What Price Music?
Recent bickering between labels and Apple over download prices has made headlines in the last week. Many see this as an issue of labels biting the hand that feeds them. Others see this as an issue of encouraging growth and responsible pricing in digital music. Some want to encourage growth and see uniform prices as integral to gaining more customers. (Consumers don’t like to be confused, goes the argument. We need flat pricing. Forget that uniform prices exist in few places in our economy, and that such a rigid pricing structure would usually attract the attention of federal regulators who seek out and crush collusion. We’re told it’s in our best interest to pay the same for a hot new release as a 40-year-old catalog title that sells 3,000 units a year.)
Why do people still use P2P? I don’t believe it’s for the reasons that are popular explanations: anger toward “greedy” record companies, a statement to “overpriced” CDs, et al. Americans aren’t very good at mobilizing behind their moral conscious. What they are very good at doing is reacting to prices, be they high or low. We’re consumers, not activists, and we love entertainment. Given this, P2P traffic should be looked at as a function of online prices relative to consumers’ disposable income.
Digital Music News editor Paul Resnikoff touched on the subject today. “The real boogeyman may be in the pricing,” he wrote in a piece titled “The File-Sharing Morality Trip,” a commentary that begins by examining Americans opinions on file-sharing and ends with a vision of lower, flexible pricing.
Here’s how I think it could work: A few songs (call them “singles” or “pre-release singles”) are made available three to four weeks ahead of street date and cost $1.25 to $1.50 per song. These will be purchased by the early adopters, the most fervent fans who will pay extra to have the songs first. And because these are the labels’ best customers, give them something of extra value for no extra cost—a digital booklet, a video, or an interview download. When the album is released the songs, with standard prices, are made available in both album form and a la carte download form.
For older albums that are perennial favorites but don’t merit a $9.99 price tag—Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue , Bob Marley’s Legend , etc—the price should be dropped to $5.99. Developing artists who are seeking to increase their sales base should also have the right to drop their prices to the $5.99 area. Also, labels should have regular sales just as they do at physical retailers.
For this to come to fruition iTunes will have to lower its prices and content owners will have to drop their wholesale prices. Will it happen any time soon? It’s anybody’s guess. Some labels—Sony BMG especially—look ready to tackle the issue head on. Others are too worried about upsetting a growing market, or maybe they’re hesitant to upset Apple. Some may be waiting for the upcoming merge of digital music and cellular phones to take away some of Apple’s market share.
Will it happen? Eventually. In the meantime consumers will, “for their own good,” have to pay higher prices.
Album vs. Single
With news of Warner Music Group’s launch of a digital-only “e-label”—a logical step called by most either too late or too little—some old complaints have once agained reared their heads. The album, to some an anachronistic symbol of a failing business model, is taking heat.
A typically negative view of the album format can be found at Peter Paphides’ “analysis” at the Times Online. “Ten years ago, when New Order released their dodgy Republic album, fans were held to ransom: to get its three or four decent tracks, they would have had to endure six or seven of pure filler.”
Whether or not the merits of that particular album should be debated, one thing’s for sure: The album is still a defining artistic statement and the de facto measure of an artist’s career. Any musician worth his/her salt has put out a good album. Not a good single. Not a good MP3 download. A good album.
Do I expect future artists to think so little of themselves that they aim to release singles or three-song EPs? No. The album format is still what matters. Egos will demand albums. Fortunes are made on albums. Better than the single or EP, the album captures all a band’s strengths, moods, conflicts, and thoughts. If a band is one-dimensional and shallow then by all means let’s relegate it to a career of one-offs. An e-label and its single and EPs are pefect for such marginal talents. If a band is genuinely good it shouldn’t stop at an EP. It needs to offer more to listeners.
Here’s my theory on the sub-album model of the e-label: Buying three or four tracks may encourage the mediocre artists to keep recording, and will encourage labels to pursue the mediocre. The downside of the digital revolution is that it will eventually provide a business model that will support mediocre artists who don’t have the goods to make a good album. You see, good bands make good albums while mediocre bands make three good songs and a ringtone. Buying albums will foster long term artist development and more worthwhile music. The three-song-and-a-ringtone model encourages labels to seek a quick return on a flavor of the month. It won’t weed out the weaker artists, and it will ruin the process of natural evolution that previously ended the careers all but the stronger artists.
I’m a person who will buy singles. Bands often release bite-sized music between full-length albums, and I’m glad they do. But those singles won’t make an impact on music, pop culture, or my opinion that the album is where the best music and the best listening experience will be found.
Pitchfork Attracts Eyes In The Upper East Side
David Carr of the NY Times’ profiled Pitchfork yesterday in “Garage Rock Meets Garage Critics.” He pinpointed a few of the reasons the site is so successful. “Pitchfork is home to the kind of full-on rant-think piece-takedown that was once the specialty of long-and-strong journalism legends like Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs,” he wrote, later adding that it has a style of writing much like that of alternative weeklies “but it is ambitious and passionately prosecuted.”
Craig Marks, editor in chief of Blender, calls Pitchfork “a utopian hippie outpost, where people are pure and bohemian and have great values” and skillfully located one of its biggest calling cards, “their implicit message is that there is a huge corrupt recording industry and they have decided to band together and fight the good fight.”
Unlike Blender, which is the literary equivalent to the sound one makes by cupping a hand under an armpit and squeezing, Pitchfork treats music with a passion that cannot be found in today’s soundbite-filled print magazines. Its lengthy articles has gone against the “dumbing down” trend that has attacked publications over the last five years or so.
Xeni Jardin, co-editor of Boing Boing”, points to a “new credibility” on the Internet. “At this moment in our cultural history, a lot of the better content on the Web is seen as unmediated and more honest,” she said. Pitchfork has oodles of credibility. One gets the feeling it can’t be sold. (In indie rock language that means it can be snooty.) How coincidental that on the same page in the Times’s business section was an article about Liz Hurley on the cover of Shape magazine that carried the sentence, “Magazines, of course, often blur the line between advertising and editorial content.” And therein lies the credibility problem.
Glenn works in the music industry in New York City. He writes about the industry and music in general at his blog, Coolfer.