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Since the genesis of modern, ‘Popular’ music in the 1950s, the formats available and in vogue for the distribution of albums and singles have evolved fairly frequently. From the record to the tape, CD to the MiniDisc, audio storage devices have advanced at a rate one would expect in our Technological Age. Therefore perhaps unsurprisingly, at the turn of the century a further development in the accessibility of music was presented to the public: the MP3. Its intangibility, combined with the very nature of the Internet which made it possible in the first place, rendered it the most widely-available and immediate format to date, much to the malign of the record industry, Metallica et al. As the first incarnation of Napster so ably demonstrated, initial monitoring and policing of illegal downloading proved impossible, but with Napster’s rebirth as a legitimate file-sharing device, the emergence of iTunes and Last.fm, it appears the courts and the listeners have reached something of a détente.

Ambivalence towards the record industry has been present since recording became possible, and the progression within audio technology has done little to improve relations. From the suing of Neil Young by David Geffen for creating ‘music of an ‘unrepresentative nature’, to Prince’s ‘Slave’ incident at the Brits, distrust and suspicion of the music industry from artists is certainly nothing new. But perhaps the greatest affront to the music business in recent years was the support for the original version of Napster from Radiohead as it received an increasing amount of legal attention. Despite the potential loss of revenue for the Oxford five-piece when their music was downloaded (particularly in the case of the leaked Kid A), the band were of the opinion that the exposure to a previously indifferent American market was in fact beneficial to them. Despite the eventual closure of Napster 1.0, the experience obviously remained a significant one to Radiohead and, with a history of experimentation behind them coupled with an intrinsic disdain for exploitation, corruption and authoritative abuse, the band announced on the 1st October 2007 their seventh studio album would be available for download from their website at a fee of the consumer’s choosing; there was no involvement whatsoever from record companies. A mere three months earlier Prince, another high-profile musician scorned by the nature of the record industry, devised his own scheme to stick the knife in with his agreement to allow The Mail on Sunday to distribute his Planet Earth album free with their newspaper; the Slave, it seemed, had reclaimed his liberty.

Further examples emerged rapidly throughout 2007 in Britain: The Charlatans signed up with XFM to release new material free of charge with the radio station’s internet site, beginning with new single ‘You Cross My Path’; Travis followed Prince’s lead with something closely resembling a Greatest Hits included in an edition of The Mail on Sunday; even Cliff Richard, who’s not generally considered a barometer for the contemporary, recently announced his plans to charge a fee dependent on sales for his latest album, where the greater the interest, the lesser the value; and Saul Williams, similar to Radiohead, made the decision to allow fans to download The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust free of charge.  With these and other examples out there, are we now on the brink of revolution in how music is distributed?  Should the consumer anticipate such opportunities to decide the value of music to become increasingly more commonplace? What will the consequences for the music industry be?

Addressing the final question first, the ramifications for the record labels, distributors and other key music business figures could potentially be massive. Post-Prince, the distributors may be rendered redundant; in a world where newspapers act as deliverers of new releases, negotiations with record companies will be unnecessary, and promotion will be provided by the newspapers themselves. Post-Radiohead and Saul Williams, there is potentially little room for the record company at all. With distribution costs now an archaic phrase, manufacturing charges irrelevant with the advent of the MP3, artists operating in this manner have complete freedom in every respect. Cut out the record company, dispense with A&R scouts and reps, and the shackles that have previously been so restrictive to so many acts are unlocked for good. Such measures would eradicate the issues that so hinder musicians, articulated by revered musician and producer Steve Albini here, and allow them creative independence without time restraints or outsider-interference. For the consumer, the potential for cheaper purchases is undeniably beneficial, as such small fees allow for further acquirements of a musical nature. However with such power comes (as ever) responsibility; with both the Saul Williams and Radiohead albums, although the opportunity to pay nothing is of course an option, it is not the only one.  With …Niggy Tardust, one can donate $5, and with In Rainbows, the amount possible to pay ranges from 46p right up to £99.99. Although it is too early to tell who pressed what button for Saul Williams’ release, according to a survey conducted by Record of the Day, two thirds of fans chose to pay for the Radiohead album, whilst the average price paid was £4. The freedom of choice seems ultimately to have worked in favour of the band, as an impalpable collection of songs released without artwork, lyrics or anything else was paid for by the majority. Scope for change, if not revolution, seems a possibility in such circumstances.

