“This is not a story. The media are making this a story.” Click. Bhuuuuuuuuuu . . . .
This curt response from a senior executive from the folks organising Madonna’s ’06 Confessions tour was as far as I got into persuading one of ‘her people’ to come on BBC radio. At £160 ($310) for the best seats quite a few commentators on both sides of the Atlantic had raised an eyebrow at the ticket pricing and I thought it might be worth a few minutes air time hearing someone justify the cost . . .

I was wrong, but Madonna wasn’t. One of the most innovative performers of her time Madonna is equally savvy when it comes to matters business. She may not set as many trends as she once did but she certainly doesn’t miss ’em.

Her irate tour manager was right. When you consider how many packed into the stadia of the world during Confessions, paying 300-plus bucks for a Madonna concert sure isn’t a story. Those days of po-faced media naivety will soon be over if they aren’t already, but as prices for premium live acts rocket, we, the paying public will demand more in return. This, along with other pressures will eventually lead to the end of the record company as we know it and, for a select few artistes, a welcome return to performing for a living.

Permit me to summarise this with a bold prediction. Within the next five years a major league artist will release a full-featured album (at least 8 tracks) of new material, upload it somewhere and charge exactly zip for unlimited access. ‘Whoa there ya dumb limey!’, I hear you cry, ‘Like who?’

Dear Reader, I can’t answer that. But from the long list of established big name hall fillers you can fire a dart blindfold and hit a load who meet the criteria: a ton of globally known hits to their name; a generations-spanning discography; a fondness for performing and some very, very forward-thinking investment managers on the payroll. It could be Aerosmith, The Stones or maybe something a bit more leftfield like Crowded House, but believe me, the age of the zero-dollar album is fast approaching.

In return for this generosity we punters will get an outstanding aural experience like nothing else yet seen. Instead of the paltry three dates plus extra nights (does anyone still believe the additions are not pre-planned?) each major venue will get a week minimum plus smaller surrounding gigs with the occassional themed show thrown in for good measure. Chuck in the inevitable advertising opportunities and you can see this is an area in which an artist’s management can let their imaginations run wild.

As well as longer tours their frequency will be bumped copiously. Instead of seeing a band every two or three years, try every year or even continuously. Once performing replaces album sales as the primary source of revenue then popular artists will naturally tour more. The promotional drive behind the first artist to claim ‘The World’s First Never-ending Tour’ will be phenomenal.

Furthermore, the effect of totally free albums will enhance the primary reason for going to see the artist in the first place: tune familiarity. Because your album costs nothing to download the number of people listening becomes limited only to those areas where internet access is good, and few would dispute that web pervasiveness is rocketing as fast as album sales are dwindling. People come to concerts because they like an artist’s work. Give more people the chance to become acquainted with your repertoire and you expand the customer base on a quite gargantuan scale.

And the retail cost to all those newly-hooked fans? Extortionate. In the richer nations, $500 for an experience like this will be towards the lower end of the scale. But before you chuck this article down the pan Dear Reader, consider this: people will pay this kind of money for another very simple reason. The record companies will persuade us to. They have to or they will die.

Digital downloads have long been heralded as the recording industry’s saviour and yes, sales of online music are increasing – there’s no doubt about that. But they’re nowhere near the rate necessary for CD sales replacement and if there are any record company execs who still seriously believe the next gazillion-seller is lurking round the corner in the digital ether then they are (wisely) keeping quiet. Recent data from Nielsen SoundScan (who compile music sales data for the US and Canada) suggest digital music sales will soon level off.

And as online acesss and sound technology increases so will audience sophistication. People are slowly coming to realise that paying a dollar for tracks ripped at bit rates so low you’d be better off listening to Kanye through a clockwork radio wrapped in a fisherman’s sock is itself a rip-off. But it’s growing awareness of the inequities of digital rights management (DRM) that will eventually cull online sales down to CD level and lead to the pair of them going the way of the dinosaur.

Right now in the online shopping world convenience trumps quality — I’ll be the first to admit it. But truths are turning, homing and roosting. Your typical iTunes shopper may not know that gifting legally-purchased music to your loved ones in the same way one used to with LPs is impossible, but once those budding song collections grow and morph into terabytes of intense sentimental value you’ll start to see DRM seriously challenged: if not in court then at least in cyberspace where amongst the techies, Apple’s so-called Fairplay system is already considered a sandbox in which hackers gleefully frolic.

