Monday, March 10, 2008

Dear Record Executives: Don't Sell Your Yachts. Downloading Can Help You.

[Editor’s Note: The new Jack Johnson album, “Sleep Through the Static,” is so simple, beautiful, and pleasing that I wet myself.]

For whatever reason, the general consensus is that digital downloading is tearing apart the music industry. This is true, to a certain extent, and within certain arenas. Digital downloading hurts album sales, undermines the viability of the single, and somewhat detracts from the importance of radio play. If the criterion is access, then digital downloading has, indeed, rewritten the libretto for this corporate drama: being able to download songs means that we no longer have to spend money to access the music we want.

Still, what the “downloading is reshaping the industry” proponents don’t realize is that major labels actually control "the music we want.” Although every type of music is "out there," how does one know what to look for? Music consciousness, for 99% of people, comes from mass media—television, magazines, newspapers, billboards, radio, etc. Who gets radio play? Major music artists. Who gets the 1 spot on TRL? Not some unsigned psytrance DJ from Mumbai—hell, not even a minor label darling. It’s always a super-famous artist with a super-big record deal.

The “music we want” is just the music we’re fed, since what we want is inextricably limited to what we know. What we’re looking to download is usually the same thing that major labels want us listening to.

So, digital downloading can be looked at as the nefarious thorn in the industry's side, or merely as free advertising. Most downloading is not of the romanticized sort—it is not, in other words, hip people downloading hip music and thusly sticking it to The Un-Hip Man. For the most part, downloading consists in finding a KT Tunstall song on the cheap, or pirating an already-famous artist’s new album. More people than ever are in a position to own major label music, simply because it’s ubiquitously available—you can cull your favorite tunes in a bedroom, bathroom, or classroom. Digital downloading, in a sense, saves us a trip to the record store.

With its music so diffuse, record companies could, with just a little innovation, make a killing off of ticket and merchandise sales. Why not offer album downloads for free—or for pennies—from the label’s website? With so many millions of people hearing exactly what the record execs select, those same execs could track which locales download the most, and then plan huge concerts in those areas. Or, similarly, ship extra merchandise to malls in those counties. This could be the most effective method yet for manipulating the public wallet.

Everybody wins. The masses get free music, and, moreover, they gain unfettered access to trustworthy, high quality downloads. Also, if a particular artist proves popular in a certain region, that region gets the concerts and t-shirts it so desires. The poor record companies, for their part, can broadcast on an unprecedented scale. The resulting concert and merchandise windfalls would be so great that, if Reaganomics were still in effect, people like you and me might eventually afford grad school.

As convoluted as a marketing shift might be at first, Atlantic, Columbia, and Island Def Jam could continue to grow their global empire by giving fans free music. With prices that low, I'd gladly get ripped off for concert tickets later.

Stay Soothing, Sleep Through the Static
DJ Download

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