Musings of an Internet Marketing Consultant
Musings of an Internet Marketing Consultant

Saturday, April 12, 2003

How to Kill a Cultural Gem

Over the past few years the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has taken a lot of heat for their high-handed, hard-nosed, self-serving approach to the issue of compensating artists through standard royalties paid for every purchased recording. Silicon Valley | 04/10/2003 | Decline in CD sales apparently unrelated to proliferation of lousy music

Yet technology has raised a new challenge to this business model as the copying and downloading of music via the Internet has become rampant, especially amongst a computer-literate younger generation. Effectively they have thrown down the gauntlet, telling the RIAA to give them better value-add in order to get compensated. These kids know the production costs for CD's are minimal; they have little or no understanding of distribution mechanisms and costs (especially when they can readily download off the Internet). They perceive the RIAA and its members as an expensive middleman of, at best, little value. This industry is crying for a new business model in order to ensure sustainable revenues to the artists and to encourage new artists to invest in developing their artistic talents.

It was my experience in selling the world's most popular PC utility software of its day (early 1990's) that the proliferation of illegal copying encouraged trials which often resulted in large volume purchases of the fully licensed software and continued to take us to new sales levels, provided we continued to deliver value-add with each upgrade. There has to develop a happy balance where creative genius is rewarded but not at the expense of weighty overhead.

But to my point: a better business model would only solve part of the problem. The RIAA likes to trumpet reduced sales figures as evidence of the impact of this copying. They refuse to look at other issues such as:
  • poorer quality of music offerings
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  • rapid acceptance of the content and quality offered by alternative and new recording technologies such as DVD with its 5.1 channel sound formats, and
  • ,
  • the competition for consumer time posed by the emergence of other leisure and entertainmnet activities such as Internet surfing

  • In summary their singular focus on the copying issue is allowing other issues to ferment and equally threaten their survival. They fail to listen to their audience and to recognize how they are perceived.

    Over the past few weeks I have been involved in the aquisition and installation of a new 'digital pipe' organ at my local church. We purchased an instrument incorporating this technology since our previous traditional pipe organ technology had failed to prove its durability in a labour intensive industry that invoked significant maintenance costs. Our priorities are promoting a community ministry delivering spiritual guidance; we are definitely not there to support the high cost traditional pipe organ industry.

    We effectively acquired three new organs with a lot more flexibility for the musician to express him-/herself in 2003 for the same amount paid in 1980 dollars for the last upgrade. And the most important factor in the decision was that there be no perceived compromise in the quality of music delivered relative to a traditional pipe organ. Whether it's a pop concert or a religious service, the audience participates or attends because they want an inspiring experience from music. We visited three installations and widely distributed a sample CD with a range of recordings; by the time of making the final decision we had reached the point where the issue of changing technologies became a non-issue.

    One perception problem associated with the discussion of organs is the sound quality associated with "electronic" organs. Traditionally they have been synthesizer-based and cannot truly reproduce the quality of a traditional pipe organ. As a physicist and engineer who has sold vibration and noise analyis equipment, I can vouch for that; one cannot truly compensate via synthesis for the geometry of a traditional organ pipe and all the associated harmonics it would generate.

    The recent arrival of higher speed audio processing chips and much lower cost per megabyte memory has made it economically viable to produce an organ based on "digital sampling". In this case each organ pipe (associated with a particular musical note) is recorded digitally, capturing all the harmonics and their respective contributions to the overall sound; the manufacturer has built up a library not only of organ stops but also various orchestral instruments and even a "cathedral choir". Differentiation within this market occurs due to proprietary techniques used in the recording exercise to ensure capture of an authentic pipe organ sound with its associated chiffs, slight detuning and effects of varying wind pressure during a keystroke.

