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.

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Companies: warner music group

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Comments on “Time For Warner Music To Fire The Lawyers And Promote Ethan Kaplan”

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Shakin' my head says:

What will it take?

When will the media giants get it? This reminds me of the days when the Big Three automakers laughed at Japanese imports. They were cheap and crappy, so who would want to buy them? Well in no time at all, the Japanese figured out what we wanted and they gave it to us, leaving the domestic automakers scrambling to catch up. GM is now positioned to be knocked off of the number one spot by Toyota.

I guess those fat-@ssed cigar-puffing execs in the ivory towers in Musicville are deaf, dumb and blind.

I just don’t get it…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What will it take?

It is simple.

The ones that OWN and CONTROL the labels DO NOT CARE ABOUT MUSIC. They care about MONEY. More importantly they care about making YOUR money, THEIR money.

Hell, for most rap/bubblegum artists the same can be said. Look at how many rap songs are all about the exact same thing. Hell there are songs that get music videos these days that are literally about ejaculation, or a lap dance.

Everyone’s out to make a buck, and only at most half of the industry actually CARES about the products they push.

BillDem says:

The "old farts club" still runs it all, so it's doomed.

I feel so very sorry for Kaplan. It must be hell to go to work every day knowing that you will waste your entire day trying to convince a bunch of senile, self-important, dinosaurs that they are shooting themselves in the foot by treating all of their customers like criminals.

I can just picture Kaplan’s sad life. He probably sends memo after memo filled with logical, forward-thinking suggestions. Then he waits, hoping one of the idiots in power will read (possibly even understand?) the memo and do something smart to halt their downward spiral. I’m sure Kaplan sits in silent frustration while he hears all of his logical ideas rejected in favor of suggestions which further alienate once-loyal customers. Then he goes home and quietly drinks himself to sleep knowing he has to wake up and do it all again the next day.

The cold reality is that nothing will change while senile old men with no imagination or compassion still hold the decision-making power in those companies. By the time those old men release even a tiny bit of control to smarter men, there will be no companies left to save and the millions who they have treated like criminals won’t miss them a bit.

Ethan R Kaplan (user link) says:


Actually I work for some amazing people. In fact I report to the CEO of WBR who is nothing but supportive about our efforts with open source technology, innovation, creation and driving the business forward through the transparency afforded by the Internet.

I wish my day was as boring as you make it out. Why not give me a shout via e-mail and come visit the offices in Burbank.

Ethan R Kaplan (user link) says:


I don’t work for WMG. I work for WBR. I work directly with A&R, artists, marketing, publicity and new media departments. The “bean counters” I work with are awesome as well, in our finance department. True music fans one and all.

WMG has three subsidiary labels: Atlantic, Warner Bros. Records and Rhino.

I am a VP at WBR.

Please get things straight before making assumptions of my working environment, thanks.

MLS (profile) says:

Re: BillDem....

As a wholly owned subsidiary of WBMG, WBR has all of its business performance goals set by WBGM…and those goals are determined by a BOD that is controlled by various equity fund groups. The 2007 Annual Report, in the paragraph bridging pages 29 and 30, makes this only too clear in its reference to the “Investor Group” and its powers. My pejorative reference to “bean counters” was specifically directed to the makeup of the WBGM BOD.

Why is this important? Reading the first 20-30 pages of the Annual Report makes it quite clear that WBMG is almost totally dependent upon the acquisition and enforcement of copyright rights, a business model that Mr. Masnick has often suggested would benefit from a thorough top-down review.

It is against this backdrop that I submit you and others of like mind at WBR have your work cut out for you.

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