Whiney Sell-Outs

Charles Haddad writes in Business Week Online about musicians making a stand for the “integrity of the album format.” Fortunately, he gets it right: this isn’t about artists looking after their art, this is about the end of a business strategy where a few good tracks are mingled with a pile of chaff and called an ‘album.’

What’s really important here is that you can buy what you want, rather than just what labels and the bands have decided you should have. No longer do you have take the fat with the meat — and pay $15 or more for a CD that has only three songs you like. …This doesn’t necessarily mean the death of album rock, just bad album rock. A package of great songs that work together will still sell. Just look at the evergreen appeal of the Who’s Tommy or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue .

The labels may be forced to change. If filler no longer sells, will the music industry continue to compel bands to produce it? Maybe, just maybe, bands and labels will start improving the overall quality of pop music.

JULY 16, 2003

BYTE OF THE APPLE By Charles Haddad

The Chili Peppers’ Sour Grapes Over iTunes This rock group’s refusal to be included on Apple’s popular new music-download service is a backward move that’s doomed to fall flat

These guys call themselves rock musicians? Where, I ask you, is their sense of storming the Establishment ramparts, of thumbing their noses at authority? Instead, by refusing to let Apple ( AAPL ) sell their music online at the new iTunes Music Store, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are leading a vanguard in the wrong direction. They might as well put their clothes back on.

Of all the iTunes holdouts, the Chili Peppers, with their longstanding popularity and reputation for artistry, are perhaps the most respected. Others include bands spanning hip-hop to metal rock, from Linkin Park to Metallica. All of them fret that they would lose creative control if they let Apple sell their songs individually on iTunes. “Our artists would rather not contribute to the demise of the album format,” Mark Reiter of Q Prime Management Co., which manages the Chili Peppers, Metallica, and several other artists, told Reuters recently.

TOO MUCH FILLER. It’s a bogus argument that makes these bands sound like shills for the music-industry’s suits. After all, most individual artists and groups lost that kind of control when they signed up with a big label. For listeners, the album format has all too often been a tool of oppression.

Sure, some bands, including the Chili Peppers, do work hard to craft albums whose span of titles are consistently good. But under pressure from their label, most artists and groups combine three or four quality songs with filler, a strategy that lets the industry justify the $15 to $20 price tag for CDs.

Such thievery sparked the rise of downloadable music, generating an opportunity for pirates using file-sharing networks such as Napster and KaZaA. Pirating music is neither legal nor right, but it’s an illegitimate response to a legitimate problem. Now, Apple has seized Napster’s fallen banner and is taking the digital-music revolution mainstream.

Here’s how Apple’s iTunes online music service is changing the music business for the better:

It lets users listen to music before buying it. What a concept, right? Just try that in any of the big music stores. You’ll find the only tunes they’ll let you sample are from CDs the music companies pay to have prominently displayed. Yet, you wouldn’t buy a book without sampling at least its first couple of pages. So why shouldn’t you be able to do the same with music. At iTunes, users can listen to as much as 30 seconds of any song.

Users can compile their own albums. With iTunes, you can pick and choose from among 200,000 files (growing by the thousands weekly). You can buy a whole album or just several songs at 99 cents a pop. That’s not inexpensive, but my guess is that the price will fall as download volume increases.

What’s really important here is that you can buy what you want, rather than just what labels and the bands have decided you should have. No longer do you have take the fat with the meat — and pay $15 or more for a CD that has only three songs you like. Sorry, Chili Peppers, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the death of album rock, just bad album rock. A package of great songs that work together will still sell. Just look at the evergreen appeal of the Who’s Tommy or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue .

The labels may be forced to change. If filler no longer sells, will the music industry continue to compel bands to produce it? Maybe, just maybe, bands and labels will start improving the overall quality of pop music. (At least I can dream.)

Apple’s new way of selling music is attracting a growing audience. In its first eight weeks, iTunes sold more than 5 million songs. Nearly half were purchased as albums, the Chili Peppers will be glad to hear. But given that 50% was of individual songs, buyers are clearly embracing the pick-and-choose approach.

And I predict that sales will jump up another notch when Steve Jobs & Co. releases a Windows version of iTunes later this year. Apple’s iPod digital-music player already works with PCs, but compatibility will take a big leap forward with a Windows’ version of Apple’s iTunes music-management software (see BW Online, 7/2/03, “How Apple Spells Future: i-P-O-D” ).

CLEAR THE WAY. While off to a bang-up start, iTunes is far from established. Although all of the Big Five labels have signed up, several important independents — such as blues and folk powerhouse Alligator, world-music specialist Putumayo, and punk label Kill Rock Stars — are still holding out. Plus, iTunes represents only a minuscule portion of music sales overall. The last thing this movement needs is a gang of whiney counterrevolutionaries, who’ll only embolden other holdouts.

In truth, opposition makes little sense. Even some execs from the biggest labels have signed on to iTunes. Says Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris, one of the album format’s inventors: “iTunes is pushing us into the future of how music is produced and consumed.”

It’s time for the Chili Peppers and other holdouts to face the music. Bad album rock is dying, and no one — least of all paying listeners — should want it kept on artificial life support.

5 thoughts on “Whiney Sell-Outs

  1. amen.

    big labels suck, they have even started buying indie labels like subpop– this was a good label before, now they are changing so that they make a profit at the expense of quality. it’s all about checks and balances, people can finally make a choice (even if it is a small one) about music. maybe sometime in the next 50 years good music will prevail over well marketed music. but i am sure that the big labels still have a few tricks up their sleeves.

  2. Red Hot chilli eppers rule no matter what they decide 2 do.By refusing to let Apple ( AAPL ) sell their music online at the new iTunes Music Store they have promoted the idea that music shouldnt be available over the internet because it makes people aware that they can get it for free which is really piracy.

  3. these people spend months making a record only to have big corporations like apple to let people listen to it for or they get attacked by internet sites. would these people running these internet sites say this to their face no because your probly some little pencil pusher who sits on his computer for 24 hours and gets pleasure out of dissing bands who have talent just because they dont want to waste the millions of dollars they spent making an album

  4. yo opino q red hot chili peppers son el grupo mas chido q haya existido es lo mejor q haya creado la naturaleza
    ¡¡¡¡¡¡¡¡ LOS AMOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Comments are closed.