    The organ vendor can then create organs of various "tonal specifications" from this library by storing the digital samples from the selected stops in the organ's sound card memory. Each tonal specification comprises a full organ itself with, say, 20 to 80 stops; the 'digital pipe' organ can have multiple tonal specifications (thus effectively multiple organs). Sound processor chips then process the sound to generate the audio signal ready for amplication. When processed through high end amplifiers and speakers especially selected for sound production (not reproduction), the result is stunning to say the least.

    Customer Perception In our evaluations all three churches we visited were enthusiastic in their praise for their new acquistion; for instance, one benefit turns out to be improved congregational singing. This is a great example of Tom Peters marketing axiom "Perception is all there really is". Yet there persists a segment of the organist community out there that claims a traditional pipe organ sound experience cannot be generated by other than a pipe organ. Their attitude is contributing to declining acceptance of organs as having any role in a music ministry. Maybe cost, maintenance, reliability and accessibility have something to do with this decline!

    Technological innovation provides the means to rebuild a much broader audience for organ music but their intransigence and stridency is scaring off the recruitment of prospective young organists in any significant numbers. To their credit our young generation has developed a sixth sense of associating value with a satisfying experience based on appreciation of artistic performance; they have also developed contempt for unjustified, expensive infrastructure that restricts access to these performances. Just as with the recording industry, this market needs a new business model and 'digital pipe' organs can provide the basis for this model. Just as with the recording industry, singular focus on one issue is allowing other issues to ferment and threaten overall survival.

    Comments on marketing organs employing this innovative technology:

  • The organ is probably the world's longest running ongoing technology development process. From the Ancient Greek Hydraulis to today's 'digital pipe' organ, the organ has gone through continuous technology transitions. The consistent driver was to have a reliable instrument while authentically generating organ sounds. The initial debate was whether water hydraulics could be replaced by wind-driven technology to regulate the air pressure of the wind entering the pipes. This new digital-based technology as a logical continuation of this evolutionary process.
  • The need to define an organ: Probably the most comprehensive, unversal definition I have heard is "An organ is a one person orchestra". This is a definition that survives the ages; it allows the organist to express him-/herself through a wide range of string, wind, reed and percussion instruments whether through pipe ranks designed to match a specific instrument or actual recordings of the instrument. Ultimate flexibility for artistic expression is the potential here.

  • The audience only worries about what it hears at the eardrum - in reality, perception is all there really is!. The ear does not care a whit about the sound generating technology but rather the psychological impact of the music at the eardrum.

  • The interface to the organist must remain consistent: drawstops or tabstops, thumb and toe pistons, mulitple 61-note keyboards (manuals) and a 32-note concave and radiating pedalboard built to the North American AGO standards must be the interface. The traditional organist must be able to walk up to the instrument and immediately be able to commence playing such that s/he receives a familiar response to any hand or foot action.

    One has to find a new term for this genre of organ -- the term "electronic organ" has too many associated negative implications. I would suggest either "Digital Organ" or "Digital Pipe Organ". In the latter the "digital pipes" are those audio processing cards storing the pipe (or instrument) notes in a digital format ready for sound generation upon the hitting of an organ key. Given that these organs not only produce sounds from traditional pipes but also orchestral instrumentation, thereby expanding the resources of the "one person orchestra", the term "Digital Organ" allows for more universality of interpretation.

    Bottom line: if these neanderthals of organists wish to expand the acceptance and market for organ music they need to open up and listen. Otherwise the 33rpm phonograph discs of organ recordings may be the only anthropological evidence available of traditional pipe organs in the 22nd century. (Smile folks, I really do own some CD recordings of traditional pipe organs -- even a 5.1 surround sound one -- but I still turn to that sample CD from the vendor for the best organ listening experience.)

    This is a great example of failing to understand the market; failing to see the trends and failing to deliver on a responsibility to be stewards of an artistic form of expression with a long history of inspirational performances. In summary their singular focus on the technology issue is allowing other issues to ferment and equally threaten their survival. They fail to listen to their audience and to recognize how they are perceived. These guys need a new business model; the new technology provides the means to deliver it.

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