The future of digital music is Princely

PrinceMusical artists and bands have reacted to the rise of digital music and the web as a distribution and marketing medium in a number of ways, but now even artists like Metallica, who initially railed against it, are accepting the future. With the precipitous fall of CD sales that aren’t really being offset with sales of music online, the rules for getting paid as an artist are clearly changing.

The story you still hear is that this digital music disruption is benefiting the unknown artist (vast new access to a global audience) and hurting the big artists (mass-pirating and the erosion of album sales). But today my friend Avi points me to a New York Times article about Prince, who is thriving in the new world order:

Prince gravitated early to the Internet. Even in the days of dial-up he sought to make his music available online, first as a way of ordering albums and then through digital distribution. (He was also ahead of his time with another form of communication: text messaging abbreviations, having long ago traded “you” for “U.”) Where the Internet truism is that information wants to be free, Prince’s corollary is that music wants to be heard.

How much he makes from his various efforts is a closely guarded secret. But he’s not dependent on royalties trickling in from retail album sales after being filtered through major-label accounting procedures. Instead someone — a sponsor, a newspaper, a promoter — pays him upfront, making disc sales less important. Which is not to say that he’s doing badly on that front: “3121” sold about 520,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and “Musicology,” with its concert giveaways, was certified multiplatinum.

Prince is embracing the new economics of multi-channel promotion and word-of-mouth marketing vs. record sales and “the charts.” He is approaching the business world with the same type of deep creativity that permeates his music, and focusing on the important end result – that his music is heard by his fans. He is the model that other big artists should be following.

The big losers here are obviously the big record labels, and they should lose. Their size and existence is based on a distribution and promotional model that is outdated. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a role here – they should be changing focus from a physical distribution model to a marketing consulting model. That was always the real value they offered anyway – the ability to shepherd new artists through the unique and complex branding and promotional challenges that they will face as their audience grows. But the labels will have to change quickly – the only dinosaurs that survived are the ones who were smaller and faster.

In the meantime Prince continues his rapid evolution, and we all get to rock along with him.


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