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Musicians Bypassing iTunes For Independent Distribution Models

princeA few weeks ago, Prince made headlines by claiming that,

“The internet is completely over. I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else.”

Not surprisingly, the famously eccentric / multi-platinum songwriter got pretty seriously mocked for his statement, particularly for going on to compare the internet to MTV as something that was once hip but is now outdated.

And it’s easy to laugh these comments off as the petulant wailing of an industry dinosaur, but what if we worked from the assumption that Prince is not a nut, and took a closer look at what he’s actually saying.

Is The Internet Over For Musicians?

Prince made these comments in relation to the release of his new album, 20Ten, which is not being released digitally. In fact, the only way the album is available is through the purchase of various European newspapers, which come with a copy of the CD (included in the price of the paper).

This strategy begs the question: is Prince doing this purely to spite the internet, or is he doing it because experience has taught him that he will gain greater attention, distribution – and potentially, profits – via these newspaper deals than he would online?

If we look at his “the internet is completely over” comment purely in relation to the music industry, it could be argued that Prince has a point. These days, musicians releasing their music online feel like they’re throwing their work into a black ocean where millions of other albums drift in such great numbers that it becomes almost impossible for quality – or anything at all – to rise to the top.

iTunes: The Ripoff Report

Prince points to iTunes as one of the primary culprits of this digital distribution miasma. Yes, anyone can get their music on iTunes, but is it an effective way to distribute your songs? Is anyone ever discovered thereon? A brilliant manifesto recently posted on BlancoMusic.com includes this rundown of the system, which I will quote at length, as it is worth the read. Check it out:

“YOU put in the energy and time and money to make a record.
WE will host it on our clunky-as-shite server/shop.
YOU will have only three pricing options per track.
WE will take 30% of the retail price.
YOU will pay all recording, promo, pr, touring and living costs.
WE will take no significant financial risk in digitally distributing your product, but will still ask for a comparable commission to the brick-and-mortar shops, manufacturers and distributors who always lost money if your physical record bombed.
YOU might, by your reputation and PR efforts, bring a great deal of filthy lucre to our operation, however YOU can FUCK OFF if you think we’re ever likely to risk advancing you some MONEY, recoupable against sales, on the likelihood that you DO.
WE, after the traditional major label business-model has been well and truly fucked by piracy and the iPhone: ‘whaddaya mean I have to PAY for music!’ generation, reserve the right (seeing as we already control the majority of digital music content AND the devices used to listen to it) to team up with another entity (let’s say Sony or Google Music, for example) to completely dominate the music content and delivery market.
YOU, being to all intents and purposes, bereft of any other way to significantly distribute your music, will be obliged to conform to our directives regarding royalties, content, style etc.”

This is the reality of the current iTunes-dominated industry. So what do we do?

Get Off The Grid

amandapalmer4More and more, musicians are searching for alternatives. Something to make their release stand out from the crowd. One extreme option is Prince’s albums-in-newspapers. Another is releasing exclusively via your own website, and bypassing iTunes entirely.

Amanda Palmer’s release of her new album this week, which she set up completely independently, was a major success, with 4000 digital downloads logged so far, and over $15,000 in music and merchandise sold in the first 90 seconds of launch.

The key to Palmer’s success was a ton of promotion leading up to the launch, combined with physical bundles of great merch created to support the digital release. Fans had access to vinyl records, t-shirts, buttons, and hand-painted ukuleles by the artist herself – all of which sold out in the blink of an eye.

As Palmer’s web expert explains, by bypassing iTunes, they were able to promote these merch bundles alongside the digital album release, as well as set their own pay-what-you-like price point, and monitor their sales and traffic in real-time – all of which isn’t possible with iTunes or AmazonMP3.

Take Control Away From The Tech Companies

It seems like overall, the problem that Prince and other artists have with the internet is one that we’ve pointed out here on TheBuzz a few times already: the democratization of the music industry is great – what’s not great is technology companies controlling how music is promoted and distributed.

The new music industry is not going to succeed if all the work of production becomes the job of the artist while all the power of promotion and distribution remains in the hands of major corporations.

Develop A Truly Independent Model

Maybe what we need now is a revolution within a revolution. A change in how we think about promoting and distributing music. Instead of putting a ton of time and effort into production, then just throwing an album up on iTunes, tweeting about it, and hoping for the best, each artist could come at it like a label might: weeks of promotion leading up to the event, specialized merch available upon release, tons of contact with fans and fan creation surrounding the launch…

And yup, I know that sounds like a lot of work, and probably a big investment. But the alternative – working your ass off on a record and then just throwing it into that deep black sea of anonymity – doesn’t sound a lot better. In fact, it sounds like a giant waste of time and effort and talent.

If digital distribution became a private practice that artists began to seriously invest in, we would see a significant thinning and leveling-out of the herd. And as a result, the system would begin to balance itself. More intensive release processes would equal fewer releases, and fewer releases, more lovingly executed, would allow for each album to get the attention it deserves. Obviously, it’s more effort and more risk, but don’t we owe that to the music we create?

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