Time For Warner Music To Fire The Lawyers And Promote Ethan Kaplan
from the just-a-suggestion dept
I’m at the Mesh Conference in Toronto this week, where I’m scheduled to give a talk on the economics of abundance tomorrow. The keynote today was an interview of Ethan Kaplan by Mathew Ingram. Kaplan, as many of you probably know, is the VP of technology for Warner Bros. Music. He’s a smart guy, whose blog has been worth following for years. If you’ve followed his writings, it’s been clear for quite some time that he deeply understands what’s going on in the music industry, and how that relates to the changing marketplace. It seems so rare to hear a recording industry exec say things that make sense and that don’t seem anti-consumer, that it really stands out when one does so. Specifically, he talked a lot about how a modern record label really should be focused on how to help use modern technologies to better let musicians connect with fans in useful and meaningful ways. And a record label has the resources and (should have) the skills to do that while allowing the musicians to focus on the music. As he noted, it really is all about cultivating the community of fans and helping that community come together and connect with both each other and the band. From that, multiple (lucrative) business models easily follow.
This fits in with a variety of themes we’ve touched on, from the role that is clearly still available for a smart record label, to the importance of concept of better connecting with your true fans. Kaplan seems to be very focused on positioning Warner Music to be able to enable that for every band the company works with. That’s fantastic and very exciting (though, it’s years later than it should have happened).
Unfortunately, though, it appears (at least in practice) that Warner Music focuses on using Kaplan’s expertise solely on the technology side, rather than on the business side. Warner has been one of the more aggressive record labels in suing fans and suing any service out there that does help fans better connect with each other and the musicians. Warner still seems to be of the mindset that it absolutely needs to get a cut from any such service, even if allowing the service to promote its artists would help everyone long term. Warner is also run by Edgar Bronfman Jr., who (when he was head of Universal Music) kicked off the industry’s plan to sue everyone, though he’s since rewritten history to say that the industry went into a mistaken “inadvertent war” with consumers (it wasn’t inadvertent at all — Bronfman himself talked specifically about “armies of lawyers”).
If Warner Music really wanted to shift its position, it should rein in its lawyers, stop worrying about “protecting” everything and focus on adding value and enabling new business models to flow from its stable of top musicians. Give Kaplan more control over the business side as well and see what radical new ideas come forth. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen any time soon. It reminds me, tragically, of the story we wrote a few years back about MTV. The company had been lauded in the press for hiring a “chief digital officer,” as if that showed that the company “got” new media. The problem is that thinking digitally isn’t a separate job function. It needs to pervade the entire company. It needs to inform the thinking of everyone in the entertainment industry these days. And, indeed, just a few months after the press talked up the “CDO” of MTV, the guy was out of the job. It’s great that Kaplan is inside Warner Music, helping to inform their overall strategy — but he shouldn’t be just a “tech geek” (even at the VP level). The digital marketplace is the marketplace for music these days, and Kaplan’s insights into that overall space shouldn’t be pigeonholed as “the tech stuff.” It should be part of any music label’s overall business strategy.