It is a Friday morning in September 2010, and I walk into the large space at the legendary Columbia Studio A in Nashville, Tenn., for a full day of conversations, panels and great music. I am in the company of 50 leaders from across the music industry. I have just been appointed the new facilitator of Leadership Music, a program where industry executives and artists from Nashville, New York and Los Angeles engage in yearlong conversations, panel discussions and seminars to learn from each other, build a stronger music community and prepare for industry changes, disruptions and opportunities.
But that day was not a happy one. Nor were any of the other days over the next year. This talented, successful and resourceful group of artists and executives -- from the person who managed Taylor Swift’s label to the owner of one of the biggest country radio stations in the United States -- was going through the second stage of grief. Ten years after Napster crashed their party, allowing fans to share music freely on the internet, people were angry.
They were angry that, in years following Napster, total U.S. music sales were declining precipitously. (They ultimately dropped from $21.5 billion to only $6.9 billion, adjusted for inflation). And when people are angry, they get caught in a narrative of victimhood and blame. The technology companies were evil; the fans were thieves and pirates. And everyone was fighting among themselves -- labels with publishers and broadcasters, songwriters with performers, venues with Ticketmaster, promoters with agents.
The music industry was caught with its head in the sand as technology disrupted the entire business model -- creating new winners and losers. Today, renting music, not buying music, is the norm, and Spotify and Apple Music, YouTube and Tik Tok are the big winners.
Four years ago, when writing about technological change and higher education, Joshua Kim asked, “Could the higher ed industry find itself in a similar situation as the recorded music industry?” In 2021, more than 20 years after Napster, the answer is yes. The question now is can we -- who work at the more than 4,000 private and public institutions -- choose a different path?
Let me quickly paint the picture of the music industry in 1998. Hundreds of labels, owned by five major conglomerates, worked with thousands of artists every year to publish and release thousands of albums. The labels invested years of energy and resources to develop these artists, produce their albums and market, promote and distribute their songs. Hundreds of millions of people bought these albums as CDs -- 20 songs on a digital disc. Whether you wanted all 20 songs or not, you had to buy the whole thing. Maybe you liked two, but you bought 20. That was part of the great bundling of music.
In addition, labels basically “owned” the artists, who could not sign with multiple labels, and their intellectual property. And they controlled distribution. They determined what songs the stations played on the radio. In summary, they bundled songs together, controlled intellectual property and determined the format for how people accessed music -- where they bought it and on what devices they listened to it.
Now let’s think about higher education today, where we bundle 120 credit hours. You have to buy the whole thing or you get nothing. No degree. No credential. Faculty members are like the artists who get signed by labels. Just as labels developed artists, universities develop faculty through Ph.D. programs. Faculty then go to work at colleges and universities that have claims on their intellectual property, including the discoveries they make and the courses they design and teach.
Finally, universities determine the format where consumers or learners access knowledge. Their approach typically is: you have to come to us, to our campuses, and pay our parking fees, pay to live in our dormitories, pay for the amenities we offer. It is all bundled together, tightly controlled and distributed largely through their own institutional infrastructure.
Universities differ from music labels, to be sure. But the general point is hard to dispute: they, too, rely on an economic model that exerts control over talent and forces consumers into a rather narrow set of choices. You must buy the entire CD.
Questions for the Future
But we live in a world of singles. While we might argue whether or not that is good for music, musicians or culture, it is our reality. What does a world of singles look like in higher education? What happens when higher education becomes unbundled? What happens as new players enter the market to offer new types of credentials: microcertificates, badges, competency-based degrees? What happens as educators not certified by higher education institutions offer compelling content independently? When education becomes as much about sharing among learners as the delivery of content from teacher to learner? Peer-to-peer could be as disruptive to higher education as it has been to the music industry. All of these changes are already well underway.
Today, the music industry is thriving, with total revenue over the next decade expected to be greater than ever. People spend more per capita than before on monthly subscriptions, merchandise, concert tickets and more. And the rapid proliferation of digital content -- movies, television, advertising, gaming -- has created an explosion of demand for licensed music.
But while total music revenue from all sources is likely greater now than pre-Napster levels, and experts predict revenues will double in the next decade, the players are different. The models are different. Platforms are more important than labels. Artists now build careers on their own as independent entrepreneurs, surrounded by a suite of legal, marketing and business services that help them manage their own enterprises. And live music has exploded. Concert attendance before the pandemic was at record highs. Music festivals attract millions of people yearly. The move to digital has created a consequent imperative for powerful face-to-face engagement.
What can we in higher ed learn from this? As with music, people will spend more on education in the future than ever before. It will be ubiquitous. And like the music industry, universities will need to come to terms with the “rental model” of education. Perhaps you will become a member and get access to all of it, all the time, for the rest of your life as long as you pay your membership fee. It could be like the open loop university, an idea put forward by Stanford University professor Sarah Stein Greenberg, where people come in and out their entire life, grabbing the learning assets they need when they need them. Coursera has already moved in this direction.
Like music, perhaps higher education will find that platforms are more important than campuses. We will need to design and build platforms that meet our values and advance our goals -- rather than working from behind the eight ball to adapt to a business model that we didn’t design, which is exactly where the music industry has found itself over the past few decades.
And like musicians, perhaps faculty will increasingly look like independent artists owning their own intellectual property. How can those of us at various universities incentivize them to work with us? Labels and artists negotiate “360 deals”: joint revenue-sharing across multiple products and services, including digital sales, streaming dollars, merchandise, brand sponsorship, touring. What will be our 360 deal with faculty?
How do we curate and empower all the emerging independent educators, beyond our traditional faculty, who have something to offer? Can we build armies of instructional designers to work with experts in every imaginable sector to scale education beyond what tenured faculty can provide?
If music festivals are an indication of the value of and demand for intense face-to-face engagement, what can we learn from them? Perhaps most learning in the future will be digital, but people will crave opportunities to take that learning into spaces where they can collaborate, make things, run experiments and have intense, transformative social encounters. Perhaps universities become sites for more short-term engagements rather than full-time residency. Perhaps most learners in the future will be part of low-residency programs where they learn, design, revise, improve, prepare, prepare, prepare and then come together a few times a year for powerful in-person experiences. Think about how much more efficiently we could use our spaces and how many more students we could serve.
The four-year degree will not disappear, just as the album will not. But how people access this curated and thematically organized content has changed forever. A handful of artists can still bundle their content and monopolize how it is distributed. Taylor Swift. Jay-Z. Adele. And only a handful of top universities will continue to be in the album business.
Most will adapt to some other reality of singles -- independent academic entrepreneurs. A world where learning is ubiquitous -- everywhere, all the time, continuous and across every conceivable platform. There will be many more ways people can get credentialed and many more purveyors who will offer those credentials, often based on competencies achieved and not units of academic credit purchased. Face-to-face will become more of a special and intense experience and less routine. Universities may become platforms as much as if not more than residential campuses.
When disruption hits, organizations face a reckoning and a re-evaluation of their value. What distinct value do they offer over new competitors? What are their differentiated assets? What do learners and consumers really value and need?
Technology and the pandemic have disrupted universities. We are experiencing a great unbundling, as Ryan Craig argued in his 2015 book. If we keep our heads in the sand, we will look a lot like the angry and lost faces in that Columbia Studio A room in 2010 -- looking for someone to blame, rather than celebrating our crucial role in educating, at scale, the next tidal wave of learners.