Monday, July 02, 2007

"We lived above a convenience store..."

An interesting cross-blog thought-gather as we start to see the effects of networked modern capitalism on culture retailers.

Guy noted the death of Fopp which got me wondering (in comment form) about the ol' "long-tail" thing, and the possibility of a polarisation - a split between the mainstream music retailers (who are now becoming supermarkets & iTunes, rather than "traditional" music stores) and more independent/social chains (such as bleep.com and, uh, iTunes...).

And Richard posted about the point of giving away popular culture when there's a chance the publishers could make more money keeping it at the RRP. My comment there was more on the nature of supermarkets, it turned out, but goes a little way to expanding on the death of Fopp.

Supermarkets represent convenience - time, space, all your weekly food in one big go. But now that convenience captures something bigger - convenience lets supermarkets sell branding (read "hype") like nobody else. By distributing all sectors - clothes, entertainment, seasonal products and even food - an entire marketing department is represented in one fell swoop. Supermarkets don't sell Harry Potter books, they sell Harry Potter. Horizontal Conglomeration emerges into a never-ending run of Lifemarks: one month, DanBrownerise your life. The next, Fantastic4ForAll! Content owners love supermarkets, and the feeling is mutual.

But where does this leave everyone else? Fopp and HMV can't keep up because they don't sell clothes. Independent music survives because it is easy to give away, easy to spread, easy to hook people into. You can listen to 10 albums in a day, but it would take you (ok, me), a year or more to read 10 books.

The most obvious course is to copy your competitors - branch out, start becoming not just a music store, but an integrated music experience store. But even that's a losing game - supermarkets have been playing it for too long.

So where next? Are we doomed to be dominated by a cat-and-mouse pirate fight between "the corporation" (think Rollerball) dictating the theme of the month, and "weenies" who are here one day and gone the next (either because they existed for novelty value's sake, or because they get bought up by the goliaths)?

3 comments:

JD said...

The annoying thing about Fopp was that it was more of a DVD shop than a music shop to me. I've bought more stuff from Fopp in the last year than I have from anywhere else in the last two (apart from the 9 DVDs for 39GBP from HMV last thursday).

The problem for me is that there are no supermarkets near me, and those that are in Brighton don't sell the kind of music I want to buy. Nor are they selling it at the price that Fopp was selling stuff for.

Richard Veryard said...

Who do you know who listens to ten albums a day? Who do you know who listens to more than ten NEW albums in a month? Most people listen to one album ten times, or the same ten tracks over and over. Thanks iPod.

And what is the effect of supermarkets on popular taste? Are we all supposed to spend our time and money on endless repackaging of Rod Stewart's greatest hits or Princess Diana's favourite bands, or Myleene Klass's classical medley?

And why promote new talent when you can have Take That (to the checkout) and the Old Spice Girls?

This is not the long tail, this is the mindlessly thin echo.

Scribe said...

jd: Yeah, same. Their cheap book selection wasn't too bad either.

richard: I was thinking of the long tail in reference to the the "other" direction - the ability for people to dig out more obscure stuff (and hence possibly more "genre-defining"? Also, don't underestimate the need for music fans to be finding "the next big thing" and impress their mates :) instead of the "middle ground". (Last.fm's "obscurity slider" for recommendations is an example of this.)

Traditional music stores are stuck between the two extremes of "popular" and "obscure" (see the article I just posted). Both (although more evident in supermarkets) have come to survive through the same technique - find this month's album, hype it to death, then move on to another band. (Same technique as technology, bizarrely.) The point about 10 albums in a day was just that it's much easier to start listening to a new album than it is to pick up a new book, hence the "market migration" from one band to another usually goes pretty smoothly. (The popularity of books sticks around a lot longer, as is evident from Rowling and Dan Brown.)

Supermarkets cleverely play this "treadmill" of music off against the "classics" such as Take That and the Spice Girls and The Beatles, cos they know people are lusting in desperation for some kind of continuity.