Back Catalogue To The Future
April 3, 2008
Craig Hamilton in Music Business Models

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?

Ok..

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.

Bismillah!

Update on April 3, 2008 by Registered CommenterLaurence Trifon

There are indeed thousands, if not millions, of people who enjoy playing with songs in the way Craig has described. Many artists – the most notable being Nine Inch Nails – have recognized this segment of their audience and started making their studio tracks available for remixing. Sites like ccMixter, an online remixing community, make it easy for independent artists to offer their multi-tracks for free to a large pool of producers, DJs and others who like interacting with music.

One of the biggest challenges in offering audio for interactive use is determining who owns what rights in the remixed work. Let’s say I’ve produced a killer remix of Bohemian Rhapsody… now what? Can I post it on my website? Can I let people download it? Can I sell it? Can Queen sell it? Do I own the recording, or does Queen? As you can imagine, this could get quite complicated from a legal standpoint.

One popular solution has been to use Creative Commons licenses to spell out what users can and cannot do with their remixes. For example, an artist could choose a CC license that would let users create a remix and let anyone (the user, the artist, and others) share it non-commercially. In this scenario, if either the artist or user wanted to use the remix commercially, they would have to get permission from the other party.  

Up to this point, most artists have chosen to offer their multi-tracks for free. Nine Inch Nails, for example, set up their own remix site where users can download audio for free after they register. The publicity and goodwill generated by offering multi-tracks, as well as the opportunity to build interactive fan communities and collect demographic data, are obviously of great value.

Radiohead, on the other hand, has gone a different route on both the legal and pricing front with their Nude remix offering. The terms state that all rights to the remixes will belong to Radiohead and their label/publisher. And they are selling the multi-tracks (5 total) on iTunes for the standard $0.99 each. I’m curious to see how many fans are willing to pay $5 for the chance to create a remix in which they have no ownership. Even if Radiohead can get away with something like that, I’m not sure the majority of artists can.

Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (http://www.musicthinktank.com/).
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