Op-Ed: Street Date – Bob Lefsetz

SANTA MONICA (CelebrityAccess MediaWire) — One could argue that SoundScan ruined the record business. Oldsters might say the phony charts of yore, manipulated by the labels, were better for the health of the industry, that they allowed a record to build and grow. But it’s more interesting to look at it from the other direction, how the first week became so important that marketing trumped music.

That’s the era Tommy Mottola ushered in. One of hysteria. You stir the pot to a frenzy and then you generate huge first week sales. But the problem with hysteria is it dissipates. The prizefight doesn’t go on forever, but just one night, then everyone forgets. Hell, who won the Best Picture Oscar in 2007? Never mind 2008!

SoundScan quantified sales, but not careers. But sales were all the labels were interested in. And being instantly quantifiable, they were good for the mainstream media, obsessed with facts and figures. But SoundScan relies on a firm street date, and suddenly, like the CD, street date is evaporating.

Leaks. The old guard hates leaks. They want to make sure no one has the record. So they remove hard drives from the studio every evening, they make critics listen in conference rooms, it’s all about control. But you get no control on the Internet. It’s chaos. So, suddenly we’re seeing an opposite tack. Instead of a long lead time, instead of a single ramping into an album, we’ve got quick recording times and almost instant releases. Like with the Raconteurs. Final recording sessions were in February, the album came out in March. Why wait for the buildup, the servicing of the media, you’re just going to lose sales!

Not that the issue of sales is no longer complicated. Tracks hit P2P services almost instantly. But the focus is backing away from the first week, that big SoundScan number. Especially in an era where many acts get almost no radio airplay and it’s about servicing fans.

The system has broken down. There’s been a blaming of the fans for almost a decade, as if there’s a cadre of teens conspiring to bring down the walls of the old model, but really it’s more like evolution, or maybe revolution. The move to files allows instant distribution. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 killed radio. MTV makes more money airing series than videos. All these factors have contributed to a sea change so gargantuan, those in the business can barely catch up.

If you get some visibility, you make the tracks available on iTunes immediately. Why miss out on sales? Why care about physical when the active generation is digital? When it’s the oldsters and the most casual of consumers who purchase discs.

So with Gnarls Barkley rushed into release, with the files available long before the discs, with a staggered intro, not timed to hype, you just can’t enter the SoundScan chart at number one. It doesn’t pay to enter at number one, by holding back, by respecting a firm availability date, you’re actually losing money. And, at the end of the day, money is more important than glory. Labels have to go where the money is. Suddenly, it’s about the long term, about careers once again. Facts demand it!

Acts and fans have been railing about credibility and careers for years. Blaming the labels and radio for not caring. But suddenly, few care about radio and the labels are struggling. The only hope is to build a fan base and hope you survive.

So it’s not about ubiquity so much as profitability. Does the hair and makeup and big television appearance grow your core? If not, it’s better to save your cash. Acts no longer have context, but vertical fan bases. It’s not like a fan of the Eagles knows everything on AOR or Hot AC… Is there any AOR? And is the fan listening to radio AT ALL? And it’s no different with the Raconteurs, which appeal to a tech-savvy audience. They eat up everything Jack White does, but they’re not about to sit and listen to terrestrial radio feed them tunes they do not like. It’s not like they have to listen to Louis Armstrong to get to the next Beatles cut. They listen only to what they want, 24/7.

And even if you catch fire on radio, that doesn’t mean you’re going to make any money. Top Forty is the only truly viable music-selling radio format, and fans end up going to iTunes and buying the single. Was it worth it to spend all that money just to sell one single? You’re better off investing in a career act. – By Bob Leftsetz

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