Pile them high, sell them cheap. That’s the motto of the kings of fast moving consumer goods. The things you buy in this category are treated as low margin, low value-add commodities and the aim of the game is to sell these things as quickly as possible, in enormous volumes, clear the retail shelves and restock them again, with the next gimmicky fast moving product. Fast moving consumer goods are everyday, undifferentiated consumables that people buy on price. Frequent, repeated impulse buys characterise these goods. They are cranked out, in vast quantities, from factories optimised around efficiency and profitability. Nobody cares all that much about quality. Off-shoring is considered to be the best way to keep costs low and profits high. Homogeneous product is the flavour of the month.
What happens when one of the world’s biggest record companies begins to sell music, made by artists, as if they were a fast moving consumer goods? They fail, that’s what. Ask EMI.
In music, the margins to the record companies are actually high. It’s true that it is a fashion industry at one end of the market, but the real money is to be made in building loyal followings for artists which are developed, over a period of decades. Artists work too hard to perfect their skills and make something original, to be discarded like a tin of beans. They are too unique, rare and irreplaceable for that.
Music, at its best, is a highly differentiated product. People like the diversity. Piling music high and selling it cheap doesn’t work for most categories of music. It barely works for disposable, boy-band pop. The music that artists make is high in value-added. Ask anybody middle aged that still hums a tune they heard in their teens. People do not buy music on price alone, despite what the record industry claims about piracy. The pirates have no money, in most cases. Those with money buy what they value and pay a fair price for it.
You might buy a piece of music on impulse, but rarely will you buy on impulse twice, for the same artist. If you decide you don’t like an artist, you won’t buy a second work on price or on impulse. You just won’t buy.
The problem with a company that thinks of music as fast moving consumer goods is that they begin to apply the factory mentality to the artists themselves. The fact is you cannot simply go to a cheaper country and find an authentic Freddie Mercury, or Robbie Williams who will work for less. You cannot offshore that kind of talent. There is no commodity market in unique, original talent. Profits cannot be increased by adding pressure to these artists to crank out more product, tour more, work harder, faster and at a lower cost, either. It just doesn’t work like that. Music is nothing like a fast moving consumer product. Artists are not like producers of fast moving consumer goods, either.
You can’t force an artist to create works of high artistic merit. If you don’t happen to care about the artistic merit of the art on sale, and instead consider it to be a fast moving consumer good, you will be left mystified as to why some music sells and other music does not. Artistic merit happens to be everything.
Artists, wisely, are leaving companies that treat (I originally typed “threat”, but corrected myself) their products as fast moving consumer goods and which treat them as inconveniently expensive producers of those goods in droves. It’s why these record companies are failing, not because of the erosion of profits to piracy. No fast moving consumer good could ever be profitably priced to compete with free. It’s a lunacy to adopt such a sales and marketing strategy. No wonder artists are abandoning these madmen.
Art is unique, artists are irreplaceable individuals and their work takes time and sometimes a great deal of money to reach a high standard of artistic merit. There are no short cuts. The sooner that record companies begin to realise this and act as if it were true, the more chance they have of resurrecting some kind of relevant role for themselves in the world. If they don’t, the right thing will actually happen. They’ll be consigned to history.
Artists are not disposable. Artists are not fast moving consumer goods. It’s time to treat artists and their work with the dignity and respect they are due.