As Microsoft prepares a new streaming music service in the U.K., and a new report indicates a sharp decline in downloads among teenagers in favor of sites like Pandora, what’s an artist to do? Reinvent the distribution business, course.
Industry execs may fret about declining traditional sales, but some enterprising artists and labels have devised new ways to sell music that give fans something to collect, even in an age when the music itself can be infinitely duplicated for free. Or when the cloud makes the very idea of collecting and owning music seem quaint.
It’s a lesson the industry has been learning for about a decade now: If you can’t sell music, sell something else. (Hey, it beats complaining about “kids today” and their utter disrespect for copyright.)
From soup cans to sonic Buddhas, there is life beyond the stream. Here are 10 of our favorites. (Feel free to add your own suggestions below.)
1. Max Tundra’s Limited Edition Kosher Chicken Soup
Purchasers of Domino Records artist Max Tundra’s 2008 album, Parallax Error Beheads You, have four formats to choose from: compact disc, vinyl, digital, or as a $19 soup can that comes with a download code. Domino calls this “the new kosher format,” due to the nature of the chicken soup contained inside the customized label. In addition to a food item that can be consumed in the event of lapsed fandom (or nuclear winter), fans who choose the soup can format also get an exclusive digital compilation of Max Tundra’s friends covering his songs. All of the songs are in the 320 Kbps DRM-free Mp3 format. Soup cans were assembled by the artist in some sort of sweatshop (video).
2. Mogwai’s “Tracy” Music Box
Scottish guitar band Mogwai gave its fans (the author included) a real treat in the form of a professionally-constructed metal music box that plays their song “Tracy” when you wind a little crank on the side. It helps that this song’s haunting melody lends itself particularly well to the music box treatment, so other bands considering something similar might also want to choose songs with a simple melody that repeats in the time it takes for a music box’s axle to complete a full revolution. (Shockingly, this doesn’t appear to be on eBay, and I’m working remotely so I couldn’t take a photo; this one comes courtesy of plastikwrap.)
3. Interactive (Remixable) Albums
The first artist we spotted to sell an interactive version of an album that allows fans to customize it differently each time they listen was Deadmau5, whose iPhone app for that purpose blew us away in February. Another, more popular artist whom we agreed not to name (update: it’s Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em) plans to offer three songs in remixable iPhone app form Tuesday, and we expect the trend to continue. But then again, we would say something like that, having been first (that I know of, anyway) to predict that iPhone apps would change the way music is sold. Note to record labels: It’s more difficult to pirate a remixable iPhone app album than it is to pirate an unprotected CD. One variant of this idea is selling music as a videogame (Beatles: Rock Band; Tap Tap Revenge: Nine Inch Nails Edition).
4. The Mos Def Music Tee
For a mere $39, you too can purchase Mos Def’s latest album, The Ecstatic, in a wearable T-shirt format that, like Tundra’s soup can, comes with a unique download code for grabbing the tracks online. When Invisible DJ and LNA Clothing unveiled this release strategy with Downtown Music (updated), it was unclear whether Neilsen SoundScan would be able to track sales of the album, because the organization is used to counting sales of discs, not apparel. However, a compromise was made: redeemed codes will count towards Billboard’s digital albums chart. Labelmates Santigold and Miike Snow also plan on releasing music T-shirts soon, Invisible DJ has one too, and Amanda Blank is next.
5. Cheap Trick’s 8-Track Tape
Releasing an album on 8-track tape may not have constituted an innovative approach back in the ’70s, but in 2009, it’s a bona fide publicity stunt. Cheap Trick, in a nod to their status as rockers “of a certain age,” are selling their latest album, The Latest, in the ancient 8-track format, believed to have been the format of choice during the Pleistocene era. In addition to the $30 8-track, the band is also hawking golf balls, license plate frames, watches, backpacks and bandanas, but those don’t come with music. If you’d like to see what an 8-track player looks like, check out Stephen Colbert’s model in this Colbert Report clip.
6. Visual Art (Album and Other)
When people talk about musicians as “artists,” they generally mean recording artists, but some bands have a strong visual sense that presents the opportunity to bundle other artwork along with music. Stones Throw records is a fine example of this approach, offering a $100 print by Quasimoto, a $68 art book featuring paintings by the guy who makes Madlib’s album covers with three exclusive songs on vinyl, a $50 Quasimoto action figure, and $10 heart-shaped vinyl version of Mayer Hawthorn’s Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out. My brother’s band, Javelin, is considering an elaboration on this approach in their upcoming release for Thrill Jockey Records: hand-making every album cover using re-purposed vintage album covers, giving each fan a unique copy of the music and saving money on manufacturing.
7. The FM3 Buddha Machine
The Chinese experimental band FM3 has mystified countless music store shoppers with their FM3 Buddha Machine, which they claim houses a tiny Buddha who emits nine magical drones. Either the Buddha (or, more likely, a flash memory chip) sends these tones to a small speaker. The first edition became so popular that the band later released a 2.0 version, and now they’ve even turned it into an iPhone app. Variants of the dedicated-device strategy include the U2 iPod and the Journey/Zvue MP3 player.
Now that all the cool kids are listening to vinyl, even cooler kids are moving on to another analog format that has the advantage of portability: the audio cassette, which stores music magnetically on a thin strip of tape. We’ve heard lots of anecdotal evidence that the cassette is making a comeback, and sure enough, SXSW “it” band The Dirty Projectors are selling cassettes that come with download codes. Lucky Dragons‘ website contains the offer “cassettes now available in MP3 form,” and cassette culture is generally on the rise everywhere we looked. (Photo: Marc Arsenault)
9. Blatant Patronage
One of the stranger musical acts to emerge from the Bay Area over the past decade or so is The Towne Dandies, a (mainly) one-man rock opera that puts on highly original shows about pirates, American Indian gambling centers, the fall of the British Raj, and other themes. Towne Dandies frontman Geoff Ellsworth carried his unique way of thinking into the business end of his music by offering to compose and record a custom answering machine message. All you need to send him is $50 and some details to include. Considering this man’s way with words, melody and humor, it could be money well spent. After all, how many of your friends have managed to commission songs for their voicemail messages? (Ellsworth also offers to create customized slogans for $35. Example: “When robots fight, people win.”)
10. Flash Memory
Ever since Trent Reznor had USB sticks containing his music placed in bathrooms at his shows, flash memory has shown promise as a method for distributing music. After transferring the music onto their computers, fans can use the USB memory stick for whatever they want — or they can leave the files on there, to keep them in “mint” condition. The concept has since spread to Sony, which released a 25th-year-anniversary edition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album on a 2GB Micro Vault Click Drive, and SanDisk’s slotMusic program, which promises to make digital music as easy as dealing with a collection of really, really small compact discs.
Sebastian del Olmo Web www.sebastiandelolmo.com