IF you want an example of the kind of uncanny foresight that has made a digital guru of Neil Cartwright – Sony Music UK’s former head of new media – the way he got that job is a great example.
“It was literally right place, right time,” he laughed.
“I have always been into computer music since a little kid, had a computer and music was always a passion.
“So when I saw a technology called Real Audio, I just thought instantly ‘This is going to have an enormous impact on the music industry’.
“I wrote a speculative letter to someone in Sony – whose name I had literally got from phoning up a receptionist.
“And it landed on the desk of an executive who’d been tasked with finding someone to run the new media department.
“They didn’t have a clue about the internet and I think the fact my letter appeared on their desk made the guy think ‘He seems to know what he’s doing’.
“Two weeks after I wrote the letter, I was sitting behind a desk at Sony.”
But these days Neil has escaped what began to feel, for him, as if he was “sitting on the wrong side of the desk”.
He prefers to work surfing the excitement of digital trends, combining his love of music with forward planning, rather than – as he puts it – enabling other people’s start-ups and checking corporate spreadsheets.
Neil is managing director of Million Media, a digital marketing company that does everything from build websites to put together clients’ digital strategy plans.
He’s also got the perspective of seeing the history of how digital was sometimes reluctantly accepted but transformed the music industry.
“When I started off as the new media manager at Sony Music in 1997, those were the days when people were sceptical that the internet was even going to take off.
“For a few years there was a feeling amongst certain individuals that it was a fad, something that would not have the impact that it did.
“There were some famous instances - Rupert Murdoch went on record as saying that the internet was not a priority for News International. Even Bill Gates in the mid 90s was caught out by the internet and how big an impact it had.”
Had Neil found it hard to persuade people back then that the digital opportunities of big changes were coming?
“It tended to be on an individual basis. There were a few people there in senior positions who just thought , as I’ve said, that it was a fad.
“Also on the legal side you’d find out very quickly that what holds a lot of companies back is the precedential – the fear of setting a precedent.
“If they were ever to make a decision that they were later to regret, they would always err on the side of caution. They never wanted to enter into an agreement that they thought they might regret one day and that held them back to a huge degree.
“When you are selling a CD for £10 to £15 and you are making hundreds of millions of pounds a year, and then someone says ‘I think we need to sell individual tracks for 50 or 60 pence’, they’d do the sums and go ‘Well that’s going to mean an enormous drop in our revenue’.
“You’d go ‘Yes it is, but this is inevitable’.
“But you could never say that for sure, you can in hindsight. You can sit here and say ‘I told you’.
“But in the early days, you didn’t have that benefit of hindsight!
“You’d look at the trends and the technology, but people would just say ‘We will lose so much money if we go down that road’.
“CD sales have dropped by 50% in the last 10 years.
“Record label sales have declined, perhaps if they had taken that leap of faith 15 years ago they might have recovered more quickly.
“But it would have been a very brave chairman who would have to say to his head of sales ‘We’re going to start selling our back catalogues at a 10th of the price’.
“I can see why no one took that decision, but that is why it was really forced upon them to do something. The industry forced to adopt change.
“I do think you can see a lot of industries in exactly the same position.
“I think people now have accepted that digital developments are having an enormous impact on our daily lives, what they now want to know, I think, is not ‘Is it going to have an impact?’ but in what other areas.
“Obviously a lot of jobs have been affected by the internet , I still think it’s a transition from one type of job to another. And for every job that has - unfortunately - been lost , you can go through retailers that have collapsed - there are very few High Street record stores any more, with the loss of jobs and that is unfortunate for those individuals - but for each one of those jobs lost there has been a new job created.
“Jobs like the young programmer or people who are working for Amazon or iTunes or Spotify. It’s been a balance between loss and gain.
“That transition is still happening and you might still be scared of what the future holds and how much more impact it’s still going to have.
“But every company now has a strategy in place for digital, they’ve had to employ digital marketing and IT people they have those in place, but no-one really know which way it is going to pan out. If people are scared then it’s simply, they know digital will have an effect, they want to know ‘What we now is need to put in place a strategy so we are not the victims, but are ready?’ and ‘What is the next wave of technology going to bring that would impact on us, our customers or consumers, the way they buy or the way they consume?’.
