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Back Catalogue To The Future

For the last few days I’ve been listening to Bohemian Rhapsody and I’ve been having a lot of fun. I must have heard this song hundreds, if not thousands, of times since I’ve been alive but now I’m listening with fresh ears. Why?

Surely there can be nothing left to know about this tune. Anyone that wants to own Bohemian Rhapsody surely already does so in one format or another. If you don’t own it then you could easily go and buy a legitimate copy online in less time that it would take you to read this article. However, the more likely scenario is that if you did want it then you could go online and ‘find’ it without having to use your credit card. The problems this causes the music business are well known and oft bleated about, and particularly in terms of back catalogue as this has traditionally been a stone-cold money spinner for the industry.

Think of any classic album that is over 35 years old. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Dark Side of the Moon or Astral Weeks…any ‘classic’ album will do….

Got it?


A completist could conceivably own this album on vinyl, tape cassette, 8-Track cartridge, common or garden CD, DAT tape, Mini-Disc, 180g re-issued vinyl, DVD, any number of enhanced or remastered CD formats (5.1 etc) and, with very few exceptions, digital download.

That’s 10 different formats in the 35 year history of that ‘classic’ record, and this in turn means that fans (old and new) can have bought it brand new and at full retail price once every 3 and a half years since it was released. This is why Mick Jagger looks so good for his age.

Formats have, of course, been driven by the availability of affordable technology and this technology in most cases has been developed and sold by different arms of the same companies that were/are the major recording companies. It wasn’t so long ago that CD players retailed for over £200 yet these days you can pick one up for less than £20. As for buying a half-decent vinyl turntable on the high street, forget about it. CD discs themselves are cheaper than they were 15 years ago, and vinyl releases are rare as hen’s teeth. Meanwhile, everyone wants an MP3 player but no-one seems prepared to pay for the music.

There are many reasons for this. There can be nothing limited, special or desirable about an individual digital release file since each ‘copy’ is a 100% accurate representation of the ‘original’. In fact the concept of a ‘copy’ is pretty much redundant; as is the need for proprietary technology to play your copy on (I’m treating DRM with the disdain it deserves). Additionally, since no-one has yet managed to crack the problem of cool or desirable packaging to accompany a digital release there really is nothing to distinguish the commercially available MP3 file from the one you can make / find for yourself. You can - and probably have - filled your new MP3 player with music that you’ve already purchased in another format, or else with music that you’ve ‘found’ on the interweb. You’ve got a £50,000 record collection on a £300 device, and that’s bad news for Mick Jagger.

Digital as the new, prevailing format has moved the goalposts to such an extent that companies now sign artists based on a slice of future touring and merchandising revenue, rather than that artist’s (continual) ability to shift (the same) units. Jay-Z is the very latest artist to do so, hot on the heels of Madonna and U2. So, where does this leave back catalogue in the digital age? Where does it leave your back catalogue?

Well, the copy of Bohemian Rhapsody that I’ve been having so much fun with has got me thinking. Yes, it is a digital copy that came with no fancy packaging whatsoever and it was indeed ‘found’ rather than purchased - I was given it by a friend, since you ask. What is different about this zeros and ones version of Bohemian Rhapsody is that it comes in 24 different pieces, each part being a copy of one of the original 24-track studio tapes that go to make up the song.

I have been able to import these files into Logic Audio and have been mixing the song myself. I’ve been able to isolate Freddie’s voice and add my own effects, I’ve been listening to Brian May’s guitar on its own and have been messing with the volume settings. Essentially I’m making my own mix and consider it to be a massive musical jigsaw puzzle that I have to solve. Unlike traditional jigsaw puzzles I don’t need the picture on the box because my brain already knows what the picture should look like. I’m trying to make it sound like the song that is ingrained in my memory after thousands of listens - and herein lies the FUN.

Now, you may hate Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody and it’s certainly true that one man’s classic album is another man’s dinosaur tosh. For example, I don’t get Pink Floyd in the slightest but I’m willing to wager that there are thousands (if not millions) of people who would love to play with “Dark Side of the Moon” in the same way that I’m currently playing with Queen….and moreover they’d not only pay for that opportunity, I reckon they’d pay a premium.

Ok, not everyone has Logic Audio or the necessary skills to use it, but what if consumers were able to purchase a package that contained the component audio files of a song or album along with some rudimentary audio mixing software (Garageband, perhaps?) and helpful information and tutorials on mixing? Off the top of my head I can think of several albums I’d love to get my hands on.

So, how does this relate to the independent artist?

Could artists with small fanbases charge a premium for their raw files? Could giving away raw files increase your fanbase? What if a stranger on the internet makes a better job of mixing your tunes than you did? I realise I’m throwing up more questions than answers, but that’s kind of the point as I can’t think of answers to any of the questions that would involve an artist making less money or generating less interest, whatever their status.