Another little known fact is that DRM often enforces physical boundaries. Anyone who’s tried the futile task of transferring a purchased iTunes track onto that old no-name MP3 player in their car knows what I mean, but the barriers can span continents too. Try buying a gift voucher for a track on an online music store and then send the voucher to a friend in another country. Five times out of ten the store will let you make the purchase but when the recipient tries to play the track the clunking sound as their system abruptly barfs will test even the strongest friendships. Good luck getting a refund. Whenever people fail to immediately realise they’re being screwed, it’s a given that eventually they will. The balance between fairplay and straitjacket is more skewed than Vern Troyer see-sawing with Beth Ditto.

And if DRM does not disappear then people will bypass it. Yes, I’m aware section 1210 of the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act), Oct. 20, 1998 makes bypassing copyright illegal, but it’s the same geopolitical forces that have coerced nations into adopting this edict that also permit global cohesion in giving it the finger. The likes of the RIAA and Metallica can go after 12-year-old script-kiddies with the kind of zeal that would shame King Herod, but they’re fighting a losing battle and they know it.

Referring to a campus crackdown on illegal music in the USA, RIAA president Cary Sherman said recently: “We hope that university administrators recognize the beneficial role they will play [in] helping avert a lawsuit against a student . . . by implementing the technological tools that prevent piracy from happening in the first place.” Sadly, what the RIAA don’t realise is that rest of the world (read: not America and Western Europe) is already way past that point. CDs – the physical shiny polycarbonate slivers – are beyond commodification. In parts of Africa, asking a street vendor for an ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ CD just means he’ll stop chewing Khat while he burns you a copy.

Most asians under 30 have never known the concept of legal music and the mindset that expects music to be free is gaining traction under its own weight. Can any law withstand disobedience on this scale?

Now I’m not recommending music piracy; I just think there’s so much more money to be made from other sources. Car repair garages here in the UK used to charge to fix punctures but many now provide this service gratis, banking on the fact that if they give you the regular stuff for free you’re more likely to revisit when you come looking for that Jaguar you always promised yourself.

In many ways the biggest problem looming for the record companies and their legacy business models is that their biggest assets are finally waking up to these same realities. According to SoundScan, last year’s biggest-selling online album was the High School Musical soundtrack at 3.7 million units. Conservative estimates say 1982’s Thriller sold 30 million and Wikipedia says 100 million. Either way, Jacko must be wetting himself with laughter.

It’s stretching it to say Robbie Williams was on my wavelength when a few years ago he horrified EMI by saying piracy was great, but I’ve a feeling he knew something was in the air. And I’ll be the first to admit the occassional duff album from the likes of Williams is also helping concentrate minds. Let’s face it, if you were an EMI bigwig and someone chucked Rudebox onto your desk you’d be thinking about alternative revenue streams too.

Record company exec Paul Burger was recently quoted saying: “Musicians have traditionally made money by playing live, and that’s not going to change. You cannot download the live experience. It’s the real hard currency of the music business.” He’s right. Roll on the new super minstrels.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened after Madonna’s management refused my interview request then I must report that with that CEO’s earbashing swiftly followed by a fruitless search to find female Madonna fans (where the hell are they?), the project ended up being one lame piece of radio production. We eventually had to settle for three camp guys discussing why a week’s minimum wage was good value to see a fifty-something lass gyrate in tight lycra. I sat there waiting in vain for one of them to unleash hell and give it to Madge with both barrels but would you be surprised Dear Reader, to learn they all agreed it was a bargain at double the price?

As she so often does, Mrs Ritchie proved she’s way ahead of the game. Where she leads others will follow.


3 Comments so far

  1. EMI heed Uncle Pauly . . . : Paul Coletti on April 2, 2007 9:01 pm

    […] Bring back the minstrels…. […]

  2. phil on August 13, 2007 2:10 am

    Your ‘bold prediction’ came true sooner than you thought, then, when Prince released his new album on the front of the Guardian for free, which was rapidly uploaded and distributed to the somewhat wider masses of non-Guardian readers.

    And funnily enough, it coincided with Prince deciding to spend two months in London gigging every night.

    However, is it clever marketing? Maybe the weeman himself suddenly realised that his ‘music’ is worthless shit and only fit for a second-rate freebie in a third-rate paper?

  3. Madge to do a Prince or a Radiohead? : Paul Coletti on October 18, 2007 2:31 am

    […] Bloggers with an ‘I-told-you-so’ attitude are smug and annoying but I can’t help but link Madonna’s latest deal with Live Nation with my post of March 2007. Mrs Ritchie has done almost exactly what I predicted. […]

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