Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Demise of the Music Industry: Rookies Competing with Babe Ruth

In a great article today, the Wall Street Journal reported that music (CD) sales are plummeting:
In a dramatic acceleration of the seven-year sales decline that has battered the music industry, compact-disc sales for the first three months of this year plunged 20% from a year earlier, the latest sign of the seismic shift in the way consumers acquire music.
How bad are we talking? Really bad.
This year has already seen the two lowest-selling No. 1 albums since Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks music sales, was launched in 1991. One week, "American Idol" runner-up Chris Daughtry's rock band sold just 65,000 copies of its chart-topping album; another week, the "Dreamgirls" movie soundtrack sold a mere 60,000. As recently as 2005, there were many weeks when such tallies wouldn't have been enough to crack the top 30 sellers. In prior years, it wasn't uncommon for a No. 1 record to sell 500,000 or 600,000 copies a week.

But there's hope -- consumers haven't abandoned music entirely, reports the Journal:
Apple Inc.'s sale of around 100 million iPods shows that music remains a powerful force in the lives of consumers.
What's going on here?

Well, as a guy who has recently gotten back into music after a long hiatus, I can report the not-so-startling fact that while there are a lot of great bands out there, there are very, very few that can possibly compare to the murderer's row of the greatest hits of the past six decades of rock n' roll, and even fewer that can defeat the combined forces of rock, jazz, blues, classical, baroque, and whatever else I've forgotten -- all of which is sitting in my iPod, waiting to be played.

You're a rookie pitcher. You've made the major leagues. Your first game arrives, and you face the following lineup, all in their prime:

Ozzie Smith
Willie Mays
Ted Williams
Hank Aaron
Babe Ruth
Barry Bonds
Lou Gehrig
Joe DiMaggio
George Brett

What are you going to do? Maybe take up cricket. Maybe take up golf.

That's the sort of situation that faces your average rock band today. You write some nice lyrics and some clever hooks, and you get your block knocked off by Arethra Franklin or Frank Sinatra or The King Himself or a goddamn Foreigner greatest hits, and you ask yourself, what's a hard-working musician gotta do to get some sales? If Oasis had been started in the 60s, we'd talk about them like we do the Rolling Stones, or at least Eric Clapton -- but they were 30 years too late, so we forget how great they were for those two awesome albums.

iPods are the problem with new music sales -- there sits 30GB of music, some of which, with normal human diligence I haven't gotten to in a year, and yet shuffle play brings it up in queue to me, and keeps me from buying new stuff, unless that new stuff is so irredeemably awesome that I would kill myself if I didn't.

This doesn't mean that a great band can't carve out a niche for itself. It can play live gigs, it can engage with its fans, it can politic for the starving of Africa, it can do all the things that dead icons can't quite pull off. But primary on the list of things it *can't* do better is move CDs through Wherehouse, which is the problem that the music industry must face.

Some clever person pointed out a few years back that Microsoft's biggest remaining competitor in the OS and desktop application was its own installed base. Hello, music business: Steve Jobs didn't kill you with iTunes, he destroyed you with shuffle play of the vast, awesome archive of your past success.

Babe Ruth wins, rookie. Now whatcha gonna do?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Political season comes early: I shook Barack Obama's hand

A group of us went to the Barack Obama rally in Oakland yesterday. Jodi, the sister of my college roommate Mark, works on the campaign, so we ended up getting very good seats near the podium. I got a bunch of great pictures which are up on Flickr, and SFGate got a great photo of me and Barack right before I shook his hand:

Ethan and Barack
Click on the photo to see my whole set on Flickr.

I'm still undecided between Hillary and Barack, and I wish a decent Republican candidate would emerge to really push whichever Democratic candidate takes the nomination. It was great to see him speak in person, and hear how he played to a very liberal crowd without pandering. It's going to be an interesting 20 months of politics.

I think that democracy is working better because of the Internet -- six or eight years ago, this sort of posting and communication about candidates simply was not part of normal conversation.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Eyetracking study proves men are... men

This is completely sad and completely predictable. Men of the world, be warned -- increasingly sophisticated consumer research technology is exposing just how silly we actually are.

From the Annenberg Online Journalism Review:
Although both men and women look at the image of George Brett when directed to find out information about his sport and position, men tend to focus on private anatomy as well as the face. For the women, the face is the only place they viewed.

Coyne adds that this difference doesn’t just occur with images of people. Men tend to fixate more on areas of private anatomy on animals as well, as evidenced when users were directed to browse the American Kennel Club site.
I'm going to go watch the Discovery Channel now.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Where is the Amazon birthday present planner?

This is a billion-dollar idea that I hereby give to Amazon for free. Why? Because they have everything it takes to make it happen, and I want it now.

My sister Meg in Philadelphia has four children -- Connor, Nick, Lucy, and Bea. They're all less than eight years old, and somehow their birthdays seem to show up more than once a year.

But it's not just family members who are multiplying my chances to give. My local friends have all apparently gotten a secret telegraph signal to breed; at our recent ski weekend in Tahoe, there were 13 adults, 7 children under 3, one in the oven, and one on the, er, drawing board. Drawing bed? :-)

That's a lot of presents! Clearly, I need help. Let me make my motive clear. I am not just looking to buy these chillun' any old present out of some misplaced social urge crossed with good old American excess consumption. There are particular gifts that I want to get them -- great books I read as a kid, cool science toys, that sort of stuff. But I'm always frantic and behind the curve when their birthday comes, and the timing of me having a great present idea never seems to correlate with a suitable birthday.

I want the present planner from Amazon.

They've already built most of it. They already have most of my friends' shipping addresses in their system, a legacy of gifts past. They have a huge catalog of stuff. All they need to do is allow me to enter the name and birthday of the kids at each address, and create a special shopping cart / present pool that I can throw stuff into at any time during the year. Then, either prompted or un-prompted, they mail an appropriate, pre-chosen gift out a week in advance, gift-wrapped from Unka Ethan.

It's yet another instance of ERP for people.

That's version 1.0.

Version 2.0 is for the harried person who really doesn't know what to get his nephew. For this to work, Amazon only needs to collect one additional piece of information -- the age of each kid. Then, they will begin to learn what 5 year olds in zip code 44691 are getting for their birthdays. At scale, they can use this to make awesome recommendations -- "here's what her friends are getting from their uncles."

I can't believe this hasn't been done yet. It's a logical explosion of the PIM into verticals. Amazon already stores task-specific address book information, and it should start providing task-specific calendaring as well.

Heck, they should provide an Outlook upload feature -- I'd add a bunch of people to their address pool if they built this.

I can't wait. Please hurry, Amazon. Make yourselves a billion dollars.