User-generated content and online mixing tools are of course not necessarily new things, and I hear that Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails both have similar ‘premium rate’ ideas in the pipeline with their future releases, but the crucial point is that so far no clear market leading process has emerged for this - there is no ‘Killer App’ to speak of, and certainly nothing that could become the online equivalent of the CD or the 7” single and therefore sweep all before it.

I genuinely miss buying records. I stopped buying them when the industry made it too hard (impossible) for me to get what I wanted on vinyl. Since I never liked CDs I now ‘find’ my music online and buy vinyl second hand. How about something that might make me feel connected with the music and willing to start parting with my cash again?

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.


Reader Comments (11)

Nothing of substance to add, I just wanted to say that was exceptionally well written. Great morning brainfood, thank you.

April 3 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

With "Nude" by Radiohead being stemmed, this is surely the future and the future of the past. Great post.

April 3 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Meredith

Funny you say that, the artist Brad Sucks ( has done some amazing things by giving away his source tracks. He was one of the original artists to give away his music for free back when that was news, and then, after making some reasonable money by selling albums (which baffled him, because people could get it for free from his website), decided to go even further and released his source tracks.

The amount of remixes of his songs is truly astonishing--we're talking HUNDREDS of different remixes. And the amazing thing is that he was able to put together another album to sell composed entirely of remixes of his songs.

Even now, if you go to the front page of his website, you'll see a link to get the album, and a direct link to the source tracks.

I find it hard enough to finish my own mixes let alone getting around to fiddling with someone elses!

Re: formats - HD TV isn't doing too bad, people are buying hardware and formats all over again

The only way for music to go is back towards fidelity - we've been selling the song and forgotten about selling the experience of listening to recorded music

There's very little 'music' in songs nowadays - lead vox, beat, some chords - everything has been compressed and optimised to deliver hooks - there's very little in there which can bear repeat listening (unlike Bohemian Rhapsody) Popular music has become simplistic and leaves little to the imagination either in structure or arrangement and production.

Now radio is in decline and we have the internet, it is up to the artists to push the boundaries and no one else - I don't think any band has really stepped up to the plate yet - they've all discussed the tools of distribution but haven't done anything really dramatic with the music itself

Curently I rush to my friend's house to see a wicked new game or new blu-ray re-issue of an old classic - not often to hear a new track which will blow me away

All this talk about web 2.0 and very little sign of Bohemian Rhapsody 2.0

Sometimes I think we forget that the killer app is the killer music

April 3 | Unregistered CommenterJulian Moore

This type of thing is already being offered by some genre specific independent artists in the form of stems for use in ableton live. For those who dont know ableton is a music production program which is being used by digital dj's. It's pretty easy to use, great for dj's, especially if they can use stems of a track instead of just 1 song file because the scope to remix and re-edit the song during a dj set is much greater. I'll be doing stems of my new EP because it's a great way to market your music to a specific niche and I like the fact that people can remix/re-edit elements of the tracks in to something new. It's a more organic and creative distribution process, just as long as I dont hear a happy hardcore version of one of my tracks in a podcast!!!

April 3 | Unregistered CommenterJ Bluevibe

Funny. Radiohead is doing that now. you can download the components to "nude" and remix them for $1 per track on itunes.

April 4 | Unregistered CommenterAl

@ Julian Moore
It is true that most pop music has been reduced to vocals and a beat. Once you know it you' re done. Like fast food. It is the variety of musical structures and the small things to discover that make a listener come back.
It's phantasy vers. prooven - hit - recipy.
I love music that you can get lost in. Those tracks last for decades.

April 4 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Blue

I think its good idea to let other have a shot at your mixes although I totally agree with Julian. I too have a hard enough time finishing my mixes. But there are lots of people out there who know how to use audio sequencers and have a copy of cubase or logic lying around. If they can have the chance to experience your music buy toying with it, I find that to be a good strategy to have your fans understand your music a little better. Concerning legal issues, I tend to trust the community, If you don't allow them to sell the mixes they won't do it. Anyways could be good publicity and why not a good income stream to create a platform where fans could sell your music for you, remixed or not, if you were to receive a percentage of the sale.

Only for the purpose of being able to jam on the songs you love makes this a good idea. So why not alos give away your mixed tracks and let your fans balance some volumes and mute the solo so can play over it.
For bands looking for new members, this could even be a trial:
'to the guitarist who writes the best solo, let us meet and jam, then take things from there'

April 4 | Unregistered CommenterGigDoggy

Somebody's already working on this idea for indie bands -

April 4 | Unregistered CommenterSunspot Mike

One of the reasons I bought the $75 of NIN Ghosts was the DVD that included stems for all the songs.

But soon after you release all those raw files for sale they will be "shared" online through bittorrent. So the revenue stream may not last long, just the same as your regular album.

April 16 | Unregistered CommenterBlue Morris

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