The old way: Your record label outsourced production to companies who pressed, packaged, stored, and delivered CDs – it took a lot of money and even more time. Failing that, they uploaded the files to sites like iTunes which took most of the profit. Many fans decided just to use torrents, YouTube or Spotify to get the same thing for free.
The new way: Artists bypass middlemen and distribute or stream the music from their own sites, with a mix of free and paid-for content
Examples: Bloc Party, Radiohead, Danger Mouse, Odd Future.
When Radiohead released their 2007 album In Rainbows, they famously said fans could pay nothing for it, or a little more if they felt the band deserved their cash. Giving your music away for nowt was not a new thing. Danger Mouse released his Beatles/Metallica mash-up The Grey Album gratis, over the web, largely because clearing the samples for it would have taxed the legal profession’s finest minds and required all the money in the world.
However, Radiohead’s move was significant because they weren’t looking for attention; they were, at the time, one of the biggest bands in the world. The PR generated by In Rainbows’ novel distribution model was priceless, but it freed Radiohead to release albums exactly as they wanted, cutting distribution costs dramatically and removing the need for a label. In one swift move they became the biggest indie band in the world.
Bloc Party utilised much the same idea for their 2008 album Intimacy, but without the attendant hype. On August 18, they unveiled details of this, their third album, during a fan web chat. Just under three days later, it had been released. No media build-up, no endless re-mastering, no illegalleaks on the internet – suddenly it was just out there, on Blocparty.com, for £8. “I really liked the fact that nobody worked out what we were up to,” Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke recounts. “Everybody got to hear it at the exact same time. Even our families heard it first on the same day the fans and media did.”
The decision to release Intimacy in this way could have hit sales – it left the album missing out on review slots and unavailable on iTunes, which makes up somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent of most records’ sales. However Okereke feels his band simply had no choice but to do things this way, and that was because of the time involved in distribution with the old model.
“After recording the last two albums we kind of just sat on them for six months each and both times we were uncomfortable with that decision,” says Okereke. “We finished them in the summer and our label didn’t want to bring them out until the end of the year. That’s a long time to wait on something. By the time the songs came out, we were bored of it all, and had already moved on. On both occasions the fans were excited, but it just didn’t feel fresh to us any more. I’d talked about them so much, I had kind of mentally moved on already.
“None of us wanted to go through all that again, so we didn’t. We did it on our own, our way. Nobody had any music aside from those immediately part of the band. We had to lie a lot. Well not lie, just mislead.”
The key about this, and with all the tech models we’ve mentioned, is the lack of a need for a label. Going back to our close personal chums Odd Future, they made their name, and became the monster they are now, without a deal. Odd Future associate Frank Ocean took this approach to some sort of extreme by giving away his Nostalgia, Ultra album despite ostensibly being signed to Def Jam. The result was minimal cash but massive critical acclaim and a greatly raised profile. Ocean even claims his relationship with Def Jam is now much better.
You can’t underestimate the power of this kind of free sample in leading to mega paying jobs – The Grey Album’s creator Danger Mouse is now one of the most sought-after producers in the business, working with everyone from U2 to The Black Keys. Even under the most lucrative record deals, the ones reserved for the Rihannas of this world, the artists can end up with less than 30 per cent of overall sales revenue – massively down on what it used to be.
But with artists now not only able to make records in their sheds but also market, distribute and promote them, they’re able to keep nearer 100 per cent of the dosh. As a result, much of the next generation of stars should exist outside of record company control. They’ll rule the world from their bedrooms, laptops and mobile phones. All you need is talent and bandwidth; tech, plugs and rock and roll…