So let’s recap: if iTunes is not currently the largest music retailer in the world, then it is well on the way to becoming so. Outlets for physical music product are shrinking. Consumers are increasingly looking to online sources for new music, for variety, convenience, and price. So yeah, it makes sense that artists would steer clear of iTunes.
At least that’s what the Wall Street Journal thinks.
Citing limited examples — the Beatles, AC/DC, Kid Rock — the WSJ looks at the singles versus whole album market, and seems to decide that long-form is the way to go. First, facts, because they’re important. Record labels and artists make more money when consumer buy entire albums. Singles don’t add up the way they used to. While legal music purchases are increasing, overall revenue is decreasing. Another fact: when we talk about “saving” the music business, we’re not talking about saving the artists, we’re talking about saving the labels.
Back in the day, singles were the way the music industry worked. While a few bands, such as the aforementioned Beatles, created works that enticed consumers to buy long-playing discs (as they were once known), singles really ruled the charts and revenue streams. Then came CDs and this magical moment where consumers replaced their vinyl collections with harder, more portable plastic. For a while, CD sales were trending upward. Then the music industry decided to kill itself, and CD sales suffered.
The industry remains largely single-driven. Think about it: if an artist is lucky, more than one song from an album might get radio play, video exposure, dance club fever. When it comes to Top 40, or whatever it’s called these days, music, a lot of care goes into crafting the one, two, maybe three songs that might get this play. The rest? Yeah, well, you don’t hear people talking about all the other songs on a Britney Spears album.
iTunes, with its ninety-cents per song model has exposed a huge vulnerability in the music business: they’re trying to sell a whole lot stuff that people don’t want. While I appreciate that the industry needs to recoup very bad financial decisions, and thinks it’s okay to rip off consumers with lousy product, it’s pretty obvious that consumers, who have the option to buy entire albums worth of music, aren’t willing to subsidize this business model. As stated by the WSJ:
Label executives, managers and artists chafe against the iTunes policy that prevents them from selling an album only. ITunes, with few exceptions, requires that songs be made available separately. Consumers strongly prefer that, though Apple also typically offers a special price for buyers who purchase all the songs on an album. [emphasis mine]
Kid Rock is apparently a “success” story because he sold 1.7 million copies of his latest album, despite the lack of iTunes love. Missing from this story are the lost sales from consumers who truly wanted to buy just the single for their iPods. Also missing are the number of pirated copies of the single and album due to lack of desirable legal options. With greed comes backlash.
Shunning iTunes carries risks for the labels. Not only is it the biggest force in music sales, but keeping songs off the service could prompt listeners to look for illegal downloads instead. In addition, customers have demonstrated a clear preference for buying singles instead of entire albums. Only in a few cases have record labels been able to boost album sales over those of individual songs.
Again and again: consumers are shunning these albums, and with good reason. Why pay for ten or twelve songs when you just want one? Why pay for ten or twelve songs when eight or nine of those is just plain awful? Why pay for really bad business practices?
Whether the music industry likes it or not — and they don’t — iTunes is giving consumers what they want, in the way they want it, at the price they want to pay.
The recording groups spent over a decade trying to figure out how to bring music and online audiences together. It’s still funny that they tried everything but the methods that were in place and working. Their lack of insight and foresight and just plain sight opened the door for iTunes and created a business model where the music business couldn’t call the shots. Apple gets to do that.
That’s what happens when you keep making variations of the same mistake over and over. Until the next big thing hits the music biz, these labels will have to dance to Apple’s tune.
There is a non-stated implication that consumers “owe” the industry something, and buying full-length recordings is our responsibility, darn iTunes for letting us skirt this obligation. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the music industry be asking itself why consumers don’t want more from an artist? Why they aren’t willing to buy those ten tracks instead of one? Is it possible that the disappointment is too much to bear? Whose fault is that?
Hint: not the consumer.
Very few artists can sustain the kind of popularity enjoyed by the Beatles, AC/DC, or the Rolling Stones. Most, I’m sorry to say, are one-hit wonders, and deservedly so (if pressed, Jim could probably create a list of the greatest ever one-hit wonders). I won’t go so far as to call the majority of today’s artists thin when it comes to talent, but, well, have you listened to commercial radio lately? Have you noticed how absolutely forgettable most of the music is? Those of us who want to buy full on albums do so. Those who want a single song have their reasons too.
The WSJ piece concludes like this:
Since the beginning of 2006, only the Beatles have sold more “catalog” albums in the U.S. than AC/DC — also without licensing their music to iTunes. Among the six best-selling catalog artists during that period, the act that sold the most individual songs digitally — the Rolling Stones — sold the fewest albums, digital or physical. That is important because while the Stones’ six million single tracks sold may seem impressive, they represent low-cost, low-profit transactions. Album sales, on the other hand, are much more profitable.
The question not answered (nor even asked) here is how many of those Rolling Stones singles sales were to consumers who had already, in one form or another, previously purchased the music they were buying? Is it really a sign of the end of times or interest when artists who have been in the marketplace close to 40 years don’t see huge growth?
I think it’s more a sign of how bad this industry is doing. Without iTunes, there isn’t a marketplace that gives consumers what they want. Without iTunes, the industry, thanks to its own bad decisions, would be upside down thanks to piracy. Without iTunes, artists would be bypassing labels in greater numbers because, well, they’d only be making money by touring and direct sales.
Bypassing iTunes is the right of every artist (though I wonder how informed their decision-making process really is), but we have to face some facts. Until there is another legitimate, robust, consumer-desired download service out there, if you’re not selling on iTunes, you’re not selling digital.