Release The Release Dates

2015-inez-vinoodh-vulnicura-03On December 17, 2014, thirteen tracks leaked from Madonna’s forthcoming “Rebel Heart.”  In response, the album was made available for pre-order on iTunes three days later, with six tracks immediately downloadable with any purchase. The result? Three of the tracks landed on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic chart, and “Rebel Heart” topped iTunes pre-orders in over forty countries.

On January 18, 2015, Bjork’s new album “Vulnicura” leaked in its entirely online. Two days later, on January 20, the complete album was made available on iTunes. Not only did “Vulnicura” receive rave reviews, it charted in the top twenty on five separate Billboard charts without a physical release (which is still scheduled for the album’s original release date in March).

These examples are indicators of two things: leaks are still an epidemic problem in the music industry, but if you make it available, consumers will just as readily break out their wallet as find a torrent. And artists are paying attention:

-Drake released his latest “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” with no prior announcement on February 13, 2015 and it sold 495,000 copies in three days.

-Thom Yorke released “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” on BitTorrent on September 26, 2014 also with no prior announcement. Official figures have not been released, but the LP was the most legally downloaded album on BitTorrent of the year, and sales totals have been estimated in the millions. And all of this without any label backing.

-Beyonce released her eponymous LP on December 13, 2013, again with no prior announcement, exclusively on iTunes, selling 600,000 digital copies in its first week.

And so the question is, why is International Federation of the Phonographic Industry hellbent on clinging to the traditional ideas of the album release model?

This week, the IFPI announced that Fridays will be the new global release day for albums. According to the group’s statement, this move will “reduce the risk of piracy by narrowing the gap between release days in different countries.” But this is a laughable notion and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of leaks. As seen in the examples above with two of the highest profile releases of 2015, complete albums or significant portions of them were traded online months before their scheduled release dates. Granted, in the case of Madonna, her leak was due to outright theft with a legal case still pending, but anybody willing to do the most cursory of glancing in different, and not hard to find corners of the internet, can easily track down many new albums long before they are due to drop. And generally speaking, the only people in possession of albums that far in advance are music industry professionals or journalists, but IFPI’s wording puts the bulk of the blame on the consumer.

And it’s much as the industry did in the era of Napster, when suddenly (and yes, illegally) fans found a much quicker, more convenient way to share and listen to music. And ever since, consumers have clearly shown they want music at their convenience, and given the chance, they’ll pay for it (hence the rise in services like Spotify, Rdio and more — though the paltry compensation they pay out to artists is a different issue altogether). And yet, the propping up of the decaying structure of record store release dates, as if it’s still an important fabric of the customer experience, shows a baffling incomprehension of how music fits into the lives of listeners.

Meanwhile, the IFPI also claims this new move to Fridays “will benefit artists who want to harness social media to promote their new music.” But again, there is a disconnect here. Established musicians like Kanye West (whose recent tweet of his new album title spawned entire articles) have evolved the idea of “campaigns,” choosing instead to surprise fans in fresh and interesting ways (for example, the rapper debuted one of his new songs during a fashion show launch for his new line of shoes). Chart-topping artists already have the machinery of social media and press working in their favor, plus the ability to easily move outside the box and try different promotional methods. Global, simultaneous Friday release dates does very little to assist in those efforts.

Meanwhile, for independent artists and labels — who could truly use a meaningful gesture in an era where album sales are a continual struggle, and acts must find revenue streams elsewhere — the IFPI’s announcement hardly benefits them, while only further cements the status quo. And Martin Mills of Beggars Group is gravely concerned.  “Whilst I acknowledge the needs of a digital world for co-ordination, it seems to me to be crazy to throw away one of the trading week’s two peaks, and the ability to restock and rectify errors before the week’s second peak,” he told The Guardian. “It astounds me that the major labels are not listening to their customers, their interface with their artists’ fans. I fear their consultation has been a charade, and the market leaders were always going to push this through. I fear this move will also lead to a market in which the mainstream dominates, and the niche, which can be tomorrow’s mainstream, is further marginalised. I fear it will further cement the dominance of the few – and that that is exactly what it is intended to do.”

Of course, there is already a significant marketplace gap between mainstream and niche releases, but Mills is not incorrect that further consolidation of the mechanics of sales will only exacerbate that issue. But the irony is that IFPI’s new plan will do little of its stated goals: piracy will still run rampant, artists will find new ways to use social media to reach their fans that go far beyond targeting a date on a calendar, and consumers will continue to engage in music on their own terms, not those determined by the industry. Home taping isn’t killing music, but the industry is doing a pretty good job of doing it to themselves.