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When progress forgets - spotting the future from what we’ve lost

Updated: Feb 11, 2019


The transition to digital consumption, in particular streaming technology, has succeeded because of the many benefits it brings - ease of use, expanded choice, value for money, multi-platform functionality - you know, all the reasons why you’ve made the switch.


But that doesn’t mean that all the things left behind from the old world were bad. Some of the features were actually rather good and are now missed whether we still think of them or not. Identifying and analysing those lost features can provide signposts for new commercial opportunities in today’s digital world. Things like:


1. Tangibility

The most obvious difference between the physical and digital worlds is… well one’s physical and the other isn’t. The absence of that tangibility, the touch and feel of a physical product, in the digital environment is most obvious in the remarkable growth of vinyl (both in quantity and retail price terms) and the resilience of the physical book market.


The turnaround in the vinyl market has almost exactly matched the growth of digital music - a gentle start in the download era followed by much larger gains once streaming took hold. While streaming has boomed we’ve seen mainstream supermarkets want to sell vinyl for the first time in their history and Sunrise Records buying the venerable HMV chain in the UK is firmly rooted in Sunrise’s belief in the continued viability of vinyl.


Meanwhile despite a large base of Kindles and other devices and apps and considerable sales of many titles as ebooks, especially in genres more popular with men (eg crime thrillers) or those where not all fans may want to publicly advertise their love (eg romance), it turns out that for many people and in many genres (eg cookery) an analogue paper format delivers exactly what consumers want from a book.


Labels and publishers also know that having a tangible connection with physical music and book products is one of the best ways to build fan loyalty. They’re badges to show the world your amazing taste and those choices aren’t taken lightly, nor are the preferences underpinning them quickly reversed.


The exception to this is probably film/TV. This is ironic given how much they boomed in the DVD era and bequeathed us a linguistic legacy - many streaming platforms still refer to ‘box sets’ for a whole season of a TV show. But as pre-DVD there was no culture of collecting films or TV programmes outside of enthusiasts, the brief window of DVD collecting was I think not enough time for film and TV collecting to become ingrained behaviour. Speaking of collecting…


2. Collection

In the pre-digital age having a growing collection was an unavoidable, but rewarding, outcome of being a fan of music and books. A personal collection was something everyone was very happy to show to the world. Your own collection also allowed you to enjoy the utility of easily laying your hands on the things you love.


Book lovers still have well stocked book cases and astutely arranged glossy books given the continued primacy of the printed form, but in music nobody now knows about your digital collection, if you even have one at all. And if you do, it may well be too large, too fragmented, or too rooted in an old format to be that involved in your listening behaviour any more. Streaming services allow users to save and build their own libraries, but it hardly feels like the focus if their attention nor a particularly great experience to use and navigate, especially once it reaches any kind of significant size.


But the benefits and pleasure of building a collection, both for a public audience and especially for your own enjoyment, haven’t suddenly disappeared. For my money the last best attempt at catering to this was iTunes’ cover flow feature which was the last time you could build a collection of music titles on a major platform that looked beautiful. Unfortunately if you had a collection of any size it wasn’t really very practical and before too long was replaced by a much more functional, and far less attractive, grid design of tiny album or single cover images.


We may have access to millions and millions of tracks now, but so does everyone else. No one can possibly know their way around them all, so the opportunity to build an attractive and usable collection feature, both for personal and public benefit, is surely there.


3. Context

One of, if not the biggest selling points of streaming services is their sheer depth of content. But ever since they launched that has brought with it the issue of how to navigate this near bottomless vault of content.


“Curation” was the buzzword a few years ago for describing this, today it has become normalised and part of the unfathomable and unknowable world of algorithms. Much of that in reality seems to be finding new and more elegant ways of presenting ‘People who liked that thing you like also liked this other thing we hope you’ll like’.


And that’s fine as far as it goes and definitely brings considerable value. I would without question miss my Discover Weekly playlist. Neflix’s recommendations are more hit and miss, most likely because they are swimming in a shallower pool of content.


But even the best recommendation engines are still missing something crucial - the story around the recommendations. It’s great that they can throw out lots of suggestions, most if not all you probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise, but they are lousy at giving you much if any context about those choices. Songs in Spotify are just an artist and song name, movies and TV recommendations have a little extra detail in terms key talent and a plot summary, but not much, certainly nothing to match the understanding of something you get from a personal recommendation, a review or your own research.

