Radiohead’s recent experiment with selling music directly to consumers wasn’t exactly a massive success.
So it was with great interest that I read Greg Sandoval’s recent News.com piece, “Don't miss lessons Radiohead, Trent Reznor offer.”
The most interesting observation was that:
"...the music business is probably better left in the hands of businessmen. Musicians are not the new labels. Artists need someone to provide financial support and business acumen. If we end up ridding the world of labels, we'll only have to re-create them -- in some other, probably more nimble form."
You see, making music is one thing, but marketing and distributing music requires the kind of effort that any self-respecting musician should balk at. Sandoval referred to this as 'heavy lifting', and heavy lifting is something musicians like Reznor struggle with.
"He sounded like a guy who had been working too hard. He said he poured 18 months of his life into helping make NiggyTardust. Not only did he put up his own money, he produced the album, performed on it, oversaw all of the business tasks right down to the writing of the text on Williams' website.
"Artists who sign with a label don't perform these chores. Executives packing MBAs and years of business expertise do. Is that a good thing? Not necessarily, but that division of labor helps."
Reznor himself was quoted as saying "I'm spending a lot more time being the business guy than the musician and I really don't like doing that." An admission that working at the sharp end of the music business isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Sandoval sums this up with an obvious realisation: "Perhaps an old-fashioned record label doing all the behind-the-scenes work isn't the best idea for the future of music. But someone has to do it."
As I thought about this article, it occurred to me that Reznor's / Radiohead’s experience is relevant elsewhere.
The internet has been touted as a disintermediation platform in many industries. Quite a few people have been sold on the idea that the internet can eliminate the middleman altogether for many businesses.
Many agencies see the Googles of the world as enemies that threaten their very existence and Google’s DoubleClick acquisition has only increased agency fears. But if the lessons learned by Trent Reznor and Radiohead are any example, it’s likely that the situation is much more nuanced.
Yes, agencies will have to adapt and learn to adjust to the new reality, but more seem to be doing just that, as can be seen by Publicis’ recent ties with Google.
The truth is that while it’s natural to have unfavourable perceptions about “middlemen”, many honestly do serve a legitimate purpose.
From shouldering risk to taking on tasks that other parties are ill-equipped or unwilling to bother themselves with, middlemen are often around for a reason -they do provide some value, even if they’ve typically had the ability to overcharge for it.
The internet may force them to change their models and limit their ability to overcharge, but the value they provide does exist and will ensure the survival of those who demonstrate an ability to adapt.
As such, I don’t think the agency itself will die. It will have to adjust to a changing world. Challenge is opportunity for those who recognise this.
At the end of the day, I believe that the internet will be a motivator for change at the agencies more than it will be a cause of death.
As Trent Reznor learned, marketing is hard work and sometimes the involvement of a middleman is desirable, even if it sometimes seems that the value of this work has been overrated.