My first day as editor of Billboard.biz was January 3rd of this year. There were four major labels, Doug Morris was still at Universal (officially, anyway), Barry Weiss was still with Sony, Edgar Bronfman Jr. was still CEO of Warner, EMI was still owned by Guy Hands' Terra Firma group. Bon Iver was not a four-time-Grammy-nominated artist but an underground indie musician who'd made one great album and gotten a big break by guesting on Kanye West's then-new "Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" LP. Music in the cloud was spoken about in largely speculative terms, and everybody was talking furtively about this unavailable-in-the-U.S. music service called Spotify like it was some awesome new recreational drug, which it kind of is ("Have you tried Spotify yet?").
If it sounds like I'm talking about a bygone era, that's how it feels: What a year it's been to report on the music business.
We've had drama of the highest order: the old big record business played an epic (pun intended) game of musical chairs with its executives; two majors were sold and four became three. Producer/artists like Dr. Luke and Tricky Stewart and No I.D. and artist managers like Gee Roberson and Brandon Creed are becoming label executives; label executives like Jimmy Iovine and L.A. Reid are becoming TV stars. Beats by Dre is aiming to make big headphones a fashion accessory. The indie world finally, formally took its place at the big table with big Grammy wins for the Arcade Fire early in the year and big Grammy nominations for Bon Iver, Mumford & Sons and Skrillex last week. The battle for control of music in the digital clouds is in full swing; and the new music business continued being born in a swirl of startups as vibrant and dense as schools of anchovies. The subscription model - which feels like the most logical end result of our decade of awkward transitioning from physical to digital - seems to be finally snapping into shape.
Make no mistake: the music biz is in the middle of a very long and painful transition from one business model to a new and undefined one. But it does feel like we turned a corner this year.
Despite the grim economy, there's a sense that - touch wood -- the worst is over, as artists and companies and brands try new things and succeed and (mostly) fail, and we all continue to wrap our heads, hearts and wallets around a world in which music isn't an object or even a possession anymore, but - in terms of artists' livelihood, anyway -- a means to sell tickets, placements, merch, swag, scents, booze and every other conceivable revenue tributary of Brand Me.
To that end, the '90s-era, indie-rock pose of non-commercial artistic integrity is truly dead - what is "selling out" when artists can barely get paid for selling their music? - as bands and brands have gotten a lot savvier about their partnerships. After the cringeworthy early years of that courtship -- okay, who remembers this amazing grunge-era Subaru commercial, starring a young Jeremy Davies: "It's just like punk, except it's a car" -- the marriage is blooming. The gap has been bridged, people are accustomed to and accepting of branding coming with entertainment, and while we might not want to see a giant corporate logo over the drum kit when a band is performing, signage around the venue isn't a big deal; it's no worse than sitting through a 15-second ad before viewing web content we want to see. Brands have bcome patrons as well as partners: Just look at Converse's Rubber Tracks Studio or Scion's record label or Mountain Dew funding Holy Ghost's tour and single. Seriously, apart from the beginning of this paragraph, when's the last time you even heard the term "sellout"?
But there's no question that the battle to define how we consume music has been the most momentous event of the year. Amazon fired the shot across the bow in the wee hours of March 29 by launching its cloud service; Google Music's Beta service, Spotify's U.S. launch and Facebook Music soon followed suit. Even the struggling Myspace - which was long the most complete archive of free streaming music on the web - was sold to Specific Media and announced a major facelift and a new company executive in the form of Justin Timberlake, although stability still seems a long way off. Amazon drew traffic to its cloud service by offering Lady Gaga's new album "Born This Way" for just $.99 for two days - losing millions and enraging other retailers, many of whom accused the company of devaluing music even further. Spotify's launch hasn't been without bumps either, as many artists look at the possibility of so many songs available at such a low cost from streaming services and ask, "What exactly am I getting out of this?" Outside of the cloud, the digital-music world flowered in a swarm of startups and seemingly weekly conferences - far too many to cram into a couple of sentences here, especially since the subject was dissected exhaustively by nearly all of the major players at Billboard's FutureSound summit in San Francisco last month.
Of course, Billboard.biz and our stellar team of reporters were there every step of the way. We broke news on Enrique Iglesias pulling out of Britney Spears' North American tour just hours after announcing he was joining it; Sylvia Rhone leaving Universal Motown; Epic Records planning to hire Tricky Stewart as head of A&R; and Mattel's plans to create a one-of-a-kind Nicki Minaj Barbie doll for a charity auction. On a daily basis, Glenn Peoples brings the changing shape of the business into perspective with his Business Matters column; Ed Christman brings years of experience to the label, publishing and retail worlds; Ray Waddell does the same with touring and management. There were many other highlights this year: Kyle Bylin not only analyzed digital music users' habits but coined the phrase "Capture Culture." Benjamin Meadows-Ingram debunked a widely circulated report that Drake had left his management. And Steven Horowitz's piece on how Jay-Z and Kanye beat the leakers with "Watch the Throne" is one of the best we published all year. Even bigger props and thanks are due to my partners in .Biz Mitch Peters and especially Andy Gensler for their dedication and enthusiasm, and of course, thanks and props to our boss Bill Werde for both inspiring and browbeating us to do our best. As a result, Billboard.biz experienced steady audience growth throughout 2011, with unique visitors up 47% last month from the same period last year, according to Google Analytics.
What all of these changes will mean for our material and emotional investment in music remains to be seen: buying an album used to be much more of decision, more of a statement, than it is now, when you can take or leave thousands for nothing or next-to-nothing. (Three of the albums in my top 10 this year - The Weeknd's "House of Balloons," Frank Ocean's "Nostalgia, Ultra." and Araabmuzik's "Electronic Dream" -- not only are available for free from artists' websites, they don't even officially exist in physical form, although the latter is being released next week.) But despite the hard bumps the music business has taken in the past decade -- bumps that our colleagues in the film, book and video-game worlds are just beginning to take themselves -- music and its business are more present, more ubiquitous, and more available than ever before. Nothing breeds innovation like disruption, and we're seeing plenty of both. Anything goes.
It's all exciting as hell, and it will probably only get more so. We can't wait to see what 2012 will bring, and we can't wait to bring it to you.
Jem Aswad, Editor