually want to discover new music?” and “how much work are they willing to do to discover it?” and “what does ‘new’ mean for them anyway?”. I think the answers to all three questions tend to the conservative.
It’s an interesting debate, but even if I believe the “middle-class music” world is what’s coming, I wouldn’t exactly cheerlead for it.