The collapse in the profitability of recorded music has had many dispiriting consequences, from Prince giving away an album in the Mail On Sunday to Groove Armada’s entire future output being sponsored by Bacardi.
But the quest for new revenue streams to fill the vacuum created by flatlining CD sales just stepped up several orders of magnitude with the advent of Clikthrough, a singularly hateful scheme that enables online viewers to click on the products they see in pop promos and purchase them directly.
The first band to ‘benefit’ from this turbo-charged version of product placement are Irish soft-rockers The Script. Watch the video to their new single ’Breakeven’ and you’ll be assaulted by enticements to purchase no fewer than 242 products, including a Mercedes-Benz, an Alexander McQueen coat and air tickets to Dublin, where the video is set.
It’s easy to see why this profit-share model might appeal to an ailing recording industry - but I can’t help but feel that it fundamentally, and troublingly, transforms the relationship between band and fan.
In a sense the attempt to monetize music video is nothing new. The raison d’etre of the pop promo has always been to shift product: the single, the album, the band. This commercial instinct went a stage further with the advent of product placement. In 2007 Fall Out Boy plugged Nokia phones and TAG Body Spray in their video for ’Thnks Fr Th Mmrs’ - although here the pop-punk act were simply drawing on an entrepreneurial instinct in hip-hop that goes all the way back to Run-DMC's 'My Adidas'.
More recently, online retailer ASOS has attempted to unite the worlds of music and fashion by selling the clothes (or cheaper versions of them) worn by pop stars. And just last week Myspace unveiled a slick new music video overlay that facilitates the instant purchase of the song in question. Nothing wrong with that: it’s a useful service.
But The Script’s ‘shop-window’ model is different, and disturbingly so, for one fundamental reason: it transforms the act of watching a music video, in the moment, into a nakedly commercial enterprise. If everything you see on screen is for sale, it’s no longer entertainment, it’s a transaction.
The scheme also says a lot about the way a band sees its fans. Clearly The Script regard theirs not as passionate supporters but rather bovine, coin-eyed consumers. There’s a fundamental difference between being sold a band, and the band selling you stuff.
I’m a realist. I accept that struggling record labels need to employ measures that in more solvent times might have seemed irredeemably corporate. There needs to be money in the pot to develop and incubate, say, the next MGMT (and yes, before you point out the hypocrisy, I'm aware that NME videos carry advertising). But major labels need to take care that, in stabilising the bottom line they don’t fatally corrode and nullify the one ‘product’ that we’re really looking for when we watch a video: the music.