In Music, the Money Is Made Around the Edges; In Pre-Grammy Tradition, Executives Seek Ways to Boost Profits With Freebies, Interactive Videos

In Music, the Money Is Made Around the Edges

In Pre-Grammy Tradition, Executives Seek Ways to Boost Profits With Freebies, Interactive Videos


Jan. 26, 2014 7:22 p.m. ET

LOS ANGELES—While much of the music industry was busy last week feting Grammy nominees, several dozen artist managers, technologists and record-label executives met for breakfast at a private club on the Sunset Strip to discuss a more urgent matter: how to make more money.

A pre-Grammy tradition that started several years ago known as the Big Bang Forum, the tech-focused discussion highlighted an uncomfortable reality: While Grammy wins and performances still boost record sales and exposure, the glory is increasingly muted as record sales make up a shrinking piece of most artists’ income.

The speakers included Tim Quirk, GoogleInc. GOOG -3.13% ‘s head of programming for music and digital-media store Google Play. Mr. Quirk talked candidly about Google’s long-term strategy to make a “profit center” by charging different consumers different prices for the same songs.

Yoni Bloch, founder of Israeli technology startup Interlude, showed why low-cost interactive music videos—such as recently released clips for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”—garner far more advertising dollars than the traditional videos. Helping drive interest, fans can click on the videos to customize everything from the song lyrics to the instruments band members play.

SFX Entertainment Inc. SFXE +2.72% plans to make more money from social media than from selling tickets to the dozens of electronic-dance-music festival’s the promotion company has snapped up in recent years, said Chris Stephenson, SFX’s chief marketing officer.

“There’s a 5% to 10% margin on these events—that’s not what the business is. People are reliving that moment 365 days a year,” said Mr. Stephenson, noting that one of SFX’s festivals, Tomorrowland, was streamed live by 16.9 million people last year, and has been viewed 100 million times. The company plans to capitalize on that ongoing interest by corralling social-media followers onto a central platform where brands can advertise.

Google’s Mr. Quirk said his vision to make money in music involved catering to three different groups: fans looking for free tunes; fans willing to pay a small amount to rent or stream music from its subscription service, All Access; and superfans who will pay almost any price for a memento associated with their favorite act. As an example, he cited devotees of the rock band Kiss who want to be buried in a “Kiss coffin.”

The trick, Mr. Quirk said, is to market to all three groups at once. Albums, for example, should be presented as free apps, including access to some content but requiring eventual purchase for certain songs, features, or merchandise, he said.

Google Play’s early experiments have yielded mixed results, he said. A global promotion for the now defunct British punk pioneers The Clash in September—for which Google paid “a significant amount” to produce documentary interviews with the band’s four surviving members—did “not necessarily recoup” the video investment, he said, and only sold several hundred downloads in Belgium, for example. But the promotion, which also featured free Clash cover songs and $175 box sets, helped to significantly increase Google’s share of the music market, he said. Google doesn’t disclose its music sales.

“We have to get people used to buying stuff on Google,” Mr. Quirk said.

Among the other lessons Google has learned: It’s far easier to funnel fans from free to paid content on genre-specific sites than it is on a general-music home page. While the company struggled to get country-music fans to connect with general Google Play promotions, its country page has become its most lucrative.

Google also started eking out more revenue from its emerging artists page, “Antenna,” when it began offering a multi-artist sampler free of charge instead of focusing on one artist at a time.

“When it was single [artists] we could not get people to download these tracks—now the site has the best conversion rate,” he said. “Free is where you have to start, but free is not enough.”

Google is also gathering data on which types of fans are most likely to make purchases if given freebies. While track and album giveaways generally pay for themselves within a week, Mr. Quirk said, some generate far more sales than others.

A decade ago, as a member of the alternative rock band Wonderlick, Mr. Quirk said that to fund the completion of an album, the band ran a presale letting fans name their price and promising fans who paid more than the average that their names would be published in the CD liner notes. Fans paid an average of $32 an album, he said, with no one paying less than $5.

“So this [stuff] works, basically,” he said.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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