The Upside of a Download
How some indie labels are tapping into the promotional benefits of free MP3s
Nabil Ayers’s band, Alien Crime Syndicate, is moving with the times. Its Web site links to Amazon.com and Ayers’s label’s online store, where a listener can buy a CD with the click of a button. The same site offers a free, downloadable track from each of the band’s five albums for immediate aural gratification. It sounds like a savvy idea for a band to offer as many access options as possible to would-be listeners, but there’s more to Ayers than just his drums and his label: Ayers also co-owns Sonic Boom, a small, independent music store chain in Seattle.
At a time when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is complaining about dwindling CD sales, Ayers’s digitalized game plan sounds like a serious contradiction, not to mention a recipe for small-store sales disaster. But Ayers’s record store has expanded three times in the past eight years, his Control Group label has signed twelve bands in a third of that time, and he still manages to tour with his band. And he’s not the only one in the independent music community tapping into the promotional possibilities of free MP3s. It may seem unconventional, but for smaller, lesser-known bands, MP3s are an incorruptible demo tape to the world, the counterculture’s answer to the media-broadcasting giant Clear Channel.
Nabil Ayers plays at a live concert in Portland, Oregon.
“We really just want people to be able to hear the bands’ music, pass it around, and tell people about it,” explains Nate Krenkel, cofounder of Omaha’s Team Love, a maverick indie label whose iconoclastic marketing strategy includes complimentary downloadable albums from the label’s Web site. That’s an entire album for nada, and although it might have worked for an exasperated, label-less Wilco some years back, it’s still as far off the recording track as anyone can get these days. With all of the major-label hype about MP3 downloads hurting CD sales, most people are likely to find the concept absurd. But Krenkel, who grew fed up with his former job at Sony/ATV Music Publishing because of its hard-line posture against file sharing, is willing to take the risk. He argues that just because Sony (or any major label) assumes that file sharing is the equivalent to online stealing doesn’t make it gospel.
Sir Howard Stringer, the chairman of the Sony Corporation of America, likened downloaders to shoplifter Winona Ryder in an interview with the New Yorker in 2003. “That actress wandering around Hollywood helping herself,” he said, “should have adopted the Internet defense — ‘I was downloading music in the morning, downloading movies in the afternoon, and then I thought I’d rustle a few dresses out of the local department store. And it’s been a good day, and all of a sudden I’m arrested. How is that fair?’” A similarly hostile sentiment against downloaders resonates throughout the major labels, with more than nine thousand lawsuits filed against unsuspecting individuals since September 2003. And this feeling isn’t simply contained to the four largest recording companies that control more than 80 percent of the U.S. recording business. Independently owned labels, which share the remainder of the market, also worry about their copyright property being exploited and undervalued — the fundamental reason why only the spunkiest are using the controversial MP3.
“[People] want to be identified by more than just what’s in their iPod.”
But there’s more to this controversial distribution method than just risky-venture jitters, as the clashing of reputable economic analyses reveals. A recent report compiled by two University of Pennsylvania professors found that for every five albums (not tracks) college students downloaded, the U.S. music industry lost one CD sale. This conflicts with a 2002 market study by Harvard Business School professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee, which indicated that downloading music has relatively no impact on CD sales. But the seeming incongruity of the two studies might have more to do with methodology than anything else. While the University of Pennsylvania’s study represents solely the behavior of 412 college students, Oberholzer-Gee’s represents total popular downloads against total album sales (in other words, overall consumer behavior). His 2002 report concluded that the majority of downloaders either sampled music before purchasing or would never have bought the CD anyway because they couldn’t afford to.
This makes perfect sense to Krenkel, who reasons that just because someone has access to more music doesn’t mean that they have more purchasing power. “Before, you might have bought ten records a year and got a few copies from friends. Now you have access to everything, but I don’t know why that would stop you from going out and buying those ten new records.” Many people with Internet access do buy CDs, and not just moral zealots dissatisfied by iTunes’ digital rights management. In fact, according to the RIAA’s 2004 year-end report, CD sales rose by 2.8 percent since 2003.
Even with the rising popularity of MP3s, some customers still prefer to purchase tangible albums.
So what’s keeping the CD pressers pressing? It’s possible that there’s more to music than just music. Kianna Alarid, a vocalist and percussionist for Tilly and the Wall, Team Love’s premier band, argues that it’s about people identifying with a community, especially for indie fans. “Indie kids in general really like to support their bands. If people have a chance to listen to [our album] and they’re into it, I have faith that indie kids will be excited to go out and buy it afterward.” Confidence in listeners seems prevalent among Team Love’s members: “People are still going to want to buy a record occasionally, or buy a T-shirt,” affirms Krenkel. “They want to be identified by more than just what’s in their iPod.”
