Product Innovation In Music

When we think of product innovation in the music industry, much of the focus centers on new ways to create music and new ways for fans to consume it.  As far back as piano rolls, the idea of having a machine play your favorite music in your own home was amazing, this iterated into piano rolls and player modules that better captured and reproduced the nuances of a better performance (eg. dynamics, attack, etc.). Welte-Mignon brought the public Debussy playing Debussy the way Debussy intended! This natural progression can be seen throughout the industry’s history with the phonograph, radio, film, television, cassette to cd, streaming, and so on.  As new technology brought us more music to listen to, the business and administration side has always reacted with ways to properly manage and exploit rights; mechanical royalties, performance rights societies, licensing of rights for new media just to name a few. However, with all of the progress on the macro level of the business side, there is still a lot of room for innovation. The challenge is how do we productize the business and administration side of the industry with the same level of innovation that the production and consumption of music has been given? Let us explore….

What is a Product in the first place?

For the sake of this piece, let’s call a product an aggregation of parts & commodities, packaged with a brand, in order to create a usable, productive, satisfying experience, which is then sold. Huh? Maybe this is better explained with an example:

A bunch of steel, 3rd party machined parts, tires, a computer, all wheel driving system, etc. is “an aggregation of parts and commodities”that could make an SUV.

The SUV “packaged with a brand,” say Subaru, could bring us one of several Subaru SUV models which are likely creating an image in your head of who buys it and where they drive it.

The ability to drive the car (usable), to your destination, through the woods with a mountain bike on the back, in the snow with skis on the roof, to the beach with a surfboard (productive), all the while remaining content because it never fails, and you didn’t pay the price of an Audi.

So for music, a product such as the Spotify® or Apple Music® app could be described as the aggregation of: licensed music (the commodity) delivered through graphical user interface that sits on a robust tech infrastructure (some parts) that gets people to the music they want, or never knew they wanted, with ease (the brand, usability, experience, etc.). Taking any product through the same exercise starts to reveal why one is chosen over the other, why some brands are more successful than others. During product development at Muserk, we use this exercise as a means to identify the real issues at hand and begin the process of building the solutions that address them head-on. So let’s now dive into what we can do about innovation in the music business.

Don’t confuse pain points with problems

At Muserk, we remain focused on the root of industry challenges.  We strive to stop identifying broad pain points and pretend they are the problem. They are, in fact, the symptom. Instead, we break them down and arrange them within a respective process. There is no shortage in our industry of pinpointing issues in copyright, royalty collections, lack of transparency and so on. Anyone who has attended a music industry panel knows we are great at identifying issues in the industry, and that is a good thing. Unfortunately, sometimes panels can be on parity with a New York City co-op shareholder meeting where people complain about the same things as last year and offer no practical solutions. At times solutions can even be met with ire as jaded individuals equally dread both their current circumstances and the change that could do them some good. Alternatively, taking the pile of identified pain points, breaking them down to their individual problems, and arranging them in an order to identify their place within a process will uncover their effect on a crucial dependency (i.e. a very important point of failure). It is a focus on these real issues that lead us to effective solutions. For example, with personal finance “I don’t have enough money” is a problem – really a symptom – we all face at one point or another.  When broken down it is because of an income problem or spending problem. If it’s an income problem, it could be because your gross pay rate is too low, or the number of hours/days to which the rate is applied are too low. Or maybe your net pay is being affected by a wage garnishment, or another withholding. Your problem may even pivot. You might find that a pre-tax retirement contribution is affecting your net income and doesn’t support your eating out/coffee habit. You decide the compound interest over 30 years is in fact better than the convenience of not making your lunch/coffee, and your perceived income problems are in fact a spending problem. Solution: make your own damn coffee and lunch!

