Saturday, May 3, 2008

6 months after Radiohead says pay as you can, radical music marketing the norm

Six months after Radiohead shook the music industry by letting fans determine how much their music was worth, and a year after Prince gave away his album as an insert in a Brit newspaper, such radical ways of distribution are now verging on the norm.

British superstars Coldplay offered up a digital download of their new single for free Tuesday, a little more than a week after Metallica - who have been known to demonize file-sharers - mused aloud about their own possible ventures online.

And while Coldplay and Metallica are just the latest big-name acts to flirt with new ways of connecting with fans, they are especially notable for making such pronouncements while tied to big-name record labels, widely regarded as the obstinate holdouts amid an overwhelming tide of unfettered music sharing.

"What we're seeing is the emergence of a new business model for established, superstar acts," music guru Alan Cross said Tuesday of Coldplay's heavily hyped return to the spotlight.

"They realize that they have, already, over years, built up a very tight relationship with their audiences and that they have the power and the infrastructure to reach out to them directly."

Last year's innovators - Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails - each caused waves with digital freebies but they were only made possible by the bands' independence from a record label.

In contrast, Coldplay is still tied to EMI, and perhaps because of that, their harder-edged, Latin-tinged release, "Violet Hill," comes with a weeklong time limit.

"This has got old wave handlers' fingerprints all over it," outspoken music blogger Bob Lefsetz gripes in his Tuesday newsletter. "I laud them for giving the track away, but why the time limit? When it will be available forever via (peer to peer) .... No limits. That's the 'Net mantra."

Cross also complained about the limited availability period, noting that such restrictions are essentially meaningless in the Wild West atmosphere of the 'Net.

"If you're making it available for a week you might as well make it available forever," said Cross, Toronto host of the syndicated radio show "The Ongoing History of New Music."

"Because that's essentially what's going to happen, it's going to be out there. Unless they've got it watermarked in such a way that they'll be able to track it."

Still, Cross called the ploy a savvy marketing move and gave the major labels credit for inching towards the new reality. Coldplay will also release a free seven-inch vinyl version of their single with a B-side in the Brit music weekly NME in May and follow up their album's official June release with free concerts in London and New York.

"The band's been out of sight for a while, they need something to generate some excitement," Cross said, noting that it takes a lot to stand out amid the hundreds of thousands of other music releases.

"They need to shout very loud in a crowded marketplace in a year that there's going to be a lot of rock records."

Coldplay's Internet freebie comes on the heels of an apparent change of heart by Metallica, heavy-metal rockers notorious for their heavy-handed approach to file-sharing fans.

In 2000, the band filed a lawsuit that ultimately helped kill the file-sharing program Napster, but earlier this month drummer Lars Ulrich told Rolling Stone magazine the band was eyeing the Internet in a new light as they prepared to release their ninth disc.

Ulrich was quoted by the music publication as saying they've been watching Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and are "looking forward to everything in terms of possibilities with the Internet."

The comments have sent the blogosphere buzzing with anticipation, with several observers pointing out that Metallica has just one more album under their contract with Warner.

Once freed from their label EMI, Radiohead released a digital version of its album, "In Rainbows," last October and invited fans to download it for whatever price they felt was fair. Nine Inch Nails, meanwhile, released multiple versions of its album, "Ghosts," with prices ranging from free to $300.

NIN's latest freebie came last week, with the song "Discipline," posted for download on its website.

Other big acts experimenting with giveaways include Motley Crue, which released a downloadable single for the video game "Rock Band," while rapper/movie star Will Smith recently launched a website to distribute music videos and concerts for free. It's backed by three major record labels.

"We're going to see a number of superstar acts try to outdo each other in terms of cleverness when it comes to marketing," predicted Cross.

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