“So it has moved into a whole different phase.”
In 1997 when Neil was negotiating the first entry into digital downloads for Sony, most people hadn’t even heard of an iPod, he has pointed out..
Neil also explains why – at the beginning – the music industry seemed slow to embrace some aspects of the new online and digital opportunities.
“I think there is a misunderstanding about the record companies and the same can be said for lots of other companies.
“The record labels were very quick to get the promotional benefits of online. Time and again the labels were the first to launch profiles on things like Myspace and got into Facebook and YouTube very quickly. They saw it was a great way to reach the audience and ever since I was involved in music, music record labels and artists have always been at the forefront of these new technologies.
“Where they have had huge difficulties has been on the legal side because they had legacy contracts with artists. The big music retailers like HMV and Virgin megastores and Tower were their biggest suppliers and they didn’t want to upset the apple cart at that stage and put digital at the forefront, alienating their biggest customers.
“But the consumers - the public - moved very quickly from physical to digital product.
“So you had all of these old contracts and agreements and relationships.
“Sometimes it wasn’t through choice that they changed, but was forced upon them by the public and the way their habits changed.
“I think you can look at a lot of industries where that is the case.
“They just weren’t geared up to change their commercial ways, even though departments in those companies ‘got’ digital very quickly.
“Newspapers are another classic example, the way they held onto the old way as long as they could and only changed when advertising and circulation started to drop. All of these businesses were locked into a certain way of doing things - sometimes not even through choice - but that was their business and they weren’t prepared to give it up until it was taken from them. “
Neil pinpoints some of the big developments that forced change on the music industry, file-shiring services being one.
“The arrival of Napster, the sheer scale of it at the time. I knew that half the building loved it and people were saying ‘I can just get any track I want! I just put the name of the track I want in there and I can get it!’. That was a sea change in showing what applications and software were capable of.
“Another one would be the launch of iTunes and the speed that that took off. Within months it was selling millions of tracks.
“Those were two of the big points when people realised that this was really happening and that it was going to have an impact and that it was only going to be a fad lasting just weeks - or that CD sales will last forever.
“Also that argument ’People are always going to want the physical product’. You can’t base an entire business on ‘They like to have a physical product’. And of course that has proven to be untrue. People don’t want a physical product, most just want to hear the song.”
With iTunes still selling 79% of the world’s downloads, by being in so early, does Neil believe it will keep that dominance?
He said: “Companies like Spotify, Google - are going to be launching their own version, YouTube, Amazon have had a fair degree of success.
“But I always try and point out in my lectures that although the industry holds up iTunes as being very successful in fact when you look at the amount of devices iPods and smartphones sold in the world and divide the number of tracks sold on iTunes, you end up with about 20 or 30 tracks. That equals two or three CDs each. So in absolute terms, the number of tracks that iTunes have sold is phenomenal, something like 20 or 30 billion tracks, and that seems successful, then you think there are 400 million devices out there and that means we have only ever bought two or three CDs each. Even though each device holds over 4 or 5,000 tracks.
“Has it really been a success? Have people really taken to paying 79p for individual downloads?
“And the crushing answer from the industry is it hasn’t been a success if you base it on the number of tracks that have been bought per device.”
Neil then says: “I don’t know if this is public knowledge, but it is certainly an open secret within the industry that iTunes locked in the price. The record labels couldn’t lower the price for anyone else, the price the industry has settled on.
“One of my favourite stories is Steve Jobs was asked where the 99 cent track download cost came from – it was just that it was one cent less than a dollar.
“So you have an industry that for nearly 10 years has been locked into a price because it looked nice.
“No science or research or consumer focus behind that, but it was a price that looked nice and that is where it has stayed for 10 years because iTunes has locked in the labels so they couldn’t drop the price!”
Neil himself has produced a short 50-page guide for musicians on how best to use digital, and has written that he is pitching it for on sales at 99 cents - what a musician gets for all the work and time that goes into producing a recorded song.
“I thought for an artist it takes six months to write a song and record it and this thing is only 50 pages, I will sell it at that. You don’t make much money though!”
