Back in June, I read a review of the new Ash album “Twilight of the Innocents” on the Guardian Unlimited website where it was mentioned that the band, a personal favorite, was about to end its recording career. Their traditional recording career that is. From this point forward the band members would be “dedicating ourselves wholly to the art of the single for the digital age.” For this I applaud them as, presumably, one won’t have to buy expensive imports and will just be able to download new Ash songs from the website or an online retailer like iTunes.
For those not familiar with Ash, you may remember the wonderful single “A Life Less Ordinary,” from a terrible movie of the same name. Always a bit of an indie underdog, Ash’s last album, a pop-rock meisterwerk called “Meltdown,” went virtually unnoticed in this country. I thought then that something might give, like a breakup or a total sell out. Instead, they’ve taken matters into their own hands. With the latest album not even released in this country, the internet could be the band’s savior, as long as there are no international or crazy DRM restrictions involved. I wish them luck in their future. But what I really like is this newfound artistic freedom that bands like Ash are planning, and how it is actually starting to take shape with other bands.
Releasing music digitally is not a new idea by any means, but it is one that certainly has been threatened, at least implicitly and by all forward thinking artists, by the current state of the record business. With CD sales down every year now, something had to give. Bands like Ash, and now Radiohead are taking their music and offering it directly to us, the consumer/fan.
You’ve read the stories before about how the iTunes/iPod phenomenon has changed how we purchase, store, transport and even re-distribute music. Sadly — and I don’t feel any remorse for them — the record companies were caught with their collective pants down, still stuck in the ’70s with their own outmoded ideas of distribution, promotion, and overall top to bottom functionality. The world changed, quickly, and they did not. Again, what I like about all this is simply the newfound liberation, and with that the creativity, that will result. No longer will recording contracts restrict artist output, or require half-assed contract fulfillment albums. Bands and solo artists will be responsible only to their audience. It’s the free market in the best possible sense.
When it comes to marketing it should be easy, especially for established bands like Radiohead. The idea of offering their latest release “In Rainbows” to fans for only the cost of what they would like to contribute is sheer genius and the press jumped on the story, thus giving them tons of free publicity. I gladly parted with five pounds sterling ($10 and change) for the honor of hearing their new music and I don’t regret it. I have no idea how many other bands will use this method of distribution, but it’s a start towards being your own boss.
The artist-driven distribution shift is also coming as news hits us about other retail-driven shifts. This past week Apple/iTunes rather sheepishly began to offer their iTunes Plus songs, i.e. the more expensive, non-DRM’d, 256 kbps songs at their standard 99 cent rate. (My only problem with this is, shouldn’t all songs be at the 256 rate? Why pay 99 cents now for one still at an inferior 128 kbps? Will they eventually convert their entire catalogue? Can we upgrade our purchases? Get refunds? So many questions!) One obvious reason for this shift was Amazon.com and their rather excellent offering of all songs in MP3 format at either 89 or 99 cents, depending on the length of the song. A more tiered system is correct and I would counsel Apple to move in that direction, especially to further delineate between audio and video content and length. Why not 89 cents per song, $1.49 for a music video, $1.99 for a half-hour TV episode and $2.39 for an hour? The hard line that Apple is taking is not doing them any favors and is just another reason why artists, the content producers, are taking it to the streets themselves. Which, in a sense, is what NBC/Universal, the content producers, did when they severed their ties with iTunes based on pricing conflicts and DRM guarantees. Content is still the reigning king, and if you, the distributor don’t change, the world changes for you.