Krenkel’s label, which he cofounded in 2003 with Bright Eyes’s frontman, Conor Oberst, currently carries two pop-rock albums and a hip-hop album. So far, everyone on the label feels positive about what they’re doing, stressing that they’re not in the music business to make a killing. “I wouldn’t want someone who didn’t like [our] album to buy it,” insists Nick White, Tilly’s keyboardist. “For most indie bands, if you’re going to make a living [in music], it’s all about playing at shows and selling T-shirts.” Tilly has been touring relentlessly since the release of its full-length debut album, Wild Like Children, and Krenkel attributes a lot of the record sales to the band’s van mileage. Since the album’s launch in June 2004, Tilly has sold more than ten thousand copies and momentarily outranked Scotland’s new-wave sweetheart Franz Ferdinand in sales on Amazon.com last August. As any small label will attest, the publicity garnered from touring is paramount to cash flow. Even if people haven’t heard a band’s album, they might go to a show on the tip-off of a download, and if the band’s live performance knocks some socks off, the merchandise table always offers a quick fix. Jason Kulbel, manager of Saddle Creek Records, firmly believes in this theory: “Our bands have to tour. If you’re in any band and not touring and not selling T-shirts, then there’s no way. Don’t even try, ‘cause bands that don’t tour don’t sell records.”
“CDs are too expensive now, and you can’t just run out because you’ve heard of something and say, ‘Great. I’m going to spend fifteen to twenty dollars on this disc I’ve never heard.’”
Obviously, Team Love represents an extreme (and tiny) end of the recording industry spectrum. With its lean single-track helpings, Ayers’s band practices a more tempered approach to free MP3s, as do a fair number of other indie bands, such as Franz Ferdinand and Saddle Creek’s the Faint. Saddle Creek has been posting sample MP3s from each album it’s released since its Web site’s inception in 1998, and Kulbel believes the gains have outweighed the losses. “It’s certainly been a part of our success,” claims Kulbel. “That’s how a lot of people have heard of our bands.” After all, hearing, even possessing, one or two songs from an album is nothing new. Kids have been taping hit singles off the radio since the advent of cassette recording. And although an MP3 might sound clearer than a static-laden cassette, the marketing effects remain the same: as word spreads, so do sales.
For most musicians, getting their music onto public airwaves is half the battle, but there’s little promotional funding or airtime support available to the working-class recording bracket. Except for college and listener-funded radio stations, which generally attract niche audiences, the airwaves are predominately reserved for major-label artists. Ayers, who thinks more than ten dollars a CD is asking too much, is convinced that MP3s are the marketing wave of the future, at least for smaller labels. He can recall countless times when customers have come into Sonic Boom looking for a specific album after hearing an MP3, and he welcomes this new trend in educated music consumption. “CDs are too expensive now, and you can’t just run out because you’ve heard of something and say, ‘Great. I’m going to spend fifteen to twenty dollars on this disc I’ve never heard.’ You have to be able to hear it. You have to feel safe because there [are] also a lot of bad records out there.”
David Bazan’s band, Pedro the Lion, experimented with another MP3 ploy in 2004: daily snippets from its summer tour. All a fan had to do was buy the latest album for a username and password to access the sonic freebies. Whether it boosted album sales is conjectural, but this type of reward system undoubtedly fosters favorable fan relations. “I think attracting people to our site was the main idea, but also just creating a homegrown sense of anticipation or excitement,” Bazan explains. “People can listen to [the live tracks] and make a decision whether they want to come see the show.” But Bazan isn’t sure he’ll keep comping live tracks. With more than 150,000 downloads during the summer of 2004, it’s plausible that heavy traffic like that could yield him another small revenue stream. “People are going to share music, and I don’t have a specific problem with that, but [how] that affects the way people value music can be detrimental. So I think we’d like to encourage people to buy music.” As everyone in the music industry presumably would.
Alien Crime Syndicate performs at a Portland concert.
But while some indie labels are willing to explore the possibilities of MP3s, the majors condemn the perennial, ever-obliging digital format as a cancer eating away at the muscle of their collective empire. The music industry columnist for the Village Voice, Douglas Wolk, believes the steadily merging major labels are using file sharing as a scapegoat for market stagnation. “They’re focused on file sharing in part because it’s something that’s new, that affects the way music is experienced, and that they can seize on as a reason why their business is in trouble,” Wolk explains (even as he disputes the notion that they’re actually in trouble). “But it also means that they can’t really embrace the particular technology they’re demonizing.” Sony, which was unavailable for comment, doesn’t support the MP3 format at all, but does sell protected media files through its online store, Sony Connect.
Although the recording association claims on its Web site that “expanding the portability and use options of music is an exciting part of future growth,” it’s clear that the RIAA is adamantly opposed to any insecure file-sharing technology that might hinder copyright royalties — or shareholder relations. If anything, the majors would like to harness digital technology purely for measurable revenue. For them, promotion is Clear Channel’s job.
Back in Seattle, Ayers’s Fremont store is bustling on a sunny April afternoon. Two twenty-somethings stand at two listening stations, headsets on, sampling the latest from the Decemberists and Yo La Tengo. A woman sifts through the used-CD racks nearby, and another four searching souls are scattered about the small poster-laden space. The shop isn’t exactly hopping like an Alabama Wal-Mart, but it’s far from dead. Although it’s easy to chalk up success to Seattle’s music-committed community (Ayers definitely does), Sonic Boom has worked ardently to get this far. “There has to be a way for people to find out about what they want to buy and be excited enough to go get it — and we can do that,” says Ayers. “I think the reason we haven’t had as many sales problems is because [our clientele] grew up buying records. The thing I worry about is in five or ten years when the generation that is spending money has grown up not knowing how to do so on records.” After all, a generation of iTunes and iPods could drastically alter the way we relate to musicians, relegating music to a purely ethereal function. But, at least for now, it seems not everyone is ready to give up the tangible.