The Way We Buy Music is Changing How Artists Make MusicBy Kim Gaskins October 19, 2009
It’s Good to be Single
Genius. That iTunes “click to buy” recommendation engine sidebar was just genius. And other new music discovery engines like Pandora–the yet-unfound auditory wonders within, implicit in its very name–which recommends single songs by different artists contiguously, refining preferences in real-time with features for “liking,” bookmarking, and (of course) click-to-purchasing.
The Beatlesian éclat of iTunes (controlling 1/4 of all music sold in 2008), alongside streaming social & recommendation applications, have undoubtedly engendered the rise of the single track purchase.
Music fans in the US, who account for the majority of digital sales worldwide, purchased more than a billion individual tracks, and only 65 million albums online.
(We suppose some of these individual tracks could add up to albums, but this isn’t usually the way. Though we would be curious to know how researchers count “complete this album” purchases in iTunes.)
Artistry & Creation
Radiohead, for one, is happy to produce morsels of music–to concentrate on smaller, high quality units–over endurance pieces. (And why not, since the current digital distribution model not only renders it possible, but seems to favor this model?)
None of us wants to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again… it’s just become a real drag. It worked with ‘In Rainbows’ because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going. But we’ve all said that we can’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us.
Thom Yorke of Radiohead, “Radiohead Blazes a Marketing Trail”
(For more on Radiohead’s take, see our series on future music access models.)
Yorke has ever been a proponent of, “if the shoe fits us, we’ll wear it” philosophy, careful not to project the band’s (oft-revered) decisions about marketing and business models onto the general landscape of music production.
As such, single tracks are considered as chapters in a novel to full-length album proponents (fans and artists alike)–after all, it’s hard to imagine Dream Theater’s holistically conceived Scenes from a Memory divvied up–devised and distributed piecemeal.
The Single Niche: Fan-Based Promotion & Pricing
In our current [digital] attention economy, media of all kinds, intentionally free or not, is free in hoards. According to Reznor: “Every piece of music you can think of is available free right now a click away. This is a fact.”
And the lack of careful consideration, of actually listening, that an over-supplied attention economy supports is Radiohead’s primary complaint. More optimistically–and strategically, limiting the amount of media available (increasing attention) may encourage better promotion of fewer tracks by fans:
“The mp3 may have atomized music into millions of little pieces, but each piece, it seems, found a publicist.”
“The average music fan now has the built-in capacity to double as promoter and distributor in an ever-expanding arena that’s making and eliminating rules every minute,” posits Eric Harvey in “The Social History of the MP3.”
The majority of new music monetization models, ignorant of “The Single Niche,” still concede a certain degree of “free-ness” when it comes to musical content, and are focusing rightfully on ticket and merchandise sales, premium content (special digital tracks, limited edition physical CDs, boxed sets), and even iPhone apps in some cases.
But some sales schemes are being tailored specifically to the single:
[In Amie Street's dynamic pricing model], songs rise in price from free up to 98 cents based on their popularity [...], which acts as a filter for underexposed music and draws on Web community features to highlight artists growing in popularity. To date, dynamic pricing has primarily been a factor only in the independent music arena.
Amie Street is one such MP3 provider with community-determined (“dynamic”) pricing. Last month, Sony Music agreed to offer its catalog through their store, if still on a tiered-pricing model; the open avenue nevertheless suggests major record label movement in this direction.
Header image courtesy of keepitsurreal’s flickr, (cc) some rights reserved.