Wednesday, April 06, 2011

If you're the record business, why not sell records to people?

What has happened to the music business in the last ten years was impossible to plan for and its impact was, in the words of PG Wodehouse, "like catching the down express in the small of the back". However they don't make things any easier for themselves by clinging to the wreckage of the old way. The new Paul Simon album "So Beautiful Or So What" is very good. It was originally supposed to come out in Britain in April. He did interviews about it. They organised a playback for media. They circulated copies for review. I wrote a favourable one in The Word. Then they decided to postpone the release until Paul Simon tours the UK in June.

Leave aside for a second the fact that anyone observing the careers of other boomer acts like the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney would have noticed long ago that tours no longer sell new albums. Leave aside also the fact that any Paul Simon fan who has heard about this record will now either buy a copy from or get it from some PtoP site. When you have built up some anticipation around the release of anything, what on earth is the use of delaying that release and allowing that anticipation to fade into disinterest? Public attention is a finite resource and it is quickly diverted on to something else.

I asked this question of a former record label employee this week. He explained it as follows: "They'll be trying to get it to chart". Note he was not saying they're trying to get it to sell. In the old days when the record business was all about manufacture and distribution a chart entry was a useful thing in that it encouraged all the smaller record shops to stock the item and increased the distribution. Now that there are no small record shops what is the point of "getting it to chart" other than to make the marketing manager look good?

The former label man is now an artist manager. Deciding he had more chance of selling his artist's CDs to people attending his gigs than hoping they would go to shops, he negotiated to buy 500 copies from the label. The best price they would give him was over £6 a copy. "Can't you do any better than that?" he said, noting that the same record was available on Amazon for about £7. "No," they said, "because we want those people to go and buy a copy the following day - preferably at a chart return shop." He struck a better deal by buying his own artist's records from a retailer.

All too often that's the record business. The horse is already gambolling around in the upper pasture and the stable boy is busy oiling the lock on the stable door.


  1. Good point, but saying that the current musapocalypse was "impossible to plan for" isn't quite true. If someone in the industry had made a plan that involved working constructively with Napster, iTunes and the like instead of waiting until it was far too late then trying to sue their own customer base out of existence, the current shape of the industry (pear) might have been very different. One thing that is almost impossible, however, is to overstate the dim, short-sighted venality of the record industry...

  2. What I find frustrating with a sales model like that is that I'd like to hear the new songs from the album a few times before experiencing them live. Indeed with some artists whether or not the new album was any good would be a determining factor in buying the concert ticket in the first place (although that's not easy with tours going on sale a year or more in advance).

  3. Getting in the charts is pretty important - if you're not in the top 40, you won't get into the supermarket racks - at which point your physical product is pretty much finished. This will be even more the case when/ if HMV goes to the wall