Welcome to The Wax Press!
In our first article, we discussed the three enemies of physical music and the independent record store. Those 3 enemies are: the record labels, the illegal downloader and the blind consumer.
In this article, we’ll be discussing enemy #1: the record labels.
Now before we go any further, we want to clarify that when we say record labels, we’re referring to the giant powerhouse corporate labels, the big four. We’re talking about Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI. There are hundreds of amazing big and small independent labels who we love and support. Most of these small independent labels are pro-physical music and huge supporters of independent record stores.
Summing up all the mistakes the big four labels have made will take an obscene amount of time. The list is endless. They are by far the biggest contributors to their own demise by making monumental mistakes, and rather from learning from them and backpedaling, they just made the mistakes bigger and bigger. They continue to dig their own graves. Some are still digging, others have learned but it is way too late, and they will never return to their days of glory.
At the top of the list of mistakes, is the killing of the single. For those of you who are under the age of 25, the idea of this single was something that was dead before you had a chance to enjoy it.
From the early days of vinyl, the single has always been a way to promote an upcoming album. A song was released ahead of the album and sold at a reduced price. These were commonly given away at shows, sent to radio stations, used for fan club promotion, but were always available at your local independent record store. These served a purpose beyond promotion. They were collectible, affordable and frequently had rare or live tracks on the B-side.
Most importantly, they offered the À la carte system to the music buying public.
Don’t want to buy the album? Want to just buy an individual song? Great! You could buy just the single. This business model survived through all formats. 45s were sold for less than a dollar. Cassette singles were sold for a buck. And even in the early days of the CD, the single was available for just a few bucks.
The system worked. Individual songs sold, for some it whet the appetite. For those who were not impressed, the sale was done, and they had the individual songs they wanted. It was a great alternative to the music consumer. However like many things that worked for the consumers, it didn’t work for the Big 4 records labels.
The only problem with this single, was that the record labels weren’t making enough money. As the CD gained acceptance and the players become more affordable, the big business companies did what they did best, they got greedy. So they killed the single.
In what seemed like an overnight change, the single disappeared from the shelves. The mark-up on the full albums was far barter. Prices continued to rise…$10…$12…$16…$20 for a single disk. They were determined to push whatever buttons they had to in order to get the most money out of the consumer.
Sadly, that wasn’t all they did. The pressure to produce albums quickly was placed on the artists. The system was simple: Produce an album of 16 songs, find two hits and fill the rest with mediocre filler. Put out the album, promote the hell out of it, and charge as much as you can. Forget the art, fuck the consumer, cash the check.
Perhaps the biggest victim of this formula was not the consumer, but the loss of the album concept. Forget the concept album, forget the story the artist was trying to tell. Forget the message. Forget the art. Fuck the consumer. Cash the check.
For a little while the system worked. It had to. Do you want that hit song? Buy the full album. The consumer had nowhere else to turn. Suddenly the compilation albums were back with a vengeance, dominating the late night infomercials. The “Now That’s What I Call Music” series took off. It filled the need for buying the hit songs. Unfortunately, these were around the cost of the other albums. Their market was the same. After all, EMI was the brainchild behind that. Heaven forbid you could leave the record store without spending at least $15 on a single disk.
The consumer can only be pushed so far.
Long before Napster came on the scene, mp3s were being swapped on IRC and other chat networks. Outright theft justified out of frustration.
Now the illegal downloading market is something that will have its own series of articles. As we stated in our first article, there is no justification in the theft of intellectual property. The consumer had found a way around the system and was not only gaining popularity, but acceptance despite it being outright illegal.
Beyond the illegal downloader came the solution; the legal download. Individual tracks available for purchase. The À la carte System. Pay only for the tracks you want and pay just 99 cents apiece. Apple did nothing revolutionary by introducing iTunes. It’s the same business model. They simply filled a void and the record labels, that were bleeding red ink in the Napster and LimeWire age, finally woke up and opened their catalogs.
Some argue the artists make up for the loss of revenue in quantity. Yes and no. Many hands are still in the pot. Apple takes the largest cut. The labels get their cut. Then the people who should actually profit from this sales, the musicians and writers, are left to fight for what’s left. The pennies don’t add up like they do in the world of physical releases. Furthermore, as many are further learning, when you buy a download, you are simply buying a license to play it. You do not own it. The only way to own your own music is to buy it in physical from.
This isn’t made up by the Apple naysayers. It is right there in the user agreement. But that’s a whole other article subject.
This raises the question; if tomorrow we woke up and the record labels started producing physical singles in large quantities again, would they sell or has iTunes taken the whole market? The argument is two sided. Some argue that the sheer convenience of the digital download outweighs the need for actual ownership. Others argue that extra tracks and collectability and actual ownership make the trip to purchase the physical copy well worth it.
There is a bright side. Many of the smaller independent labels have chosen to give the consumer the option. Suddenly singles and rare B-sides are being pressed on 7-inch vinyl and being sold through the bands website. Or even better, exclusive physical copies purchased at independent record stores.
It may be a hipster movement but it is a market that has been working for many. Furthermore, it only seems to be growing. If he Big 4 record labels were smart, they would jump on board.
The revolution is under way, and we are glad to have you on board. Thanks for reading.
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