Happy Tuesday! Grammy Week is officially under way. A few hours from now, I’ll be moderating a panel looking into the legal and commercial ramifications of AI-generated and adaptive music at NY:LON Connect. Keep an eye out for a recap in the next issue!
Today’s subject line, which might seem confusing at first, is inspired by renowned Hollywood industry newsletter The Ankler
. In a recent installment titled “Netmare on Underwhelm Street
,” the author Richard Rushfield explains why he’s skeptical about Netflix’s expensive original-content play—marked most recently by Bright
, which stars Will Smith and cost the streaming service $90 million to make.
According to Nielsen, Bright attracted 11 million viewers from Dec. 22–24, 2017. Assuming an average ticket price of around $10, that would’ve equated to a $100 million debut at the box office.
Unfortunately, as a streaming service, Netflix won’t see any of that traditional ticketed revenue, and is banking on being able to make up for steep content budgets with more monthly subscribers (my guess is that the majority of those 11 million viewers of Bright probably weren’t from new subs). Until then, the only real short-term benefit of Bright is yet another opportunity to harvest consumer data, which has been Netflix’s strength all along anyway.
According to its latest earnings report, Netflix added a record 8.3 million new subscribers
in Q4 2017—but this was presumably thanks to the enduring success of its original TV series like Stranger Things
rather than its not-so-blockbuster films. To that end, Rushfield ingeniously sheds light on a higher-level difference between film and TV that shows why Netflix’s increased spending on original movies is incongruous with its core business:
Television, with so many choices—even in the days of just three networks—is about discovery and building a relationship. Film has always been about being part of an event.
In other words, Netflix is arguably in the relationship business, not in the event business.
A similar tension pervades the music industry today. The traditional music retail model is event-driven: fans wait in line in front of the store for hours to buy a physical album, after months of buildup from radio promo for singles. The streaming model tends to be more relationship-driven: fans return to the same service every day or week to see how their personalized playlists are changing (either because it conveniently costs nothing to do or because it costs a monthly fee that encourages repeat behavior), while artists and their teams see the services’ convoluted playlist ecosystems and algorithms as games to master over a longer period of time using a wider catalog.
(If you’re not convinced that Spotify is in the relationship business, Spotify literally inspired a Black Mirror episode about dating apps.
The episode’s director envisioned a device that would generate “a playlist of relationships.” Doesn’t get more in-your-face than that.)
Over the past few years, more and more artists across the spectrum of genre and career stage have transitioned from a one-off event mindset (film) to a recurring relationship mindset (TV). Kanye West famously pulled this off with The Life of Pablo
, which added or changed tracks every couple of weeks and, some say, conceptualized the album as software
. Later that year, Flume declared he was “sick of making albums
” and, staying true to his word, has only released music in single or EP form ever since.
Such transitions are happening even in historically album-centric environments. John Mayer sparked debate among his fans when he announced that he would be unbundling his upcoming album
into groups of four tracks each, claiming that “there were too many songs to ever get out the door at once.” At the Jazz Congress
in NYC earlier this month, drummer Nate Smith admitted that most of his lasting traction on Facebook came from making 30-second viral drum videos every week, not just from his one-off album release. Put another way, he catered to his core fans by crafting a TV show, not a film, about his life.
I’m not saying music streaming services should necessarily start making TV shows. In fact, you may have noticed that no music service to date has successfully executed a Netflix-style original video content strategy. The song (and playlist), not the video, remains the primary relationship currency for music streaming.
But whether we’re talking about Discover Weekly on Spotify, uploads of rough unmastered cuts to SoundCloud or even aggressive outreach
to YouTube reaction-video channels, I would argue that the most successful music marketing strategies across the board interpret the streaming user experience as episodic TV without a finale—and treat binge-listening to an album or playlist as an equally potent relationship-driver as binge-watching a Netflix show
. Playlists and TV shows are obviously different formats serving different business models, but we cannot ignore the increasingly episodic tendencies of music consumption.