Singapore Piano Shop & Music Book Online Shop
Shopping Cart | My Favorites | 中文

Staggered music releases: time to close the window

Source: Singapore Piano Shop Online   Published: 4/12/2010 12:50:31 AM   Clicked: 3336

The music industry is finally reassessing the custom of servicing songs to radio months before the record is legally available to download in a bid to combat piracy

Music downloads

The long pre-release window pushes fans toward piracy before an album is legally available to download on sites such as iTunes. Photograph: Martin Ruetschi/Corbis

A year and a half ago, Behind the Music brought up the problem of staggered releases, and how the custom of servicing songs to radio months before the record is legally available to download drives music fans to use illegal downloading sites. Last summer, I pointed out that acts like David Guetta lost sales to cover artists who released their own versions earlier than the original versions. Last week MusicTank organised a discussion involving Radio 1, NME, indie labels, the Official Chart Company and artist managers to discuss this issue. The event was called No.1 With a Bullet: Is Pre-Release Killing Our Business? Who says the music industry is slow to react to the internet?

To most people it seems obvious that fans will use any means available to them to get a track they like. So why do record labels still wait months to release a record that is gaining momentum? The labels say they're just doing what they have always done but blame the media for jumping the gun. Emily MacKay, reviews editor at NME, says they won't consider reviewing a single weeks after its been all over the internet. They're not the only ones. Newspapers, magazines, music bloggers and specialist radio shows: they all want to be the first to feature a new single. If they're the only place where fans can hear the record, even better.
The Guardian has had success with exclusive streams of Gorillaz's Plastic Beach and Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back, and there has been talk about how, in the future, every review would give you the chance to stream the record as you read it, providing the labels allow it. This would be a step in the right direction, though the fact that people often still have the option of downloading these records illegally to listen to them when they're offline remains.
Another reason the labels wait to release records is the power of the charts. Though George Ergatoudis, head of music for Radio 1, maintains that his station doesn't rely on the sales charts when they work out their playlists he says the majority of commercial radio stations do. "They look at Radio 1 and, secondly, to the charts." He says commercial radio stations decide when to add songs depending on what would gain the biggest audience. They want to minimise the risk element.
Getting an artist into the top 10 in the charts is the holy grail for labels, not just because of revenue (albums are still where labels make a decent return on their investments), but as it guarantees inclusion on the radio playlists. If a single enters the charts in the nether regions it's deemed a flop by radio and won't get playlisted. Without radio exposure there's much less chance of the record selling well, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company (OCC), says that today you have to sell 65% more units to become number one than in 2004 (17% more units than a year ago). Compare that to the US, a country with five times the UK population, where you can get to number one by selling just twice that amount.
This is a bigger problem for new artists than established ones. "It's important for new artists to build up familiarity," says Ergatoudis. "Established artists should probably release early." The hunger for a new Jay-Z or Coldplay record could easily push it to the top of the charts without any marketing build-up.
Sometimes it seems this marketing build-up gets longer and longer. At the end of last year, Radio 1 touted Ellie Goulding as being the newcomer most hotly tipped for stardom in 2010. She's had a high media profile ever since, yet her first single wasn't released until the last week of February. Pendulum's new single, Watercolour, was Zane Low's single of the week, last week – it's not due for release until 3 May. But if you Google the track you'll find that you can download it today from at least six different torrent sites.
The problem of pushing fans towards piracy also only applies to the first single of an album. Once the album is out, people can use à la carte music services like iTunes to download single tracks, sometimes dictating to the labels what the next single should be (Lady Gaga's Poker Face being an example, as the label had, allegedly, planned on releasing another track as a single at the time).
These are all valid reasons to close the pre-release gap, but just as the internet has opened up fantastic opportunities, piracy has changed the rules of the game. "What's going to happen when the first kid is up in court next year accused of falling foul of the Digital Economy Bill?" says Jon Webster, chief executive of the Music Managers' Forum. "If the pre-release window isn't closed they will be able to plead 'not guilty as I couldn't buy the music anywhere'. How's that going to make the music business look?"
So what can be done? If record labels work collectively to close the pre-release window it would go against the rules of free competition. Webster proposes a change to the chart rules. If there were a rule saying that as soon as a track goes to radio it's considered to be on sale, then everyone would have to adapt.
This, however, is a solution that the OCC is not too keen on. Will the record industry adjust itself without any intervention – or will we be having the same discussion again in another year and a half?

SINGAPORE PIANO SHOP  Tel: (65) 8100 2896   Email:  
Website:, Address: 24 Sin Ming Lane, Midview City, S'573970   RichmanNetwork