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April 1, 2007

Beatles on iTunes and the Album Offer

Apple and EMI are primed for an "exciting" announcement on Monday.  Speculation ranges from Beatle tracks to finally make it to iTunes, to a Yellow Submarine-like iPod that will contain Beatle music, to EMI announcing the end of digital rights management controls on songs.  Any of this would be welcome, particularly the latter.  Selling music online has changed the the manufacturing and distribution of music, and most of the time the labels simply don't get it.  Of course they're afraid of piracy, but most of the tracks that wind up on the file sharing sites do not likely come from previously protected songs from online stores.  Or at least until someone has burned them to CD and effective destroyed the copy protection.  There is that little matter of the billions of CDs sold in the last 20 years or so as a good source of most of the illegal product.  Could this be the source for some of the file sharers?

Beatle music is reputed to be some of the most downloaded music on the web even though none of it has been available legally for that purpose.  It seems odd that after so many years EMI and the Beatles (at least the still living ones) never seemed to capitalize (no pun intended) in a market where clear demand exists.  It's not unlike how bootlegs of unreleased Beatles music drove the company and the group to issue the Anthology CDs.  And even those were done with sort of a wink and nod to the collectors.  A good number of the unreleased tracks in circulation were covered by the anthologies but not to the point of being replaced by the official releases.  Take One of Strawberry Fields on the Anthology release is missing the background vocals that were apparently overdubbed, and which appear on countless bootlegs of the Take One version.  It was almost as if the Beatles were saying, here's our version, which is not the same one you bought before.

Now the possibility exists, courtesy of Apple and Apple, that consumers will have the opportunity to purchase these songs online.  And, as with the Anthology releases compared to the bootlegs, there may be some surprises.  This was alluded to by Neil Aspinall when the most recent trademark litigation was going on. He said that there were new masters being made of all the albums.  One wonders if there will be extra tracks of song versions yet to be heard from sources legal or otherwise.  Remastered tracks also offer the opportunity to have a product that competes with the existing albums that are already on the market.  In other words, there's a reason to buy the music again, even for the ninth and tenth time:  better editing and sound quality.  Now that's marketing.

And marketing is what relates to Apple/iTunes' latest musical offer.  The company announced a new program in the past week where consumers can buy the rest of an album with credit for songs already purchased.  Albums generally sell for $9.99 on iTunes, but do not sell nearly as well as individual tracks.  Why spend $10 when $3 gets you the three good songs off the record.  Apple is trying to spur sales for the full records now with this offer.  There are catches.  The album has to be purchased within 180 days of the original song purchases.  Other restrictions also apply for some titles. 

Artists have complained that albums are more than a collection of songs, and for some that is true.  Dark Side Of The Moon is like that, where the music is integrated as a concept.  Can the same thing be said of anything by David Lee Roth, the Rolling Stones (Satanic Majesties excepted), or Franz Ferdinand, to name a few disparate musicians?  No one doubts that Eric Clapton is a great guitar player and performer.  After Layla and a few others, everything seems to sound the same.  That's the real problem with music sales, online or physical.

Music is now a commodity and less of an art it once was.  Iggy Pop's Lust For Life is used in more than a few commercials.  The song has been monetized to sell cruise ship slots with its carefully edited out references to "liquor and drugs" among other naughty references. How does this use of the song sell copies of the Lust For Life, the source album for the song?  It doesn't. 

Record companies need to understand that this digital marketplace prevents them from doing certain things they couldn't do in the physical world.  They can't sell special editions of the product online: no more greatest hits collections; no more outtakes added to a previously released record (just buy the outtakes); no more special packaging such as color vinyl (as back in the day) to sell the same music again and again.  It's all singles now.  Maybe Apple is on to something with their album offer to boost sales, but I suspect the sales bump will be marginal.  When a record company has 20 albums by an artist that represent 12 albums of unique performances, it's pretty hard to get consumers to buy the other 8.  In order to sell the same music over again in the new market, music labels will have to offer better sound (remastered tracks, lossless formats), alternative performances, or some other variation to generate sales.  Either that, or kill digital sales outright and stick with CDs.  As odd as that sounds, labels have more control over their product when they control the manufacturing and distribution.  A lack of control is what they seem to lament the most these days.

April 1, 2007 | Permalink

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