Sympathy For the Music Industry: Prince and the CD Revolution

1 08 2007

by mr. travis

The music industry, as has been reported ad nauseam for about five years, is in trouble. Album sales are down (though concert sales are up, funny how that works), with the culprit for such a downward spiral in profits pointed to as the rampant file sharing found on the internet. While downloading may be a small portion of the problem, the industry (spearheaded by the RIAA or Recording Industry Association of America) fail to see that some of the issue is of their own making due to poor business practices (especially in the rampant tossed aside feel that has befallen the independent stores to make way for the wholesale markets of the Best Buy type stores), misleading charts (those charts they so often tote are based on number of orders, not actual sales figures), and outdated modes of selling their product (remember how slow the labels were to sign on with Itunes or any of the other online music services?). Like the film industry, those in charge of the labels are too often focused on first week sales, not looking at the whole picture in terms of sales, artist growth, and increasing a fanbase that won’t turn away as soon as the next hot artist is released. Most of these problems come down to one issue, those in charge are unwilling to change their practices, what has worked for the past thirty years obviously is no longer in the cards for today’s market. The industry needs a shake down pure and simple and to find a shining example of how to conduct their business, the should look no further than Prince, the very artist that has caused many a headache for the industry.

It may seem odd to look at Prince as a business model, but that’s what he is. His battle with Warner Records in the 90’s was made out to have Prince look like a crazy man, with his name change and antics described negatively through the press (some of which were affiliated with Time Warner who owned Prince’s record company). But, he managed to set up his own independence, essentially doing what he wanted, though without the sales figures that had followed him in his classic years. His album Crystal Ball was the first to be sold on the internet, another idea that at the time was scoffed out, but is now a trailblazing move. But, it was in 2004 that he made a truly revolutionary move, one that could have helped the industry move forward from their sales woes, but instead was quickly.

Prince was going on tour for his latest album Musicology, dubbed a return to form by many of the prominent music and entertainment magazines. Part of the draw for his tour was the inclusion of the album in the ticket sale, a brilliant strategy, not only to put out his new album, but also to promote his older material as his concert was billed as a greatest hits package. What better way to interest people in going out and purchasing the older material. But, the RIAA and the Billboard charts disagreed with such an assessment. While Prince had his highest charting album in years, both organizations believed it was unfair to the other artists that Prince was handing out his album with the tickets (which were going on average for $66, far less than other artists of his stature and legacy such as the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney), therefore banning CD’s purchased with tickets from being included in the charts unless the purchasee had a choice of buying a ticket without the CD. The logic behind such a statement is somewhat understandable, but the language that was used, combined with the mindset of topping out on album sales after the first week that pervades the industry, has essentially sabotaged this avenue of including CD’s with a ticket purchase. It hasn’t been seen since in America and has only recently been revived by Prince in the UK with his Planet Earth album.

Recently, Prince partnered with the UK magazine “Mail on Sunday,” to include a copy of his new album Planet Earth with a recent issue, much to the chagrin of the industry. Like he did with his previous albums Musicology and 3121, Prince signed a distribution deal with the UK division of Sony BMG, who understandably were upset with him just handing out his record. But, while profits may be down, it’s completely agreeable with what Prince has done. A giveaway such as this, can only increase knowledge of the artists product as well as their work. But, the labels as well as the corporate music and book store HMV threw a fuss, feeling “left out” from the sales, leading retailer HMV to stack the magazine, selling it as if it were a CD.

What these two instances have begun is a sort of revolution amongst the ranks of those within the game of the major labels. Prince has opened the game for what is basically legal music sharing. He wants his music distributed and he’ll do it with any means necessary. There have been rumors of bands intentionally releasing their works over the internet, but never has an artist been so direct with it by releasing it in the open under legal means. The label heads need to buck up now and get with the times. To distribute music this way is genius, while it’s not going to cause a giant sea change within the charts, it’s enough to pull the industry out of its doldrums and inspire real creative change within the industry, which in the long haul will improve the only thing the labels are looking for: profits. There is no quick fix to the problem, but being so stubborn as to keep one of their major artists from releasing his music as he sees fit is only adding more issues and creating greater animosity from potential customers. And that, in the end will prove more disastrous than any amount of downloading could ever create.

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