Op-Ed: New Digital Packaging Won’t Solve Everyone’s Problems

fail-cat.jpgDavid Ring, executive VP of business development at Universal Music Group was recently quoted as saying:

If what we’re trying to do is one-by-one downloads…that’s not a business that can grow – it won’t be healthy for the industry.”

On Monday we reported the announcement that Apple will be teaming up with record labels to promote whole album sales by offering interactive extras.  This is certainly something to be excited about for fans, but let’s be clear that this is not the savior that the record company thinks it might be.  Technology and the marketplace have demanded better quality from record labels and without that, consumers can still go elsewhere or buy 1 or 2 tracks on iTunes from a mediocre album or simply yank it from LimeWire or Pirate Bay (until the Pirate Bay gets shut down and Mini Nova takes over). 

What David Ring’s quote indicates is the industry’s continued lack of
understanding of the problem: quality.  Despite the hype the industry
puts out, music fans are still rampantly buying albums, songs,
merchandise and a whole lot more – even during tough economic times.  The digital download didn’t kill the
album.  Greed, poor talent management and record labels killed the
album (or at least put it in a coma).  Apple’s concept (which is still being revealed and fleshed out) of offering fans more is certainly seems like a good one – providing fans with more information, greater access and a better connection to the artists they love is a great idea and will work on many levels.  But if the industry believes that jamming a few more color photos of Beyonce down everyone’s throat or providing flashing link to her message board is going to convince fans to buy an album with only one decent song on it, they are wrong, again. 

The truth remains that fans (much more than industry folk) understand and appreciate albums.  It’s why Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was one of the longest running albums on the Billboard charts in history.  Dark Side didn’t sell 45 million copies because it had one good single on it, but because it was a delicately crafted and  cohesive album created by artists given the freedom to do what they saw best.  More than anyone, fans know that songs like “Time” or “Money” were great rock radio staples for decades, but proved to have even great resonance within the context of the album; it was only through the combination of incredible music, amazing artwork and creative concepts that Dark Side grew to be the cultural phenomenon that it remains.  The myth that that full length albums are dead is an overstated rumor – artists continue to to want to make full length and fans continue to want to buy them (Radiohead, Flaming Lips or Sufjan Stevens wouldn’t be who they are without the full length record). 

As a person who is interested in business, I find it fascinating that the music business is one of the only industries that incessantly whines and moans when profits don’t go up every single year, which seems completely absurd.  Even behemoth oil companies must continue to innovate constantly if they expect to see a rise in profits and innovation occurs only through risk.  Like the Kelly Clarkson tale we reported on yesterday, the music industry continues to run from risk and cling to old ways of business that have long since failed and have even turned people away from music.  The only real way for the industry to revive the full length album and to regain the trust of music fans is to give artists more freedom and take more risks on the artists they sign.  Otherwise, the market will continue to move on without them.  Far before the first digital download, the Smiths knew better:

At the record company meeting
On their hands – a dead star
And oh, the plans they weave
And oh, the sickening greed

Re-issue ! Re-package ! Re-package !
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra Track (and a tacky badge)

But you could have said no
If you’d wanted to
You could have said no
If you’d wanted to

Best of ! Most of !
Satiate the need
Slip them into different sleeves !
Buy both, and feel deceived  

Lyrics from “Paint a Vulgar Picture”, Strangeways Here We Come