Neil’s heart, as he believes is the case for many people who involve themselves in the music industry, is with musicians.
“In a way this is a terrible generalisation, but I always think that most people who work in record industry are failed musicians – you know what they say about teachers , those who can, do, those who can’t, teach. I think it’s a similar analogy.
“I think most people who work in record labels would swap places with a musician in an instant, but because they didn’t have the talent to be a musician, they think they will do the next best thing which is work in a record label.”
He’s also got a strong view that musicians’ priority should be their music, not getting tangled up using valuable time on the promotion side or upping their profile .
He laughed: “I do worry that a lot of artists spend too much time worrying about updating their websites and their profiles rather than doing what they should be doing – which is playing and rehearsing and getting better and writing songs!
“As I said, the music industry is full of people who can’t be musicians so they try and help musicians, and the music industry is full of very passionate people, passionate about music and genuinely sincerely wanting to help musicians, as that is what they would love to do themselves. It’s their job to worry about the updating and doing it properly.
“I accept that musicians have to have a website and a presence and they have to get noticed, but it’s a terrible shame that some gifted musician might not be putting in the rehearsal hours they need to be a brilliant musician because they are worried about updating their Twitter account!”
Back in 2008, Neil was announced as one of The Observer's Courvoisier 500 - influential people who would shape the future of the UK in the prestigious Courvoisier 500.
What did that feel like?
“It was fantastic, it felt great to be recognised.
“They also used to have get-togethers of all the members and it was amazing to see the range of people from all different industries used to get together, people who were really passionate about what they did – whether fashion or architecture or whatever – so it was fabulous to be part of it.”
Outside his work commitments, Neil’s love of music has seen him getting involved in a ground-breaking charity in London – Tower Hamlets charity, Community Music.
“I’m the chair of that,” he said. “They’ve been established for 31 years and are now one of the longest-running community music projects in the country – if not the world, I suppose.
“They take students every year and they do a two-year foundation course in music and we run a lot of workshops for the loal community and get involved in projects locally.
“It’s not just young kids who are introduced to music, but adults as well, people who have never picked up an instrument.
“There’s a large Bangladeshi community – Whitechapel and Tower Hamlets is a huge melting pot of different countries and cultures. And there were adults in those communities who have never had the opportunity to hold an instrument, they encourage their children to play, but have maybe gone through life without having the opportunity to try themselves.
“We run workshops and invite people in and maybe they pick up a guitar for the first time. Sometimes it’s a little bit mindboggling for us who don’t give it a second thought.”
Neil is also involved in the running of the Burlexe burlesque project, a London burlesque show inspired by the women who created the genre and perform the art now also with Boylexe, the sell-out show about men in cabaret.
Neil said: “Our particular interest is about empowerment, about making anybody feel good about themselves and their body. There is this whole size zero debate and people being made to feel that unless they are a particular size and shape they are not beautiful or sexy. With burlesque by revealing everything – or nearly everything, there are still some bits covered but very little – onstage, you get a huge cheer at the end and you are made to feel you are a sex symbol. It’s really about that empowerment and telling people to feel good about themselves.”
Neil laughed when you ask if he’s got up there himself.
“No you see I’m still not that confident! Those who can do. I’m still teaching!”
He feels lucky he’s found his ideal role in life.
“So many people don’t know what want to do and some people never find the key.
“The thing is to find something that brings you joy.
“I would do this anyway, I would be following digital trends and getting excited by new technology and artists and music. To some people what I do would sound geeky and nerdy but it’s something I’m passionate about I’m not a millionaire I never did find THE start up, but I enjoy what I do and where I sit is the perfect place I want to be!”
Neil is the goNORTH festival’s opening keynote speaker on Wednesday (June 4) at 10.30am and chairs the session Where Next? The Future Of Digital on Thursday (June 5), also at 10.30am, both events in the Mercure Hotel, Inverness.
Million Media (www.millionmedia.com) is a digital marketing company, founded by digital veteran Neil, with a particular focus on the entertainment industry. Million Media launched The Artist Network (www.theartistnetwork.ws) as a resource and training academy for musicians.