The Digitization Of The Music Industry

In some quarters the once simple process of writing, recording, and releasing an album has turned into a complex web of confusion, revenue loss and polarization.

But should everyone in the music industry quit now before there isn’t a cent to be made? Or is some intuitive thinking all the downward spiral really needs?

It’s no secret record sales are declining. Worldwide record store sales declined by more than 76% between 2000 and 2010, with CD album sales declining by 50% throughout a similar period. The previous powerhouses of music sales such as HMV, Virgin and Tower have all closed branches in the previous big music markets of the US and UK in recent years.

Conversely, digital sales of music have risen, growing by 8.4% to currently accumulate more than 50% of the total global sales.

So, what does this mean for the music industry?

The short answer is, well, no one really knows.

When I interviewed Brendan B Brown last September he spoke appreciatively of how being an independent band has worked for Wheatus when labels are “still trying to figure out things like iTunes”.

Interestingly, Wheatus adopted a similar approach to Radiohead’s In Rainbows release, allowing fans to choose how much they want to play for the band’s respective albums.

When Radiohead released ‘In Rainbows’, just over 5 years ago, its means of distribution divided the music industry, more than any other release in recent memory. Bono hailed it as an imaginative and creative platform to communicate with fans, while others, such as Gene Simmons, openly critizised the band, saying the pay-what-you-want approach would not be a business model that works. Others fretted that Radiohead were potentially destroying the careers of thousands of smaller bands by making music seem worthless.

Five years on, who was right?

‘In Rainbows’ was a hugely important, influential moment for two reasons.

Firstly, it illustrated that a constructive response to the digization of the music industry was to embrace new, creative, cost-effective ways to get music into fans’ hands. Perhaps more significant than the ‘pay what you want’ scheme, was the fact it was a completely new, unforeseen distribution process.

Similarly, and secondly, ‘In Rainbows’ obviously didn’t kill the idea that music should be paid for, as digital sales have exponentially risen, what it did do, though, was confirm that the once reliable method of selling CDs, cassettes and vinyls in shops was due a bit of inventive reconsideration. Not necessarily because fans don’t want to pay anything for music, but because there are now cheaper and more efficient ways of purchasing.

However, it’s not only Radiohead who’ve shaken up music distribution. Ever since Trent Reznor had USB sticks containing his music placed in bathrooms at his shows, flash memory has shown promise as a method for distributing music. After transferring the music onto their computers, fans can use the USB memory stick for whatever they want — or they can leave the files on there, to keep them in “mint” condition. The concept has since spread to Sony, which released a 25th-year-anniversary edition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album on a 2GB Micro Vault Click Drive, and SanDisk’s slotMusic program, which promises to make digital music as easy as dealing with a collection of really, really small compact discs.

In terms of promotion, Yeasayer and Lady Gaga have also adhered to the idea that not one size fits all for releasing and promoting music in the 21st Century.

Yeasayer, a band beloved by bloggers and indie music-loving internet trawlers, earlier this year released their album, ‘Fragrant World’, fragmentarily and essentially leaked it themselves. Albeit with a twist. The Brookyln band released each track through a global internet scavenger hunt.

“Using the talents of Yoshi Sodeoka we have created a movie visual for every song on our new album Fragrant World and have them hidden all over the internet”, the statement of the band’s Twitter and Facebook read.

Whether or not you’re a Yeasayer fan, the conceptual promotion is fascinating. Although, the terms of the agreements the band had with their respective video hosting sites remain undisclosed, the amount of internet traffic sparked by fans eager to get their ‘hands’ on some fresh tracks resulted in the scheme trending on Twitter.  The concept was widely publicized by music press, effectively promoting their album on the merit of its unconventional release.

Similarly, Lady Gaga used the digitization of the music industry to her advantage by teaming up with social gaming giant Zynga in the promotion of her last album, ‘Born This Way’. The multi-faceted collaboration allowed Gaga’s fans across the world to interact with a Lady Gaga-inspired farm in Zynga game ‘FarmVille’, get a first listen of new songs from the pop icon’s upcoming album – via music streams, powered by radio giant Clear Channel’s digital radio service iHeartRadio, that can be unlocked in the game – and a download of the album plus exclusive bonus tracks when buying a $25 Zynga game card, which allows players to buy in-game items, at Best Buy.

Whether or not any of these promotion and distribution methods work for other bands (it’s worth noting Radiohead made more in digital sales from ‘In Rainbows’ than all of their previous albums combined) remains to be seen. Instead, smaller and less established bands should take note of each of the initiatives’ shared principles: connecting with fans, and being open to new ways of getting their music out there.

Perhaps, Amanda Palmer (The Dresen Dolls) explained the digital music climate best when she said earlier this year: “the truth is: there is no next model. Show me 1,000 talented musicians, each with a unique style and personality, and I’ll show you 1,000 ways to make a career in music…there is no longer an off-the-shelf solution.”

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