Though I’ll admit to not being very familiar with his music, I have just gained quite a bit of respect for Prince. His latest album, Planet Earth, was given away as a free covermount a few weeks ago with the U.K.’s Mail on Sunday (a newspaper), causing music retailers to flip out. Sony BMG U.K. refused to distribute the album. Most record stores in the U.K. lashed out at him. Chief executive of HMV, Simon Fox, said (before the rumours were confirmed): “I think it would be absolutely nuts. I can’t believe the music industry would do it to itself. I simply can’t believe it would happen; it would be absolute madness.” (HMV eventually decided to sell the Mail on Sunday, much to the dismay of their competitors.) The Entertainment Retailers Association co-chairman, Paul Quirk, said that “it would be yet another example of the damaging covermount culture which is destroying any perception of value around recorded music.”
Clearly, music retailers only perceive the “value around recorded music” to be that of cold hard cash in exchange for their distribution of it, and understandably, I guess, since that’s their business model. But it’s a business model that’s dying and music retailers need to adapt. There’s more to making a career in music than distributing disks, and artists like Prince realize this.
What about the value of having fans? Genuine fans. People who love your music and will support your efforts, whether it’s through purchasing music, attending concerts, or sharing music with friends and growing your fan base. Bands like Dispatch, that thrived on music distribution through Napster, are a testament to the value of music beyond simple record sales.
Prince is in a different situation though compared to independent bands. He’s already made his millions, and his new music doesn’t really seem to be his most valuable asset. In other words, he hasn’t been making a ton of money from record sales anyways. He makes his money primarily from touring (he made $87.4 million USD from his last major tour in 2004!). By giving away his latest album with copies of the newspaper (and with concert tickets), he’s getting his music out to a wider audience and gaining more publicity for it (nevermind the £500,000 he got from the Mail).
And the recording industry is not the only troubled industry involved in the deal. With competition from online news sources (and online platforms for classified ads), most newspapers are struggling to survive nowadays. And they’re making the same stupid mistakes (all but some) that the record labels did with Napster by shunning the technology rather than embracing it (see: How Dare Google Send Belgian News Sites Traffic!). This was a great move for the Mail in terms of trying new ideas to stimulate business.
Patrick Goldstein, columnist for the L.A. Times, thought the same thing. In fact, he went so far as to write an article taking the idea even further and asked “why couldn’t my newspaper do that?” (you know, being in L.A. and all). It was scrapped and the L.A. Times never ran it, instead claiming that Goldstein was “on assignment”. However, the L.A. Observed ran his column in full (read it here). It’s a great read, and it’s really a shame that people in the newspaper and entertainment businesses are terrified of new ideas.
Here’s how it finishes:
Giving music away doesn’t mean it has lost its value, just that its value is no longer moored to the price of a CD. Like it or not, the CD is dying, as is the culture of newsprint. People want their music — and their news — in new ways. It’s time we embraced change instead of always worrying if some brash new idea — like giving away music — would tarnish our sober minded image. When businesses are faced with radical change, they are usually forced to ask — is it a threat or an opportunity? Guess which choice is the right answer.