New York Times Magazine in its September 2 issue featured a profile of Rick Rubin, co-head of Columbia Records. If you want to understand why the record business is in free-fall (and why radio may well follow it into the abyss), the article is well worth reading.
The most telling quote is not from Rubin, but from David Geffen. “The music business as a whole has lost its faith in content....It’s no longer about making music, it’s all about how to sell music.” Substitute radio for record and the observation is just as accurate.
As part of the company’s attempt to figure out how to sell music, Columbia invited 20 college students to work on digital marketing and promotion projects over last summer. At the end of summer, they conducted focus groups with the students, “to try to take the pulse of the elusive music audience.” Mark DiDia, head of operations at Columbia summarized what they learned:
They confirmed what we already knew....The kids all said that a) no one listens to the radio anymore, b) they mostly steal music, but they don’t consider it stealing, and c) they get most of their music from iTunes on their iPod.....The biggest thing in their life is word of mouth. That’s how they hear about music, bands, everything.
If this is an example for what passes for research at the labels, it’s no wonder the business is in trouble. Having a couple dozen college students work at Columbia for the summer and then having them participate in research that purports to measure the pulse of a whole generation rivals focus groups done in station conference rooms. Worse than providing worthless information, this kind of research provides misleading and distracting information.
Cume ratings in college age demos have declined from 96% in 1998 to 92% this year. TSL has declined from 21 hours to 18 hours. So the notion that “no one listens to radio anymore” is obviously false. Since this is apparently something that DiDia already knew, one wonders whether the observation was something these students believed before hand or something they learned at Columbia. Equally telling is another comment by Rubin:
There was a time when if you had something that wasn’t good, through muscle and lack of other choices, you could push that not so good product through those channels. And that’s how the music business functioned for 50 years. Well, the world has changed. And the industry has not.
As with the earlier quote, we could replace music with radio and the assessment would be as valid. When listeners had limited options, we could produce not so good programming and do ok. Today that doesn’t work. People now have options. They don’t have to put up with a dozen radio stations. They can now shop around. If they can’t find what they want on the radio, there’s satellite, there’s streaming, and there’s downloading. The world has changed. And the (radio) industry has not. Unless we want to become just as irrelevant as the record industry, we have to change.