The word came down from on high—well, from New Scientist, anyway—on Tuesday, September 16th, 2002.
And the word was: stupid.
“A US record company has issued reviewers with portable CD players that are glued shut to prevent two new albums from being pirated online before their official releases.” That’s how the article by Will Knight begins. “Epic Records Group has taken the drastic step of sealing CD players shut and gluing headphones onto them to stop digital copies being made from promotional albums. The albums involved are Riot Act by Pearl Jam and Scarlet’s Walk by Tori Amos.”
No doubt, the savvy reader’s instinctive skepticism has already kicked in. Questions leap instantly to mind, one after another.
First question: Is NewScientist.com a real website?
Answer: Yes, it is . . . and a well-respected one at that.
Second question: Is this a joke? Has NewScientist.com been hoodwinked, like when that Chinese newspaper printed an article from The Onion as actual fact? Or maybe this is an urban legend of some sort, like, say, the rumor that no Nobel Prize is awarded for mathematics because Alfred Nobel’s wife had an affair with a mathematician?
Answer: This article appears to be based in fact.
Last question: How ridiculous is the music industry?
Answer: The jury’s still out on that one. But defense attorney Hilary Rosen is steadfastly browbeating the jury into shame, which points to either an acquittal or mistrial. Either way, the Big Five walks yet again. Meanwhile, Eddie Vedder, who can’t possibly be happy about this, is no doubt sitting alone in a dark room somewhere, head buried in his hands, shivering in disbelief . . .
There’s no need to bring The Onion in on this one, folks; the jokes about this story write themselves.
Wait, we’ve got it. It’s a master plan for Sony to guarantee increased sales of their Discman by forcing people to buy a new one every time they want the latest Pearl Jam CD.
Or perhaps it’s Chapter 53 in the record industry’s ongoing series, “Let’s Laugh at Our Stupid Consumers.” Stay tuned for our next exciting episode, when the fat cats upstairs decide to start charging admission to enter record stores.
Let’s hold off on the jokes for a moment, though, and examine the very real question lurking within this otherwise-surreal story:
Who needs whom more?
Do the media outlets need the record labels, since they release the albums that help them sell magazines (or—snicker, snicker—generate web hits) along with the label’s CDs? Or do the labels need the media outlets, without which the newest release by the latest youth-oriented pop contrivance would fall with a deafening thud?
Let’s examine both sides of the dilemma. Argument Number One: The labels need the media.
Why would a major label pull a stunt so boneheaded, so shortsighted, so insulting on a media outlet that they need and hope will praise their product? After all, what they’re really saying is that they don’t trust the recipients of these glue traps one bit.
Sure, both of the albums in question here are certain to have good first-week sales, thanks to the loyal fan bases of both artists. But no label wants an album to reach only those who were planning to buy it anyway. To extend its own reach, a label needs good press, which is where the advance CDs come in. But then they do something like this: slapping the hands of every writer who was “lucky” enough to receive one of these absurdities before they have even listened to the album.
If they’re looking for good press, this is not the way to get it. “Here’s the new Pearl Jam record. Don’t copy it like we know you want to, you dirty little thief!”
The absurdity in all of this is the implication that music critics are the ones responsible for leaking new albums to the Internet. In fact, more often than not, it’s someone at the label or, worse, someone working directly with the artist, like, say, an engineer. (Ask Metallica about that last one.)
If we were the editors of a media outlet who received one of these players, we’d be furious. Granted, we’re incredibly self-righteous anyway when it comes to music, but this would make us especially furious. Very likely that we’d refuse to review the albums outright. Unless, of course, the albums were bad, in which case we’d write huge features about them. But, then, of course, the label would disregard our opinion altogether, because obviously we were just bitter that we couldn’t copy the album, and it colored our judgment.
But what would happen if every outlet that received this contraption decided to teach the label a lesson, and refused to run reviews of it? Imagine every major music outlet refusing to review the next Madonna album because the label forced them to listen to an advance copy once, via audio stream, and then write the review from memory.
Actually, screw imagining; just read this.
According to an August 20, 2000 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Madonna’s last studio album, Music, wasn’t sent to writers before its release. Anyone who wanted to do a review of it had to actually go to Warner Brothers Records’ offices to hear it. Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s publicist at the label, admitted in the article that this meant doing without reviews from some major publications, including Rolling Stone, which apparently has a policy that its reviewers must be able to “live with” an album before writing a review.
Good for Rolling Stone.
By the way, according to the same L.A. Times piece, “before Radiohead’s OK Computer was released in 1997, cassette copies were sent to the press, radio programmers and retailers in portable tape players that had been glued shut.”
So, now, not only is this a stupid idea, but it’s one that didn’t work the first time they tried it, thereby making it even more stupid that they would bother trying it again.
Got it? Let’s move on.
Argument Number Two: The media needs the labels.
