Monday, July 12, 2010

Fire in Mi Wire!

While I'm hesitant to call out any ska music industry trends, it looks to me like several labels are now positioning themselves to push back, with varying degrees of aggressiveness, against illegal music file sharing. (For my thoughts on music file sharing, go here; and read my plea for sanity, "Better Must Come," here.)

While a new model for selling recorded music in the digital age may never really emerge, since technology keeps speeding forward and a whole generation of young people now expect to acquire their music on the internet for free, the only solution may be for 1) the government to start enforcing copyright laws vigorously, and 2) a coalition of musicians and labels to start a movement to alter people's behavior--through something like social marketing--to make it so the new norm is the old one: that people should expect to pay for the music they consume, digital or otherwise. Recent actions by labels like Stubborn, Jump Up, and Megalith suggest that to some degree they are getting fed up with "giving the people what they want" (since it's helping to kill their labels and the music they love), and may be more and more inclined to limit which formats they utilize when offering new music.

Exhibit #1:

The newest release from Buford O'Sullivan (ex-Scofflaws, currently a member of Easy Stars All-Stars), L.R.T.R. on Megalith Records, is only available as a three-track vinyl single. However, once you purchase the single, you'll find a card that entitles you to digitally download these tracks, plus an EP's worth of new cuts, for free. Megalith is not offering L.R.T.R. for sale on iTunes or any other digital download site, so while it won't exactly prevent these cuts from ending up on a file sharing site, it does promote the old paradigm (recorded music has a monetary value)--and you actually get something in return for your purchase (a slab of wax plus artwork that exists in the real world, all of which cannot be deleted at the push of a button).

It should also be noted that Megalith actively goes after file sharing sites that host any of their copyrighted material--the "cease and desist" e-mails fly out of there frequently. Sure, it's a sisyphean undertaking, but it's the damn principle of the thing that matters.

Exhibit #2:

Several of Stubborn Records' recent releases from A-list acts are only available on vinyl, including The Forthrights' "Other People" 7" single and King Django's Avenue A 10" EP. While it is possible to convert songs on vinyl to digital files, it's not as easy as ripping a CD, so it at least throws a bit of a wrench in the illegal file sharer's nefarious plans.

Exhibit #3

While both Megalith and Stubborn Records offer a significant portion of their catalogues via digital download, Jump Up outright refuses to do so (something that I was unaware of until now). Check out Chuck Wren's new and incredibly defiant manifesto:
At Jump Up, our motto is "JAMAICAN MUSIC MADE THE OLD FASHIONED WAY." Not only do you get vintage ska reggae calypso sounds that feel like they came from independence era Jamaica, but we make them the original way: LP vinyl...and sometimes we toss on compact discs for fun. We feel strongly about releasing music in physical form, which is why we choose not to deal with the digital side. We are passionate collectors of vinyl records and CDs ourselves. We don't own iPods nor have MP3's hidden on gadgets. We strive to keep an art form alive, let the others try to cash in on digital - the "easy" and soulless "format" of music. Not us! Only the best bands and records get released this way, and we stock like-minded labels from all across the globe that share our OLD FASHIONED vision.
Whether or not you agree with Chuck (read JJ Loy's take on this at Ska Blah Blah), I respect his stance. I was an early proponent of selling digital downloads (I launched 7 Wonders of the World Music, an all-digital ska and reggae label, back in 1999), but that was back when people actually still paid for recorded music (7 Wonders' sales were limited--it was way ahead of the curve--but it made enough so that I could send royalty checks to the bands, though not stay in business!). I'm not so sure about offering digital downloads at all now--even for the decent folks who still buy digital music via iTunes and their ilk--the convenience of obtaining music in this manner (despite its major savings for labels, since there is no physical product to press, ship, distribute, etc.) has pretty much obliterated its intrinsic value for far too many music fans out there (I would hazard a guess that a healthy majority of people downloading their music from file sharing sites really don't believe they are stealing because they don't attach any monetary value to digital music at all).

Being a music marketing and promotions guy at heart, I do see the benefits of offering free digital downloads of tracks from time to time to help spread the word about your band and/or new release. It doesn't cost much to do; it makes your fans happy; and will hopefully sell albums and bring people out to your shows.

So even though it may be completely against the usual business conventional wisdom (the customer is always right, deliver your product in the form they want, etc.) the key to the ska labels' long-term survival (in a world that doesn't think it needs to pay for recorded music) may be to begin limiting their new releases solely to tangible formats: LPs, CDs, singles (try stealing these and you'll be arrested for shoplifting, buddy). If the majority of your potential customers don't think digital music has any value, why bother trying to sell it to them in the first place?

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On a somewhat related note (luddite-wise), you have to check out the mad cool old-skool turntable slip mats that Chuck is offering for sale. Talk about making the return to vinyl even more hip...

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Update: I also should mention that if you purchase a copy of The Bullets' Sweet Misery (Jump Up Records) LP, you receive a CD of the album in the sleeve as well (labels like Yep Roc have been doing this for a couple of years now--and for someone like me who usually purchases the CD and LP of a release, it's a great deal). And then the Ska is Dead Tour folks are starting up a Ska is Dead singles of the month club, featuring split 7" vinyl singles from bands like Reel Big Fish, Mustard Plug, Big D & the Kids Table, Deal's Gone Bad, The Slackers, and Sonic Boom Six...


JJ Loy said...

I see now that my post was missing a major component- that being the whole illegal file sharing debate. You're totally correct that this has less to do with making the customer happy, and everything to do with protecting a paradigm where musicians can get paid.

You make excellent points for why the labels should put emphasis on the physical. No arguments here.

Thanks for adding a bit more balanced (and reasoned) point of view!

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks for your kind comments, JJ! The funny thing is that I was in the middle of putting together this post when my Google alert pointed me in your direction (you beat me to the punch!).

It must be very frustrating for the labels--in a model where everyone pays for digital downloads (and people don't file share to a large degree), it makes great sense to go this route. It is so much cheaper NOT to have to press up product and then have to worry about shipping, distribution, returns, etc.

Kames Jelly said...

From what I hear though, you make VERY little money on legit digital downloads.