A long time ago in a galaxy far away, we had a little something called “AM Radio”. On AM Radio, they played something called “singles”. These singles were sometimes just that — individual songs recorded by artists. Sometimes these singles came from a flat piece of grooved vinyl called an “album”.
This being the the olden days (think approximately the time that the wonders of electricity were fully explored), sometimes you’d hear a single on the radio and you’d go to the store and buy it. The single generally had two songs, on on the A side and one on the B side. Some people took the whole power of the purchasing dollar thing further and bought entire albums.
Times changed. Times always change. FM radio became a dominant force. CDs were invented. Satellite radio. The single could no longer be purchased. Downloadable music. iTunes. The future.
Today, most artists understand the value of making their music available on iTunes. It’s what we in the industry like to call a no-brainer: the more opportunities you give consumers, the more chances you have to sell your product. And virtual product is far more cost effective than physical product.
There are, naturally, iTunes holdouts. And their reasons are, hmmm, disingenuous at best. Ridiculous. Especially this one, noted in an AP story:
…iTunes wrecks the artistic integrity of an album by allowing songs to be purchased by the track for 99 cents…
Yeah, ’cause so many radio stations are playing the full albums so the kids can get the full effect of the artistic integrity. I’ll grant you that there are albums that hang together really well as a whole. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)”, for example. The individual songs are just about perfection on their own, but the album tells a cohesive story.
There are other albums that work this way as well, but artists who cling to the “hey, we’re just waiting for the album as a concept to make a comeback” argument are only fooling themselves. Even if consumers cannot purchase singles in physical format, they encounter music in that context all the time. Forcing people to buy entire albums (a relic of the CD era) was just a way to squeeze more money out of consumers — they wanted the song, they had to buy all the junk that came with it.
It is equally laughable that artists who are living easy off of catalog sales are complaining about a 99 cent price point — in the case of bands like The Beatles, how much did their original vinyl singles sell for? And, hey bonus!, no expensive manufacturing costs.
The best argument artists can make is “we get too small a percentage of each sale”. iTunes (and by iTunes, I mean all online distribution services) is not the bad guy here. Labels are, as they have since time began, maximizing their profit by paying artists as little money as possible. It’s going to take a series of high profile lawsuits before legacy agreements are redefined. I am going to say that I’m favor these lawsuits because it’s the only way archaic industry practices will be changed.
In the meantime, as Tower Records crumbles under the weight of its debt, consumers in my (major) city have few options for purchasing music. Since I already have all The Beatles albums I’m ever going to purchase in the physical format (given that I’ve bought this stuff at least two, sometimes three times, it seems I should be entitled to a free download of stuff I already own).
Online holdouts aren’t helping themselves — George Bush revealed in an interview with Brit Hume that he grooves to the Beatles on his iPod. I believe that Mr. Bush owns a legally purchased copy of each and every song on his Shuffle; some, however, don’t agree with my assessment. Man, I hate to think what happens when the RIAA serves the White House a subpoena.
Bottom line, of course, is that people want choice. Artists want money. Playing coy with iTunes is only going to hurt the artist.
Valley Boy says
Indeed, my one quibble with this post is that I would consider the “album” concept a relic of the vinyl era, not the CD one. What we have here is a striking example of how technology, and technology alone, has forced artists to wedge their work into a certain package. iTunes et al should be seen as the saviour of musicians since they don’t have to conform to such rigid dictates (e.g., approx. 40 minutes of musical work for a vinyl “album” or 73 for a CD). How many artists these days, other than say, Radiohead, actually approach an “album” as a single coherent concept rather than just an agglomeration of songs they put together recently in a studio. Concept albums went out in the 80s, didn’t they?
And we all know the REAL reason Metallica recently decided to put their music on iTunes—nobody was buying their CDs anymore.