Most people in the music business agree that the Internet will revolutionise buying, selling and listening to music.
What they can’t agree on is just when the full effect of this revolution will be felt. Five years? Ten years? Fifteen? Let them argue. For one US independent label it’s already started.
Twin/Tone Records, the Minneapolis-based label that released early albums by The Replacements, The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Babes In Toyland and Ween, have pressed their last CD and are about to start selling their product over the worldwide web. By the end of this year, the 21-year-old label aims to be distributing music by over 1,000 artists as sound files in cyber space.
From next week, visitors to their website can download songs, artwork and sleevenotes. You will be able to buy CD-quality albums or just single tracks. One song will cost $(US)1.50 (90p), and an album will set you back just $(US)10.00 (six quid). In US record stores Twin/Tone albums currently retail for anything between $13.99 and $16.00.
The scheme is the brainchild of Twin/Tone co-founder and managing director Paul Stark: “I guess I approach the music business from a slightly different perspective,” he says. “I’ve always been more technologically minded. My view is that, 15 years from now, everything will be pay-per-view. You’ll have an Internet connection and your video, your games, your television and your phone service will be operated from this one unit. You’ll get one bill per month and, if you want to listen to music, you’ll pay a few pennies per song. It’ll be the same with movies. You’ll be able to watch them for a couple of dollars uninterrupted or you’ll get them free with commercials.”
As far as music relay is concerned, this Bladerunner-esque vision of the future is already here thanks to a new technology called Liquid Audio. Previous Internet technologies for downloading music have been frustratingly slow – sometimes taking up to five hours for a four-minute track – but Liquid Audio could download the same song in under ten minutes. Furthermore, Paul Stark (pictured) is convinced of the application’s ability to combat the bootleggers – the main reason the music industry is terrified of the Internet.
Liquid Audio compresses and encrypts music with a ‘watermark’. Say in a moment of pharmaceutical-fuelled insanity you wanted to hear Ween’s ‘Don’t Shit Where You Eat’ you’d download Liquid Audio Player, which is free, and then register it with a credit card number that is uniquely yours. Minutes later, you’re in audio hell.
Whenever you download something from Twin/Tone, the credit card number gets sent to the label’s server. The server then encodes it in the music as it’s transmitting it to you. When you have the sound file in your computer it’s only playable on your machine. You can burn (record) it on to CD, but that CD will also contain the ‘watermark’. So if you wanted to illegally duplicate the CD and give it to a friend you could, but if it travelled further and somehow got back to Twin/Tone they could find out where it came from by the ‘watermark’.
“It’s not gonna completely stop bootlegging, but it will keep honest people honest,” says Stark.
Twin/Tone has launched into cyber space because the sheer volume of albums released in America – over 10,000 last year alone – meant their stuff just wasn’t getting on record store shelves. It doesn’t matter how much their bands tour or how much positive press coverage they accrue, unless the label is prepared to buy its CDs into stores by effectively paying for rack displays and taking out ads in instore magazines, they’re at the back of the queue when the store decides what to stock. Stark reckons it costs a record label anything up to $4 (‘2.50) per CD to buy store space this way.
“Our distributor, ADA, is the best in this country for the alternative market. It has 40 or 50 releases a month but the stores will only take about 20 of those releases. They ask which ones will buy space in their brochures and they choose what they’ll stock accordingly. We just can’t get in. Once they’ve sold our stuff they’re on such tight budgets they might not reorder for a month or two, so we don’t have our CDs on their shelves for up to nine weeks.”
Against this apparent lack of support from retailers, Stark’s initiative seems more imperative than innovative. By cutting out the middle man he reckons he can cut his major costs – those of distribution and CD manufacturing – by a whacking 70 per cent. He plans to split the profits with his bands, 50-50 – a far greater royalty ratio than any artist on a conventional label enjoys. Surprisingly, Stark says he’s had no backlash from record stores, so far, even though, he admits, he’s effectively sounding their death knell.
“Yes I am and I don’t like that. I’d like them to stay around but they are dinosaurs and they are going to die. The only ones that will be left will be ones that have niches for collectors and in time, they too, will disappear.”
What this technology doesn’t take into account, of course, is that irrational thrill of clutching a newly acquired album to your chest – less so with CDs than vinyl, admittedly – smelling it, taking it out of its sleeve and playing it for the first time. In short, the pride of ownership.
“The bands on my label would be the first to say that, too,” Stark laughs, disarmingly. “My musicians still wanna press vinyl. They know there’s no market value, but they still wanna do it. I’m sad to see that going, but I’m also a realist and there’s a new generation. My kids don’t know what a 12″ record is.”
Ironically, it’s the independent labels that are agile enough to react to this new technology. While the lumbering major labels pay lip-service with often badly-produced official sites, little more than ads for their artists, the possibilities for independents have snowballed thanks to the Net. Traditionally, independents sell in their own country and maybe, at best, they tap into another one or two. With the Internet, they have access to the entire world all at one time.
“Major labels really depend on selling millions of records and you’re not gonna sell millions of records on the Net. For the time being at least,” Stark says. “But I only need to sell about 2,000 records to start feeling good and that’s much, much easier on the Net.”
Stark envisages that radio and TV stations along with record companies and retailers will all eventually succumb to the technology: “Broadcast radio and TV will cease to exist, but their equivalents will appear on the Net. Tastemakers will pay to stream down thousands of songs and other people will pay money in turn to listen to their selection. It takes people time to come around and accept ideas like that.”
Visit Twin/Tone Records online.