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But before getting too swept up in the tides of change, it is perhaps necessary to take a step back and reflect. Of all the acts and artists daring to take such pioneering steps, with the exception of Saul Williams the most prevailing connection is undoubtedly their fame and past successes. Past successes is particularly important here in the examples of Travis, The Charlatans and Prince; while each garnered praise and sales at their peak, recent record sales, while still fairly reasonable, are some way short of The Man Who, Some Friendly and Purple Rain respectively. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the opportunity to acquire publicity with novel releases was swiftly taken by all three acts. Further, and more significantly, one should not assume that just because the CD’s were free for the consumer that the acts received no fee for them. It is estimated that Prince earned a quarter of a million pounds from The Mail on Sunday, and though it is unlikely The Charlatans and Travis earned quite that much, neither are in the business of simply giving away music. Which leads us back to Radiohead rather nicely; although it was indubitably a bold, ground-breaking move to allow fans to download their music free of charge, it should of course be noted that Radiohead are no ordinary band. With a fanbase both so large and devoted it is unprecedented, Radiohead’s continuous determination to subvert and exceed expectations has been matched only by their success in doing so. Consequently, the announcement of new material after a four-year wait was met by rapture and rife anticipation by a vast number of people, many of whom would find the concept of acquiring such godly sounds for free inconceivable. Their heroes deserved paying, the only decision to make was how much. But even if, in some parallel universe, everybody was of the belief that their music was literally worthless, and Radiohead received not a penny for their efforts, it would in reality be of little issue to them. With millions of pounds earned from previous albums, tours, singles and merchandise, such a loss would barely register.

Which is perhaps the most significant stumbling point in considering these new distribution and release techniques as a revolution. While the well-known and the revered can afford to act in such a pioneering fashion, it would be naïve to think underground artists could successfully follow suit. A cursory glance at the list of figures necessary to record, promote and tour an album supplied by Albini (here) demonstrates the monumental costs facing artists; granted, some of the figures may be a little lavish and perhaps negotiable, and of course if the record was released online manufacturing costs wouldn’t figure, but the underlying message is that making a record is expensive. Further, if we truly are at the cusp of a revolution, and we are to expect online, independent releases with a range of prices available to the consumer, then the novelty value will surely diminish. Promotion and publicity is necessary for an act to succeed, and money is ultimately necessary for both. With the possible exception of The Strokes, artists need advances to create records, and the more money spent on producers, instruments and the like, then the better the record should sound. Regardless of how one views record labels from an ethical perspective, it is only reasonable that once a label has contributed financially that they should have some input into the marketing and distribution. Even the most charitable record label is unlikely to be satisfied if a record that they have invested in is potentially available for free, which renders such an action more or less impossible. Even Saul Williams, although relatively low-profile, has no doubt amassed a certain amount of financial security, making such an act possible. Furthermore, as one of the most politically-charged, forward-thinking artists currently working in music, it would perhaps be more of a surprise if he had chosen to release the record in a conventional fashion. Besides, while such an act is still guaranteed to demand attention, the additional publicity will probably work in his favour. It is just as unfeasible to imagine newspapers paying large sums to distribute material from emerging acts, as it is within their interest to appeal to the largest market possible, meaning only established, renowned artists fit the bill. What is perhaps more likely is that material from famous acts now on the wane will continue to appear in addition to the Sunday supplements, until perhaps the novelty wears off, much as it did with the regular inclusion of free DVDs last year.

If a precedent is to be found elsewhere in the media, it is within the film industry, with the release of Bubble in early 2006. Although garnering less publicity than Radiohead, Prince, etc., the director of the Ocean’s trilogy Steve Soderbergh released the independent film to a whirlwind of hype and criticism within the cinematic community due to his decision to release Bubble on DVD, television and the big screen simultaneously. Although with each medium some form of payment was necessary, Soderbergh was still successful in generating panic and fear amongst industry insiders. National Association of Theater Owners head John Fithian announced that some member theatres would block the film through fear of a detrimental effect on cinemas, stating “if [release] windows were eliminated, what you would have would be fewer movies, fewer total dollars for the industry, and less choice for the consumer…It’s the biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry today”. Now, almost two years later, nothing has changed. The transformation predicted by Fithian never occurred, which is perhaps the greatest signifier the music industry has to its own predicted revolution. And with Radiohead now signed with XL to release In Rainbows as an archaic Compact Disc, with guitarist Jonny Greenwood calling the whole internet release merely “an experiment,” the anticipated metamorphosis of the record industry looks set to fail to materialise just yet. But for all this negativity, it is easy to forget that, in some respects, the revolution has already happened. With the introduction of Napster, Last.fm and MySpace, it is possible to hear our favourite songs and artists free of charge, and the opportunities available to discover new music have never been greater. And with further potential for artist innovation in various fields emerging constantly, for the consumer, musician and record label alike, the future of the music industry will certainly not be dull or predictable.
In Rainbows & The Revolution
By: Graeme Claridge
InDigest