Pink Floyd yesterday won a court battle with EMI over the label’s ability to sell individual songs from the band’s albums in digital format. There’s a fair amount of debate about what sort of precedent this may set and its implications for the broader digital music market. In my view though the ruling is an unfortunate and retrograde step that reinforces many of the 20th century shackles that continue to prevent the 21st century music business from truly breaking free of its analogue past.
As I proposed in my Music Product Manifesto, the future of a successful music business – if there is to be such a thing – depends squarely upon radical product innovation that follows consumer demand rather than try to dictate it. The world has changed markedly since the days when the needle was cutting grooves into the master lacquer of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. In those days the record labels had a near-absolute monopoly of control of distribution. If you wanted to have a copy of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ you had to buy a copy in your local high street music store. But in the digital age the audience has complete control. If a modern day fan only wants to download ‘Money’ they have the freedom to skip the other 9 tracks on the album. And it doesn’t matter if Pink Floyd have succeeded in stopping EMI from selling it that way, because if iTunes doesn’t let you download ‘Money’ on its own then BitTorrent certainly will.
The Music Industry Meltdown has changed the rules of engagement for ever. Trying to dictate what consumers can and cannot do is simply not viable in the digital age. Put up too many speed bumps and you’ll force your customers into the illegal realm. Instead of trying to repair the broken and archaic constraints of the vinyl age Pink Floyd should be focusing on how to leverage new technology to enrich the experience of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ for the digital age.
The irony of all this is that Pink Floyd were radical innovators and pioneers in their time, but now they make themselves look like an unfortunate hybrid of change-averse luddites and King Canute trying to hold back the tide.
If the entire album is good enough to listen to and is truly best heard as an entire experience then the audience should and can decide. A duff album track does not have inherent value to listeners simply because the artist believes it is fantastic. The cold truth is that if an artist doesn’t want listeners to dissect their carefully constructed album then they shouldn’t release it.
Like it or loathe it, in the digital age the consumer is king.