The new ringtones

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, recorded music was a consumer product. Sold by judgmental and hygienically-challenged clerks in dingy indie stores to be displayed on a shelf as a badge of honor, or repackaged into NOW! compilations and sold in brighter, cheerier places for the faint of taste*. Radio and MTV moved product. Movie soundtracks were sure-bet cash cows. Everyone in the music foodchain (even sometimes artists) made money.

Of course, all that's changed now, and you don't need me to tell you so. A solid decade after the mass adoption of the .mp3, the moneymen still standing remain tragically befuddled about the whole technology thing, and as a result, the music industry is in danger of losing its direct contact with the consumer marketplace completely.

Oh, the major labels will never go away. Not really. Unless copyright law dissolves completely, there'll always be a way to make money off old IP. But because of its baffling unwillingness to serve individuals in a way that's agreeable to the customer, the music industry continues to become less and less able to get its hands into consumer pockets without the help of a third party (movies, television, video games) that still knows what the f it's doing in the marketplace. Imagine a clothing retailer realizing it couldn't figure out how to deal directly with customers anymore, and going into the zipper business instead. Providing indirect, ancillary value to the same market to which it used to provide direct value.

This is why the ringtone business was once touted as the ailing business's savior. Cellular providers were willing to play by the rules that music customers had ceased to directly accept from the music business: polish turd, overcharge, repeat. For a while, anyone who wanted to hear "Who Can It Be Now?" whenever their phone rang had to pay for the privilege. Shareholders rejoiced.

But most people these days can find ways to get their ringtones for free. You know what they can't get for free (yet) though? New Rock Band tracks! Kaching! The business is saved!

So the new Metallica single might make its debut as a Rock Band track. Think for a minute about what that means for...I dunno...fans of Metallica. Unless they own a next-gen video game console and spent the cash to pick up the game, the first time they'll be able to hear the song is probably going to be on YouTube, sounding about as good as this. And if they want to (gasp) buy it? Well, they'll just have to wait.

Believe these two things: there are a lot more Metallica fans in the world than there are Rock Band owners. And a lot more of them than would usually do so are going to find a way to steal this song and not even feel bad if it's released this way. Metallica and their people are chasing a guaranteed paycheck and in the same breath hastening the demise of recorded music as a valuable, purchasable product in and of itself.

Yeah yeah, I know. It was going to happen anyway.

* Actually, this second part still happens. But (crosses fingers) that well has to dry up eventually.

1 comment:

  1. People have been stealing new singles for years because the record labels are too myopic to offer day and date digital sales for new singles with radio premieres. The BEST time to get people to buy a single on impulse is AS SOON AS IT'S OUT THERE.

    As for the rock band example, well... someone's going to rip an audio feed from their 360, but it's going to sound weird with the different instrument levels they have going on. If Metallica were smart, they would release a real digital single one day after the Rock Band release - preserving the novelty of having the video game "debut" but still allowing it's fans prompt access to music.