Of course, a media boycott would never happen. Despite what conservative America would have you believe, the media is not a mighty conglomerate with a single-minded, left-leaning vision.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you could actually get the editors of Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly and CMJ New Music Monthly in the same room, fuming over some stunt a label pulled over an advance CD. Call us cynical, but, even if they all agreed to not run a review by a major band as payback, it’s a veritable certainty that one or all of them would break the deal, thinking they just scored themselves the scoop of the century.
The first one who makes it to press wins the game, and the record labels know this. They know they can insult and push the media outlets around with reckless abandon and no fear of reprisal. The media has never stood up to the labels before, so why would they now? In fact, the labels probably have brainstorming sessions to come up with the best way to thoroughly piss off music critics, who are reviled by the labels in the first place.
Music Executive: “Hey, I have an idea! We’ll make them call a number from a pay phone, where they can listen to the album. But every three minutes, they’ll have to pay another 50 cents to keep listening!”
Another Music Executive: “My God, that’s brilliant, Deborah! How would you like to be our new Director of Marketing?”
Even if, by the slimmest chance, such a boycott did happen, the labels are covered. They can get their independent promoter friends to work the records a little harder on radio; after all, they’re already paying five figures to get the songs played in the major markets, so what’s a few more bucks? Besides, think of the money they’d save by not shipping Krazy Glued Discmen all over the country.
Still, all of this rhetoric overlooks the massive flaw in the label’s reasoning for such strict security measures: they cite Messr. Mathers’ latest record, The Eminem Show, as evidence that an advance copy of a highly anticipated album will be leaked to the file sharing sites and will therefore hurt album sales.
Indeed, The Eminem Show was leaked to the file sharing servers before its release, and it scared Interscope Records so much that they actually moved the release date up a week as a form of damage control.
But to date the album has sold over 5 million copies. Which begs the question, is the label really complaining that file sharing has hurt their record sales? Seriously, it’s 17 weeks after its release, it’s sitting at number three on the Billboard charts, and they’re saying that the leaks hurt sales of the album?
Methinks they doth expect too much.
On one side, we have media outlets that love to stick it to the Big Five, so overrun by bean counters that they’ve managed to suck the life out of pop music. Of course, many of these outlets would not exist if it weren’t for the music that the Big Five release, and they resent the fact that they need them.
On the other side, there’s the Big Five themselves, who loathe the fact that they actually need help selling their records in the first place, and they particularly hate the fact that they must rely on media outlets that they can’t control. So what’s their idea of payback? Punishing the music critics with insulting little packages like our Pearl Jam Roach Motel.
Who ultimately has the upper hand here? Neither.
Argument Number Three: Both sides are fucked in the head.
Ricky Ross, from the UK band Deacon Blue, composed a song called “Good Evening Philadelphia”. Written from the view of the pop star to his fans, he nails home an eternal truth in the chorus: “I realize I need you more than you need me.”
This is something that anyone in the entertainment industry needs to learn: the fans always have the last word on which bands succeed and which bands fail, no matter how much money the labels spend telling the public what to buy. Likewise, the media outlets must closely monitor the tastes of the public to fashion themselves in such a way that makes them most appealing. Power to the people? Right on.
If the fans want to buy an album, they will, even if it’s available free online. If they don’t want to buy it, they won’t, and doing so doesn’t necessarily mean that the free files on the Web are to blame. If anything, this move to trap the CD could be interpreted to mean that they have something to hide. After all, if the album is so good, why are they afraid of anyone actually hearing it?
In the end, this absurd situation is just another sign that the major labels are woefully, hopelessly out of step with their customers. That this maneuver should arrive courtesy of the label that created the Walkman and co-created the compact disc, two products that were very user friendly, is particularly disheartening. Once a pioneer in the interests of making music as portable as possible, Sony’s actions now are tragic comedy.
Still, on the upside, if they continue to forget who’s really in charge here, the story could turn into a morality play with a title like Idiots Rule: How The Public Turned A Billion Dollar Music Empire Into Dust. (Actually, that’s got a nice ring to it. Quick, someone get us David Mamet’s agent…!)
What seems to have conveniently escaped the memories of both sides is just where they stand in the overall order of things, in the Circle of Music, if you will. Back when rock and roll first broke out, the majority of industry people dismissed it as nothing more than a fad that would be quickly forgotten. Before we knew it, Bing Crosby would be king of the charts again and these punk kids wouldn’t be so damned rebellious anymore.
What the public and the music industry have forgotten is that the people can still make things happen. The Attack of the Glue Albums may seem like a silly, innocuous act by itself, but it’s part of a bigger plan to beat the music buyers into submission. If the music industry doesn’t watch it, the buyers are going to rebel, and if that happens, both the labels and the media would lose.
Whether the media needs the labels more than the labels need the media is ultimately a moot point; they both bow down to the masses.
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