Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The New Singles World

We're not talking about the dating scene.

One of the major reasons Napster and subsequent file sharing services became so popular is that they allowed people to cherry pick hit singles. If you think about it, that is probably the root of file sharing. Give me just what I want and not the other baggage (now this is starting to sound like dating). Up to roughly 1999, you had to buy an $18 CD to get the one song you really wanted. So file sharing was never solely about getting that song for free, it was just about not spending all of your beer money to get that one song. If it had been easier to buy that song for $.99, or even half that, I bet a substantial amount of tracks would have been sold. It would still be eclipsed by the free downloads on P2P's, but a lot of people will pay a little for some convenience. I'm one of those people. Enter iTunes.

iTunes is a huge force in music retail. I believe it makes up about 30% of total US music revenues, and according to at least one source, is the top music retailer in the US. One reason is the deep catalog and long tail economics of selling less of more. From personal experience, I can report over 80% of my revenue from music sales is from iTunes, with the rest being physical albums and all the other digital service providers.

Ok, I've said nothing new so far, so let me get to my point.

There are still holdouts at iTunes, perhaps the most notable being The Beatles. Here's a Wall Street Journal article that does a decent job discussing "why" bands do this. In short, these artists want to stick to selling their music in the album format and avoid letting people choose one or two tracks. Even so, their music is easily found across torrent and P2P services for free.

Holding out seems like a noble thing to do and all, but come on guys, you're missing the point. For starters, your real fans are still going to buy the whole album. While your tracks will still be traded freely on the internet, you might pick up a few sales from people willing to pay for the convenience of iTunes.

More importantly, there's the artistic debate. The artist wants you to buy the whole album and listen to it start to finish, in order. Well, here's where it gets tricky. I see albums in three categories.

First, there will always be pop acts that play the singles game, and those singles usually get released on an album with eight or nine "filler" tracks. Filler, in this case, means phoned in pieces of crap that should be an embarrassment to all those involved. These are usually the kinds of acts major labels got in the habit of using to support themselves. Once there was an option to avoid the filler, the focus was shifted back to the single. Only today you can exploit it with with mobile products, videos, etc.

At the other end of the spectrum there's the concept album. The first band that comes to mind is Pink Floyd. Sure, they had some great songs, but in the context of the whole album, holy shit, it was a whole new experience. Why would you want to miss out on it? Fact is, most people don't. Go look at The Wall on iTunes. It's $24.99. Originally released as a double LP, it's now just 26 tracks (you can tell it's on two CDs because it's numbered 1-13 twice). A bunch of the tracks are under two minutes, and there are maybe just two or three songs people would actually listen to outside of the whole album. Yet the "filler" tracks here are functional pieces to a larger concept, and to get the whole picture you gotta buy the whole thing. If you look at that graph in the WSJ article, you'll see that people are buying as many Pink Floyd albums as they are digital tracks.

Finally, somewhere between the pop acts and the concept albums are simply great albums. The Beatles would be a great example here. So many of their albums are loaded with songs you want, you just buy the whole thing. One of my favorite albums by an independent musician is The Hill by Mike Stocksdale (you can get it for free on his site but I STRONGLY encourage you to go buy it and support this guy). Mike just wrote a bunch of great, tasty songs. A few of these could be singles, but quite frankly, you're missing out if you don't get the whole thing and listen start to finish.

The bottom line is either your album is either good start to finish or it's not. Not selling your tracks as singles makes no sense to me. Your fans are allowed an opinion, and in today's climate they expect to be able to buy a track or two first before deciding your new masterpiece is worth their time and attention to listen start to finish. Look, I understand that many tracks are Album Only on a variety of services based on length (see any jazz album), licensing (see any soundtrack), and occasionally publishing (which makes little sense to me), but those are not artistic decisions. If you think your album so great that it MUST be listened to start to finish, which ought to be the way we all make albums anyhow, then throw it out there and let the fans figure it out. Everybody wins.

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