Thursday 11 March 2010

editorial from today's Record of the Day magazine

Wednesday saw a MusicTank debate titled Is Pre-Release Killing Our Business? Answer – no, but it is encouraging piracy.

Diana Vickers’ debut single was added to every ILR network last week, to Radio 1 this week, and it’s on YouTube. As you can see from this forum, fans were desperate to get it as soon as they knew about its existence, and now they’ve got it. Yet they won’t be able to get it from download stores until April 19th. Some fans will buy it come April 19th to support Diana. Others won’t buy it, but clearly would have done if a download store had been the first and easiest place to get it.

Similarly the DJ MistaJam posted this on Twitter before the release of Tinie Tempah’s single: “If every MC & singer who did a version of Pass Out bought just one copy, ... be enough sales to make it a #1”. Obviously Pass Out did get to no.1 and some of the MCs and singers who covered it did buy a copy. But others would have been happy with their YouTube rip or illicit download. Why are we driving fans towards unofficial sources when we could be driving them to download stores?

What would happen if singles were released to download stores at the same time as radio? Needless to say, there would still be ten tracks in the top ten each week, there would still be marketing campaigns, and there would still be new music on the radio. In the case of Tinie, he would still have had a massive hit. In fact, Pass Out would probably have climbed to no.1 earlier than it did. Genuine hits could emerge earlier – instead of Iyaz’s Replay getting an airplay spike once it hit no.1 in the midweeks, its airplay would have gradually increased over the preceding weeks as radio watched it climb the chart. In the case of Diana, her track looks like a smash but we won’t know for sure until late April. Without a pre-release window, we’d find out earlier – good news for the media and good news for Diana’s label RCA who could allocate their marketing budget accordingly. Labels would hopefully be less prone to spending tens of thousands of pounds of marketing money before they have any reliable information about whether it will come back to them.

On the other hand, it would become even harder to make flops look like hits by concentrating efforts on one week of sales – surely a good thing for the bottom line of the majors and the industry as a whole. We suspect some of the fans of pre-release windows within majors are the great marketing people who know how to manipulate the system to make their releases look more popular then they are. How very 20th century.

With pre-release windows gone, the chart would truly reflect popularity and we'd see all except the out-of-the-box smashes like Help For Haiti entering low and climbing as awareness rose. The chart is being manipulated at present thanks to pre-release windows – popular records are excluded because they’re not on sale yet. For example, Bonkers by Dizzee Rascal was clearly the most popular track in the country for some time before it was released. We'd also be able to kiss goodbye to the copycat cover versions that chart when hits like Fireflies or Riverside get played on the radio before they’re available on iTunes.

More generally, the first place to get new music by your favourite band wouldn't be The Hype Machine or YouTube or P2P. The first place would be whichever digital retailer could move fastest. Every artist would then have a great incentive to start a chart-eligible download store on their own website, and make that the first place their fans could hear and buy their new music. You know how every band used to post their great new song to MySpace for fans to stream for free? Why not post it to their own chart-eligible download store instead? Let’s make it as easy to buy and sell music as it is to give it away or get it for free.

Of course, there have been some experiments in this direction with mixed results. Radiohead’s In Rainbows album was released without any pre-release build up, and it became a phenomenon. The Raconteurs released an album in a similar way and it flopped. The Gorillaz single had no pre-release window and failed to set the charts on fire, but the single is still on the Radio 1 A list and the album is no.1 in the midweeks.

One major label chairman has said he would always use pre-release windows even if the rest of the industry stopped, because he believes it would give him a competitive advantage. He may be right – but he’s also encouraging piracy and undermining any requests the record industry is making of consumers or the government. Why should they help us tackle piracy if we refuse to get our own house in order?

Any one artist who releases without a pre-release window may of course end up regretting it. Media aren’t yet accustomed to tracks entering the chart low and climbing, so may back off a single if they see a low chart entry. But if everyone abandoned pre-release windows then media would instantly learn not to assume a track is a flop because it enters the chart low – what counts is whether it climbs once it gets exposure. So ideally the whole industry would do this collectively. If they did, we’re convinced that total sales would increase as we allowed and encouraged customers to buy tracks whenever they hear them.

Joe Taylor

More on the MusicTank event from CMU