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The Back Page
by Bryan Chaffin

Pearl Jam Dumps Record Label: More Change For Music Industry
June 9th, 2003

The writing on the wall just got bigger, clearer, and easier to read. It says, "Evolve, or die! (This means you, major record labels)." As happens with most evolutional changes, most of those major labels are going to die horrible nasty deaths, with few actually having evolved to be left standing.

Mixed Metaphors

While the coffin was built by the industry itself during the last 10 or so years, Apple put one of the most recent nails through the lid with the iTunes Music Store (iMS). I wrote a column all about the potential of the iMS to bring about the end of the major labels by empowering independent labels and artists alike. Last week, Apple took a giant leap towards that end when it officially began courting those independent labels.

This weekend, another nail was hammered home by the last great grunge band, Pearl Jam. The band officially left Epic Records, a venerable label that is currently owned by Sony. Not only did Pearl Jam leave Epic, it has no plans to sign with another label. This is big, big, big news.

Though Pearl Jam and Apple have made no sign that they will be working together to digitally distribute Pearl Jam's music, it doesn't matter in terms of this column, because they are both working towards the same end in their own way.

Declaration of Independence

It has long been my contention that big-name recording acts must rid themselves of their major-label shackles and deal directly with their fans. Pearl Jam is doing just that, and has been for some time. The group sold double live CDs of every show from their 2000-2001 world tour, and is doing the same during their current tour. More importantly, the band has sold some 1.3 million copies in the process, according to an MSNBC article. That's a lot of tunes, and most of them were sold direct to the group's fans through the Pearl Jam Web site. Now the band is ready to take the next step by dealing directly with its fans, without the help of a label.

Will other big name acts follow suit? Perhaps, but not as fast as some of us might want. The problem is that big name acts do really well with the labels. They get more money per CD sold, and they sell in large enough quantities that it doesn't matter all that much. For most big name acts, the labels have a lot to offer in the form of publicity, airplay, and resources. So, it's no surprise that Prince and Pearl Jam seem to be about the only two pop/rock super stars willing to eschew their major label affiliations.

Timing, it turns out, actually is everything

That's why Pearl Jam's decision is important for the long term return to sanity for the recording industry. As a public statement, the group is showing that it can be done. That it is happening now -- independent of, yet simultaneous with Apple's iMS -- is just one, big, happy coincidence. You can bet your battered copy of Buffalo Springfield's Retrospective that other acts out there are looking at Pearl Jam's move, and seeing the success of the iMS at the same time. You can throw in your copy of the digitally remastered Fully Loaded Velvet Underground CD (with the bonus CD) that some of them are smart enough to put two and two together. The only thing that could make it even more clear would be for Pearl Jam to announce that their digital downloads can be bought only on the iMS, but I am not sure that is in the cards.

Admittedly, Pearl Jam's situation is different than someone like Madonna's, whose music needs the power of radio to get the masses to notice. Pearl Jam has developed a real relationship with its fan base, and has generated enormous touring momentum, but, where Pearl Jam and Prince have gone, Sting, Trent Reznor, and Neil Young can follow.

Apple Jam?

Pearl Jam's decision to leave Epic has no direct involvement with Apple's iMS, but both the band and Apple's music store are two pieces in what historians will someday say was the beginning of the death of the music dinosaurs. Apple's iMS offers potential to independent artists, and one of the biggest names in music (and the band is still a major revenue generator, even though it hasn't had a major hit in years) has just become an independent artist.

Of Boy Bands and Record Stores

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that all major labels are going to die, just as all music distribution isn't going to go digital. CDs produced by record labels will continue to be sold in record stores.

The bland crap that most people listen to requires a big engine to produce it, and servicing the lemmings that drive Top 40 will continue to be a multi-billion dollar a year industry. All the change in the world won't alter the fact that much of the music buying public are sheep, but the herd is going to become a bit thinner as new music gets a bigger voice, and some of those sheep learn there is more to music than American Idol alumni.

In addition, some of the majors will "get it," and start providing the resources and help that bands need, without raping them in the process. Those labels will evolve, and find new roles in the modern age. Other independent labels who already "get it" will grow until they have the kind of stature that the corporate labels have today. Still others, like CD Baby, will find niche roles, which will result in the sudden birth of all manner of new companies.

The same goes with record stores. The ones that survive the digital age will be the ones that offer good service and/or qualified employees, and the ones that cater to the lemmings en masse. Still others will incorporate music kiosks where customers can download their music, burn it to a CD or load it to their iPod, or perhaps find other niche services to offer. Though the shapes will be changing, music stores as a whole aren't going away, but the ones that remain will mostly be the ones that don't suck.

You say goodbye, but I say hello...

I choose to see what's happening around us as rebirth, and not death, though there are many a record exec and record store owner who may well argue with me. Be that as it may, it is definitely happening all around us. Pearl Jam has taken us another foot further down the path that Apple is trodding. I think that bodes well for Apple, as it adds momentum to how people think differently about their music. That, in turn, should help the iMS in the long run, and vice versa.


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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