Monday, March 19, 2007

The RIAA and the singular song

There’s much talk about the recording industry finding new models (nad their steadfast resistance to do so). One of the most successful ways might actually be quite old.

Industry types are decrying the prominence of singles. Most legal downloads are individual songs – not albums. But this a la cart purchasing is nothing new. From the late 1950’s until the early 1970’s the 45 rpm single was king. For the teens and preteens who made up the bulk of the record-buying market, the 45 rpm was an affordable, and convenient way to purchase music.

After all, you got the song you wanted (and if the B side was any good, a bonus song as well). You could put a stack of them on your record player and hear the songs you liked in the order you wanted to. You could even repeat the same song over and over. Sound familiar?

The majors are still stuck in the business model they developed when they killed off the CD single in the late 1990’s. That is, if you like the hit song, purchase the album. The labels moved away from singles not because of demand, but because the profit margins were higher for albums (I’ll be glad to break down costs sometime if anyone’s interested).

When consumers could only purchase physical product, this model worked. Within three years after the death of the CD single though, the original Napster sprang up, letting fans get the individual songs they wanted digitally. And the damage was done.

People became used to getting music for free, greatly reducing the perceived value of the CD. Record companies began looking at their core customer base as the enemy.

iTunes demonstrated that customers will pay for music, when they can get what they want at a reasonable price. $0.99 is a short step from free. But few pony up $9.99 for the full album. Why pay for filler?

Rather than decrying the consumer’s buying habits, the record labels should embrace it the way the did back in the 1960’s. When the 45 rpm was the standard, labels regularly released singles by a plethora of groups that only recorded a handful of songs.

And it’s a model that could work today. Fans have already voted with their dollars – they’d rather have one solid song than several mediocre ones.

It’s less expensive to record one song than it is to record an album’s worth. It’s also quicker. True, it’s a smaller margin, but less cost. The public’s telling the labels what they want. The labels that provide it will reap the benefit. The ones that don’t will continue to unsuccessfully try to turn back the clock to the 1990’s. The irony is that they don’t want to turn it back far enough.

- Ralph

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