17 January 2011

Music in 2011, Part I: Instant Pop

Remember how lead singles were meant to build awareness for, and interest in, a forthcoming album?  The idea was that you'd hear a new song enough to become familiar with it and for it to become something you'd want to buy for your library.  Now, we're told by Universal Music's David Joseph that, "What we were finding under the old system was the searches for songs on Google or iTunes were peaking two weeks before they actually became available to buy, meaning that the public was bored of--or had already pirated--new singles."  The solution?  Universal, along with Sony, intend to make new singles available for digital purchase the same day they are released to radio.

Of course, Dan Sabbagh felt compelled to litter his article about this for the UK's Guardian with snide remarks and quotes about how impatient today's music fans are.  I want to address this point.  Anyone who thinks that Beatlemaniacs in the 1960s were patiently awaiting the day they could go buy the latest 45 from the Fab Four is a moron.  To suggest that previous generations were more patient is erroneous: they simply did not have the access to the technology that today's fans have.

It's also significant to recognize that today's music fan is inundated with promotional information in a way previous generations weren't.  Sure, you could have read in Rolling Stone about a forthcoming album from a featured artist but today you merely have to think of an artist's name and within moments you're staring at up-to-the-minute information about anything and everything that artist is doing.  If Justin Bieber decides to contribute backing vocals to a charity album, his fans will know it the moment someone in the industry lets it slip.  This level of exposure and information is a good thing for fans and artists alike, and it would be disingenuous for the industry to balk at this element of today's music business model.

In any event, I am entirely in favor of this change.  For years we've all looked with suspicion at the music charts, knowing about the payola relationship between labels and radio, and wondering who actually determines what the public wants to hear.  I've cried foul for a decade now as Clear Channel and Cumulus consolidated ownership of the airwaves and corporate guys in Los Angeles usurped the programming power that was once held by local disc jockeys.  By allowing the public to weigh in with its pocketbooks the moment a song is released to the world, we'll have a clearer idea just what it is that we really do want to hear.  That's not impatience at work.  That's the free market.

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