Often that’s fine, the consumer just wants to press play and consume, but if you want to find out more, want to explore, want to learn more, want to plot your own journey, finding the story around the content is far too complex.


My friend Keith Jopling has launched SongSommelier.com to fill this very space. Curated playlists, but crucially with a story around both the collection and the individual songs. I’m biased obviously but I really hope it gains traction and starts to close this huge gap.


4. Artwork

You can plot the progress of music’s digital journey, starting with vinyl, before it kicked off with CDs, then downloads and now streaming, with the parallel story of music artwork diminishing from large and beautiful to smaller, smaller still, to next to non-existent.


It’s not just music - movie posters were originally designed to reach from huge billboards at one end of the scale to posters in cinemas at the other. Still pretty big. Now online there’s an image barely larger than a postage stamp that isn’t even the same for everyone.


Meanwhile e-readers faithfully show the cover of the book when you start, but unlike and actual book, once you’ve started you’ll never be exposed to it again apart from, again, a stamp-sized image among many in your collection (see point 2 above…)


And this is not good thing. Entertainment artwork - whether album covers, book covers or advertising images - is among the most iconic imagery of the last 100 years. From Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground & Nico album cover to Drew Struzan’s many amazing movies posters (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Blade Runner.. you get the idea) and many more, the relegation of artwork to thumbnails or less has without a doubt made us culturally poorer. I know lots of very talented and creative people are trying to address this. I hope for all our sakes someone manages it.


5. Genres

I discussed this in my recent blog which you can read here. Genres came about when a particular media grew - consumers needed subdivisions of increasing complexity to have any hope of finding what they wanted. The unlimited shelf space and recommendation engines of the streaming world has made those subdivisions much much less important. But for my money, just when they seem at their most irrelevant, they’re on the cusp of making a comeback because of the fans, in particular the super fans who aren’t satisfied with the everyone-gets-the-same-service model streaming is currently in. And those super fans spend a LOT.


6. Retail experience

Turns out e-commerce isn’t a complete replacement for actual commerce. Who knew?


Yes e-commerce has multiple advantages over traditional retail, but that’s the clue to spotting where the opportunity lies - ‘traditional’.


While e-commerce and streaming have grown, we’ve also seen what succeeds on the high street/main street - not sticking with established retail norms and models but reinventing them for today’s market place. Namely if physical shops change with the times, provide an experience, a nice welcoming environment, friendly and expert knowledge and advice, the options to try and return and more, then physical retail can thrive.


Humans are at heart are both social beings and irrationally biased towards things we can experience for ourselves. Those needs can be met online, but the real world can address them in multiple ways that digital environments cannot match.


7. Browsing

And finally for me the big one - browsing. I wouldn’t drop any of my streaming subscriptions (and I have a lot). The ease of use, expanded choice, value for money, multi-platform functionality etc etc mean a great deal and I value them hugely. But for me where digital falls down every singe time is in browsing. Or as I prefer to call it, looking.


In the simple act of looking at a shelf, or a rack in a shop, or some other home of books/records/CDs/DVDs/etc I can scan the lot in seconds. I can look from shelf to shelf, from one genre or theme to a completely different one in no time at all. It’s easy. I just look, read down the spines or the covers and in no time I know exactly what’s there. And then I can turn and do the same thing on an entirely different rack.


In that time, in those mere seconds, I can spot all sorts of things: notice the familiar or the unusual, stop for further review or quickly move on, dig deeper into that which I already know or head off down a whole new rabbit warren of things I’ve never seen before.


Digital platforms are brilliant at instant gratification - you know what you want and you can get it there and then. Beyond that they all work incredibly hard at delivering what they think you’ll like, often hitting the mark. But the old school browse, the wandering around, the serendipitous discovery - I have yet to experience a digital environment that even comes close to the physical one.


Progress is unstoppable and new ideas will only succeed if they deliver things of value to them, whether it’s cheaper costs or better features or both. But often positive elements of the old ideas are left behind as progress marches on. So in looking for future opportunities you can do a lot worse than seeing what people used to like, have lost the ability to do, but will likely welcome back again.