October 04, 2006

Gnarls Barkley: "Crazy" like a fox

I recently read in Wired magazine that Gnarls Barkley’s song “Crazy” was the first to hit #1 on the charts based entirely on downloads. The song was originally released without an album and has been extremely successful in the US and abroad.

This isn’t the future of music anymore- it’s the present. Music is now available at many different outlets online as well as on CDs at your local Wal-Mart. What I can’t figure out is what took the recording industry so long to realize this and capitalize on such a profitable opportunity.

Thinking back, I’ve been downloading music since the late 90’s. I can remember finding songs in the MP2 format on AOL servers and FTP sites. It was possible to acquire electronic versions of hit songs well before Napster came along. Even in the post-Napster era, we are easily able to access other servers. Limewire, Kazaa, Morpheus, DC++, and so many others link consumers to free copies of music. Instead of coming to some sort of realization or epiphany about a new way to distribute music, the RIAA and its dominant labels proceeded to file lawsuits against downloaders. They have fought a losing battle for the past decade, when all the while they were sacrificing their own potential profits.

Instead of spending money to pay lawyers and court fees, music labels could have set up music purchasing sites earlier. Imagine if iTunes and similar sites had existed 5 or 6 years ago. Think of how many illegal downloads would have been unnecessary. Many music fans who have since learned of ways to download music illegally may have chosen legitimate means to get their music. And the music companies would have made more money too. As cheap as it already is to produce a CD, the marginal cost for downloading an electronic copy of a song is next to zero. All companies need to pay for is some web design and a server to contain the files.

Another huge benefit of the ability to download music is the very reason Gnarls Barkley was able to be so successful. Music fans have the option of downloading just the song(s) they want from an album, instead of spending money on the whole CD. Today, albums are not put together in a creative “total package” configuration, the way they were a few decades ago. Look at the Beatles “Revolver” or “Sgt Pepper”, or the best example, “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd. These collections of songs were destined to be together. Individually, there are a few stand-out songs, but the album creates a whole new work of art. Most albums today are a collection of songs assembled by executives at a recording label. They work hard on a few songs, promoting them extensively as “singles” but the rest is filler. They need to fill space on the CD so it sounds worth it to spend $15. I would much rather spend a dollar apiece on the specific songs I want to hear.

Let’s face it. We’ve all purchased a CD of an artist that has been a disappointment. There may be one hit song, maybe another song or two that’s pretty good, but the rest isn’t worth spending money on. How many CDs have you actually owned where most or all of the songs on the CD are really worth purchasing? How many CDs do you own that you can listen to straight through without wanting to skip a few tracks?

The music industry is only now catching on to a concept they should have discovered years ago. Gone are the days where they could get consumers to spend almost $20 for two good songs and an album full of filler. The 80’s may have been called the “me generation”, that I would argue that this generation has demanded (and received) more capacity for individualization than any before it. We can tailor our spending to our personal wants and needs, and this is the audio example.

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