Will anything stick with music consumers in the digital age? That was the question posed at two panels at the Americana Music Conference earlier this month in Nashville. Two different groups of the music industry searched for answers and recounted recent years of disruption. Neither group had any definitive answers.

“In the last 20 years,” said Scot Billington, VP of A&R at Rounder Records, “there has been more change than in the previous 40.” Billington was one of five people on a panel titled “Polycarbonate or Virtual? Future of Roots Music Reissues.” Much of the discussion actually was centered on physical box sets, a particularly endangered type of reissue that is most threatened by consumers’ adoption of digital music.

The will to create physical box sets is still alive, as is a feeling of responsibility to act as caretaker for America’s musical heritage. But will and responsibility don’t pay the bills. The panelists doubted box sets will be able to continue to generate enough sales to support the kind of projects the larger reissue labels would undertake.

TOMORROW'S BOX SETS

Tomorrow’s box sets, they said, will be digital affairs. Rhino is a good example of the changes to the reissue label. The company has shifted its structure to be more of a digital-based company, and as a result has got leaner and less likely to undertake cost-intensive projects with high break-even levels. “Most labels are probably going to go down that road,” said James Austin of Rancho Deluxe Productions. As a result, he believes, nicely packaged box sets may be the domain of smaller labels with a break-even point low enough to satisfy niche demands.

Amazon, for example, is now the critical account for making box sets work, said Billington. With chain stores such as Tower Records gone, there are precious few outlets that carry a wide selection of box sets. For box sets with little movement, Amazon is actually a saving grace. The company’s print-on-demand technology can quickly create liners notes for a traditionally configured box set, he said, which allows slow-moving titles to stay in print.

The changing definition of the box set means it may survive in the digital world. It could be access to a website with an always-evolving catalog of content. It could be apps that provide the user with an audio-visual experience that mimics the package and liner notes in a box set. Rounder is experimenting with access models, said Billington, through its Rick n Ron label.

SHAKE UP COMING?

Something, the panelists said, will break out and stick with consumers.
Ironically, that same sentiment was prevalent in a previous panel, “Business Models in Digital Media.” “Subscription is having its golden moment,” said Adam Parness, director of music licensing at Rhapsody. After years of growing pains, the industry will see something stick in the next two years, he predicted. Ben Porter, senior manager, business development at Microsoft, agrees. “The next few months should shake things up,” he told the audience.

But what exactly will happen is anybody’s guess. The last ten years has produced few breakaway hits other than iTunes. Even so, it has been instructive for labels, publishers and digital service providers.

According to the panelists, people want access to music (rather than ownership), a $15 monthly subscription fee is not the answer, and bundling content with services (Napster and broadband for one price, for example).

In reality, we’ve learned what consumers don’t want but have only an elementary grasp on what they do want. Over the years, we’ve learned that not even $5 or $10 a month for unlimited streaming appeals to too many consumers. In fact, the most growth in online streaming is coming from unpaid Internet radio services like Pandora and YouTube.

BUNDLING

We’ve also learned that bundling is unproven yet is the undisputed path to redemption. But will consumers pay extra for these services? Rhapsody, for example, has been bundled with Verizon Wireless, yet has little to show for it. Nokia’s approach to bundling, Comes With Music, has been a disappointing learning experience. In Europe, the bundling of services and data/voice plans is just getting off the ground and hasn’t really proved itself yet.

And we’ve also seen that people always feel the answer (meaning a breakaway product or service that can gain critical mass and bring growth to recorded music) is within site. Four years ago, the turnaround was two years away. Same thing three years ago, and two years ago, and last year.

But the panelists are right: this time it’s different. They hit the nail on the head when they talked about the revolution in mobile devices. Now these services have a modicum of a value proposition that would interest the average consumer. “Mobile and the app store changed it,” said Rhapsody’s Parness of the potential for access models in the era of the app-filled mobile phone. Where consumers were once confined to the applications of the most popular devices (think the iTunes-iPod ecosystem), now the most popular mobile devices (mobile phones) are being opened up to a wide range of service providers.

Maybe the future is not yet certain, but it does feel like it’s finally taking shape.

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboardbiz

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