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The Back Page
by Bryan Chaffin

Fighting iTMS Singles: "Protecting The Album" Is A Loser's Argument
July 3rd, 2003

"Our artists would rather not contribute to the demise of the album format," said Mark Reiter, with Q Prime Management Co., which manages the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica and several other artists.

"We can't let a distributor dictate the way our artists sell their music," Reiter said, adding that the business terms were otherwise acceptable.

"If you download a single, you may ignore the other tracks on the album," he said. "When our artists record a body of work, it's what they deem to be representative of their careers at that time."

Reuters article, July 2nd, 2003 -

Allowing singles to be downloaded (sold) through Apple's iTunes Music Store (iTMS) will destroy album sales, or so says a variety of artists. Reuters reported yesterday that the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Metallica, Linkin Park, and other bands are refusing to allow their music to be sold on the iTMS because Apple insists that some songs be available as singles. These bands join the likes of Madonna, Jewel, and Radiohead, as well as the Dave Matthews Band and the Foo Fighters, all of whom are also just saying no to singles.

Their stated reason is that they want to protect the album format. In other words, if their fans aren't forced to buy entire albums, they won't, and that scares some of these bands to death. Let me be as honest and up-front as I can be: This is a loser's argument, and I think it is sad and pathetic. These artists are no better than the dinosaurs in charge of the labels, desperate to hold on to something they know, and something that has served them well. They've grown fat and lazy, and there is zero integrity in their stance.

The fine print

Do I sound a tad vehement and vitriolic? You bet I do. I have been wanting to write on this issue for several weeks, and the latest Reuters article on the subject riled me up enough to write. One thing I feel I have to make clear for the knee-jerk part of the crowd that will read this: I will fight and die for these artists to have the right to control how their music is distributed. I do not to force them to do anything; I just think their reasoning is illogical, reactionary, and pathetic.

You see, I can't abide people that want to operate from a basis of controlling the customer. Again, what these artists are really saying is that if you aren't forced to buy all their music, you won't. So they prefer to force you to make the choice between all or none. Microsoft works this way. The labels work this way. Every incompetent business person in the world aspires to be able to put themselves in the position of being free from accountability to their customers, and that's the real argument of these artists. These people fear being held accountable based on the merits of their product.

Some history

I love albums. In fact, I love music. More to the point, I have never been a fan of the singles market, and how much control it has historically had over what gets played on the radio. My thoughts on this subject should not be confused for a love of Top 40 singles-driven music.

Originally, albums were released as collections of singles, but during the 1960s, rock and roll changed that paradigm, and albums became the raison d'être for most bands, with singles being released to stoke sales of the albums. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, many albums became the vehicle for one or two (at best) hit songs, with the rest of the album being either vastly different (and sometimes good), or filler crap. It was the rare album that was all good, from start to finish, especially in the pop world. In my never humble opinion, that began to change again in the 1990s, especially with the rise of the "alternative" scene, though your mileage on this will vary.

It's getting better all the time

Today, however, things are changing. We are standing on the cusp of the biggest revolution, or at least the biggest evolution, the music industry has seen since The Beatles landed in New York for a little show hosted by Ed Sullivan. As I have written about at length before, artists may soon be able to rid themselves of the shackles of crappy labels (forcing at least some of the major labels to become not-crappy), and to possibly have greater freedom by working with independent labels. Because of the low-barrier-to-entry for online distribution, independent labels (and hopefully independent artists, some day) can largely compete toe-to-toe with the big labels, and that really will change things.

One of those things that will change is the way artists write and release music. With online distribution, the pressure to write an album's worth of music becomes far less important, at least to those who choose to make it so. This can have both good and bad consequences, as some of the best songs ever released were written under deadline, but so have some of the worst.

Opportunity is knocking, for those who can hear it

While these artists are worried about protecting their income streams -- and note that every one of these acts are monsters who actually get paid well by the labels; they make good money off of album sales, unlike the small and medium-sized acts -- there is really enormous opportunity for them. For you see, and this is my key point, while selling only a full album presents a work in its entirety, and collects a bigger chunk of change in the process, it keeps some people from sampling. While à la carte downloads might allow people to not buy everything on an album, but it also allows people to get their feet wet in a new band. If those people like what they hear, a good portion of them will come back for more. What these bands are really afraid of is that their fans won't come back for more unless they have to.

See? It's just plain pathetic.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

But wait, there's more. Distributing music online is CHEAP. There are no runs of CD pressings, cover art printings, or channel distribution arrangements to make. If an artist makes a song, or two, or three, or a hundred, it's just a matter of getting them online at the iTMS, or some other online outlet. If the artist makes his or her music good enough, their fans will come back and buy it all. Under the online distribution model, there is no reason for filler music, and that should be a liberating concept for many artists.

Heck, as it is, half the songs sold online have been full albums, and I would bet my Les Paul that if singles weren't available, a good portion of the music that has been sold would not have been. When people can buy à la carte, they are much more prone to sample, and I think that's what a lot of online single sales are, sampling.

Top 40 (as we know it) must die

Sure the lemmings in the crowd that listen to whatever everyone else is listening to may well only buy singles, but they can do that today (and do) with CDs and cassettes.

The thing is that online distribution could have an impact on even this. The labels, and singles, and top 40 radio, especially in the age of deregulation and mass-corporate ownership of hundreds of radio stations, have dictated what gets played, and therefor listened to, and therefor bought. In one way or another, this has been the case for decades, and it's all because of the high-barrier-to-entry before the Internet came along.

With à la carte downloads, and the freedom to buy from hundreds of thousands of songs, choice will be reflected in such concepts as "top XX" sales. That, in turn, could well mean broader exposure to more, and more varied, music to a lot of people who would otherwise have been part of the herd; all of which made everything from Avril Lavigne to Foreigner possible (if you like either one of those acts, that's not my problem).

The bottom line

Seriously, everything about the music industry is in the process of changing. Those bands that are afraid of à la carte download options simply don't understand that, which is too bad.

My guess is that most will eventually come around. Hopefully some will just realize the error of their ways and change. They will hopefully realize their own power-play on the distributors results in a more harmful power-play on their fans. In time, the remaining artists will move to online distribution because they will not be able to ignore the lost sales. Time will tell, but in the meanwhile, Metallica and the other holdouts are no better than Bill Gates or Orren Boyle, in my book.


began using Apple computers in 1983 in a high school BASIC programming class. He started using Macs in 1990 when the Kinko's guy taught him how to use Aldus PageMaker, finally buying a Power Computing Power 100 in 1995. Today, Bryan is the Editor of The Mac Observer, and has contributed to the print versions of MacAddict and MacFormat (UK).

You can send your comments directly to him, or you can also post your comments below.

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