Some VERY good talk. Chris Molanphy is the site’s regular chart-watcher and his analysis has always proven very insightful; this entry, discussing recent moves about Kid Rock and now Estelle singles not being available on iTunes, is however a cut above. Read the whole thing, of course, but to extract a key point:
As I explained in a recent “100 and Single,” Capitol forced fans of Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” to buy his Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em album by only releasing the song in the spring of 1990 as a 12-inch vinyl single. The result: a 21-week-chart-topping, 10-times-platinum album. Their tactic that fall with Vanilla Ice was different, but similarly diabolical: the Queen/David Bowie-fueled “Ice Ice Baby” was released in the popular cassingle format and charged up the Hot 100, but once SBK knew the song was poised to top the chart, the “Baby” single was deleted. The result: the song spent only one week at No. 1, but on the album chart Ice’s To the Extreme shot to No. 1 and stayed there 16 weeks, shipping 4 million copies out of the gate and eventually going septuple-platinum.
In short, EMI produced two back-to-back smash albums, first by withholding the big hit from the most popular singles medium altogether, and the second time by pulling the big hit from the market just as it peaked.
I have long posited 1990 as the year that launched the Great War Against The Single, a decade-long campaign that saw endless casualties (not least, the consumer’s wallet) and didn’t end until the Rebel Alliance that was Napster and the Versailles Treaty that was iTunes.
Now, in 2008, it appears that Atlantic is attempting to start the War all over again, and they’re doing it by replicating EMI’s first two strategic moves from 1990, verbatim. (Insert joke about history repeating as farce here.) If Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” never released on iTunes, is Atlantic’s new “U Can’t Touch This,” then “American Boy” is their new “Ice Ice Baby.”
Besides spelling this out in detail and noting exactly how the single fared as a discrete entity/priced object in the nineties, Chris also concludes by noting that the cat was out of the bag anyway, since file sharing is going on regardless, while the opportunistic presence of a near-Xerox cover version of Kid Rock’s hit on iTunes is a classic example of gaming the larger system.
Still, there’s something larger to dwell on here which isn’t quite spelled out — earlier in the piece, Chris quotes an official Warner Music Group release via the Wall Street Journal where the idea of withholding singles to spark up album sales ties into a strategy “uniquely tailored to each artist and their fan base in an effort to optimize revenues and promote long-term artist development.” Garbage language, of course [EDIT: and on Idolator, commenter the rich girls are... unpacks some of the slimy assumptions at play] yet consider what the kernel is at the heart of it — what many of us see as shameless fleecing on the part of the labels (and on the part of Kid Rock — and lord knows that song of his is one of the biggest fleeces out there) is actually being matched by a consumer base willing to pay full price for the album as a product in toto.
It’s been one of the hard and fast axioms of this decade, especially (and logically) on the Internet, that this kind of listening and economic model is outdated or somehow just ‘wrong’ in a conceptual sense. This has been articulated in various ways, whether we’re talking about the idea of iTunes as mass success via song by song purchases or creating one’s own playlists or the rampage of mp3 blogs or more besides. A full study isn’t something I’m interested in right now but there’s something about how this Kid Rock model has worked in particular — an album by an artist pushing a romanticized portrait of the past via an older artistic/economic model, something that is ‘retro’ in its very nature — which amuses. In a strange, disconnected way, this is almost the highest profile incarnation of the supposed rush back to vinyl releases going on, the implication that music must have value in the strict sense of physical possession of the object, paid for as released and priced in the current market.
What could be happening here, far from being an attempt to simply turn back the clock to the days of integrated music-release/sales control, is what’s been talked about elsewhere on Idolator and around, namely that the major labels must learn to adapt or die, and that in the shape of Kid Rock — and, potentially, Estelle — they have examples where they can get the sales they want in the shape they want in a market situation where they won’t have the full range of income they had any more. Diminished expectations but functional activity nonetheless — but the point being: they’re getting their sales. People are buying that Kid Rock record. Are we supposed to tell a consumer they can’t or shouldn’t? More than ever it is a conscious choice on the part of the consumer on how to get a song, and if the most notable option in recent years towards getting that song has been blocked and people are instead purchasing the album, we may cluck our tongues, but in a marketplace that isn’t ignorant about file-sharing and the Internet — the whole Napster to-do is almost a decade old! — one can’t write all this up to consumers suddenly forgetting that the Net as an option to hear a song is available.
I could go on but this is enough of a ramble already. And I’m not trying to spell this all out as some major positive all around — this is more of an observation, perhaps a very ham-handed one. Personally I’ll be interested to see in a time of economic slowdowns exactly where things go from here on a number of fronts (and stepping over once more to a side subject, if oil prices go through the roof again, as seems likely, I’ll be interested to see what the vinyl fetishists do when they start having to pay through the nose). But possibly what we are seeing is less last dying lash and more next step towards viable multiplicities. Possibly.