Keith Urban: Fuse, and the music industry’s problem

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Any change is glacial: the UK iTunes Store Country section.

For too long, the music industry has seen illegal downloading as their problem, and all of their strategies have evolved to deal with that. They’ve ended up, as this New Statesman article says, in a situation where they rely on about 1% of their product for 90% of their income. This cannot be good business. It means that top-selling artists must be under extreme pressure to put out product that is exactly the same as their previous product. There is no chance that an artist would be allowed or encouraged to experiment, evolve, and grow in the way that all the great artists of the past did.

Never mind that a large proportion of the people downloading all those tracks from Napster all those years ago and ever since were the kind of people who never paid for music (so cost to the music industry of a lot of those downloads: £0).

Never mind that the industry’s way of dealing with the threat to their business has been to slash costs where they should never slash costs (A&R), and instead rely upon an ever-decreasing number of cash cows or blockbuster artists.

Never mind that the public perception of value-for-money in music has been largely negative since the invention of the CD. Yes, we’ve been feeling ripped off for a long, long time, and the record industry doesn’t care.

Never mind that the industry has persisted in dividing the world into discrete territories long after the notion that borders and customs would somehow magically prevent consumers knowing about and buying stuff from outside their territory disappeared.

Never mind all that: they’ve evolved a sales strategy designed to make it as hard as possible for people to get hold of new music unless it is new music from one of the dozen-or-so blockbuster artists who make up the bulk of sales and profits. Just like the movie industry (which has no interest in $10-20 million films), the music industry has no interest whatsoever in an artist who will sell, say, 50–100,000 copies of something. Now, an artist can make a good living selling 60,000 records and going on tour. But the record industry won’t get out of bed for anything selling less than a million copies.

Add to this their laser-like focus on maximising sales for one quarterly reporting period, and you get the odd situation we have now. Just as the movie industry obsesses on the box office opening weekend (to the extent that they will extend that opening weekend well into the previous week, by offering previews on a wednesday and releasing films on a Thursday and so on), the record industry wants to launch an album into the stratosphere, get huge sales in the first week, and then do the same thing for the next blockbuster artist to come along.

I talk about the “record industry” as shorthand for “record labels”, of which there are, basically, three.

As someone who loves music, this situation upsets me. And of course, it’s probably all my own fault. Twenty years ago, I used to visit record shops. I used to visit all the record shops, and spend time browsing the bins. I went in with no particular purchase in mind and I sometimes bought something on impulse. These days, I do that on iTunes, but the problem is this: discovery. I go to the iTunes Country music page and it literally does not change from month to month and from quarter to quarter. It does not change. Measuring in geological time, maybe there is some change. But in terms of week-to-week music releases and discovery, there is nothing.

By ceding my musical discovery to Apple and iTunes I have fucked up. Fucked. Up.

keith-urban-fuse-sweepstakes.jpg?w=487&h=292&crop=1Keith Urban released Fuse, his latest album, in September 2013. It has only now appeared on the iTunes music store in the UK. Now, I like Keith Urban, but not that much. I think his voice is a bit thin, and his lyrics are a bit crap, but I like his guitar playing, and occasionally he knocks out a song that is enjoyable. He is not, not really, a country artist. Really. He’s a pop-rock artist who has more in common with Tom Petty than with Brad Paisley. His constituency is women aged between 20 and 40. He is 46 years old and married to Nicole Kidman. He is a pretty good looking guy and while he doesn’t have the genius of Vince Gill or the wit of Brad Paisley, he is a fucking excellent guitar player.

In short, Urban, is not a tough sell. His music bounces along in a perfectly pleasant way. It’s radio-friendly and inoffensive. So why, in the name of all that is holy, did it take four months for this record to appear in the UK iTunes store? Why, in the name of all that is profane, was his previous album not released at all?

Because: reasons. Because the record industry has given itself over to Marketing with a capital M and the people in charge of Marketing say, what? They say what? It won’t sell enough copies in the UK to be significant, so who cares? It’s costing them nothing, is it, to click a button and release it to various iTunes stores? There are no distribution costs, there are no shops involved. It’s just a fucking file sitting on a server waiting for someone to click on it.

By the time it’s released in the UK, it is old news. What were they waiting for? For UK iTunes to put it on the carousel at the top of the Country section? The country section that sits unchanged for month after month after month?

Meanwhile, anyone who really wanted this album has either ordered it as an import on CD, downloaded it illegally, or just forgotten about it. So UK download sales will be low, thus confirming what the Marketing monkeys said in the first place.

Jennifer-Nettles-That-Girl-Album-Cover-1Last week, Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland released a solo album. I’m not sure if I’ll want it. I might want it. If it was available right now, I might buy it, simply because I haven’t bought a new record in a couple of weeks. But the Marketing people say no. They say wait. They’re not sure. So I might have ordered an import CD, which might or might not arrive before it’s available to download.

There’s somebody somewhere sitting in an office, being paid to manage this sort of thing, who will probably expound on why simultaneous global releases of everything aren’t a thing. That person is a fucking idiot. I don’t want to stream it, I don’t want tie-ins with Yahoo, or Google, or Apple, or Twitter, I just want to be able to buy it. I don’t want to follow links to shitty Marketing exercises that turn out to be US-only, or YouTube videos that are blocked in my territory. I. Just. Want. To. Fucking. Buy. The. Thing.

Stop making it so hard!

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