Let’s identify and arrange

One major pain point in the industry that we, Muserk, alleviate is:

…having no idea how much a rights holder should be making but there is a strong feeling it should be more…

This pain point  is really a symptom of a whole bunch of underlying issues embedded in a ton of processes that span across the globe. The recording and publishing industries consist of many data pipelines, supply chains, royalty streams fragmented by rights types, mediums, platforms, and licensing configurations. These royalty streams are subject to the business practices, copyright laws, and capabilities of local markets. Constantly emerging music platforms create new royalty streams with new licensing configurations, which adds complexities to an already-complex industry. So, if we are to make meaningful products to fix this let’s start to list out these big little problems that make up the overarching issue:

  1. Music is on a DSP but not being played
  2. Music isn’t attached to my artist page
  3. Not getting paid for cover versions of your songs
  4. Having no way to find ISRCs linked to your compositions
  5. It’s been a year since a release and songwriter splits have not been decided
  6. Being able to collect PRO money for radio play, but no mechanicals from DSPs
  7. Being able to collect for U.S. activity but nothing internationally
  8. Being able to collect for all activity but the U.S.
  9. Having no idea how to register your works to receive publishing money
  10. Acquiring a catalog of masters but there is no useful metadata
  11. Not getting paid for remixes
  12. Unable to find 473 works in the 22 million rows of usage data provided by a music platform

 …we could go on forever before we even mention deal terms and royalty rates which is where most everyone looks first

Start arranging

As you arrange in the order of a process, you will begin to find that one problem may be a result of another before it or it may be creating a bigger issue further down the line. For example, there may be a solution for automated global delivery of works data to help with compiling and delivering data, but that ends up efficiently populating databases around the world with incorrect information. Oops! The challenge is anticipating the potential roadblocks that may appear when fixing things in one area only to uncover issues in another.  When developing solutions in this way you soon discover that the most complex of them can be solved one issue at a time.  It is this combined with an agile approach that so many software development teams use when building. Moving on….

Fix the stuff you know, take cues from other non-music industries for everything else

Everyone agrees that a fresh perspective can uncover new and innovative ways to approach problems. Anyone who has spoken with me about this knows I am a broken record when it comes to finding solutions outside of our industry (pun kind of intended). So, with the example from above, there is a data input issue and a delivery issue; 2 steps of a much longer process. Normally, we look for solutions within our industry. However, Muserk has found that looking at industries that have great success in fixing similar issues can be quite helpful. With the data input issue think about ecommerce and the checkout process. If you have ever purchased an item online, you navigate to your shopping cart, entered an address, CC info, shipping, etc, you have completed a process that companies spend a lot of resources and money tweaking and figuring out. Companies hate abandoned shopping carts and do whatever they can to ensure you complete your purchase. If we want to ensure music metadata is accurate going into our systems, perhaps the eCom shopping cart industry is on to something in terms of design, UX/UI, information gathering, etc.. There are solutions to countless problems already solved in other industries.

Building something truly useful, and constant iteration

By now, we can all agree that rights administration consists of many linear processes that are each subject to many points of failure. It is important to always know that one improvement somewhere can amplify a deficiency elsewhere. Or that a high performance feature in one area can be rendered useless by a weak link down the chain. There’s no reason to put a jet engine in a small prop plane if it is just going to tear the whole plane apart on takeoff. At Muserk, we realize building a single feature is useless without the infrastructure to support it, a workflow in which it integrates, or the personnel to use it. MMatch, Muserk’s AI matching technology that discovers sound recording/musical work links, at proof-of-concept required a Sr. developer and a tech savvy rights manager to run; not what we would call a scalable solution. Not until there was a UI for a rights manager to input various data formats and automated steps that made MMatch’s output data usable was the technology more accessible to everyone on the team and therefore used more often. Now that productivity shot through the roof, do we stop there? No. At this point we are ready to iterate and not be outpaced by industry demand. The tech world can be harsh in this regard. A product version or feature  can go from “beta” to “deprecated/obsolete” in a handful of years or less. Once MMatch became more widely used by the team, the rights management cheered the sudden ability to complete days of work in under an hour, but understood this vast improvement shifted the bottleneck from usage discovery to staging data and the subsequent analysis that followed MMatch. It is true that days of work were gone, but why stop there? Why not apply MMatch to other use cases? Or better yet, why not make this one incredible product, one of several “parts & commodities, packaged with a brand, in order to create a usable, productive, satisfying experience?” It is at this point where product development resembles a continuous cycle or even an expansive spiral. Innovation in one area of an industry or other industry that once served as an effective stand-alone solution then becomes a lynchpin for a larger, future product.  

So let’s review. We have gone from simply airing grievances to identifying problems. From understanding these problems’ effect on the bigger picture to ideation of real solutions, and so on. The music business side of the industry has a long way to go in terms of technology, but I personally look forward to Muserk being a part of the massive amount of innovation we will see in the future and helping modernize the music industry.