The slow death of the middle man: Prince, record stores, iTunes and the music industry

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Music, Society, Technology
July 4th, 2007 • 6:28 pm

Two recent events are converging to paint an ever clearer picture of the slow death of the record industry and all its satellite businesses, including record stores—i.e., in essence, all the intermediaries between musicians and their audiences.

One is the upcoming and unprecedented newspaper giveaway in the United Kingdom, where Prince’s newest album titled Planet Earth will be given away free with every one of the more than two million copies of the Mail on Sunday.

The other one is the recent announcement that Universal Music Group, which is still today the largest major record label in the world, has altered its licensing deal with Apple’s iTunes service.

Prince’s decision to give his music away in the U.K. has led to some rather shocking statements by people such as Paul Quirk, the co-chairman of the Entertainment Retailers Association:

It would be an insult to all those record stores who have supported Prince throughout his career… It would be yet another example of the damaging covermount culture which is destroying any perception of value around recorded music. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince should know that with behaviour like this he will soon be the Artist Formerly Available in Record Stores. And I say that to all the other artists who may be tempted to dally with the Mail on Sunday.

As Anil Dash says, if this doesn’t sound like a mafia thug speaking, I don’t know what does. (And, of course, the artist revert to “Prince” back in 2000, so this statement says a lot about how much respect people like Paul Quirk have for the musicians themselves to begin with.)

The irony, of course, is that, as every long-time Prince fan knows, Prince became “the Artist Formerly Available in Record Stores” a very long time ago. In fact, I have been a Prince fan since 1986 and, in my experience, Prince’s music has never, ever really been “available in record stores.” Prince has always been prodigiously prolific, with all kinds of side projects coming out at the same time as his mainstream releases, and it has always been a challenge to find all this music in record stores. Things were already difficult in 1986, and they just became harder and harder after that.

So I really have no idea what Mr. Quirk is talking about when he mentions “all those record stores who have supported Prince throughout his career.” I have an extensive collection of Prince music, and most of it was acquired in spite of the record stores, not thanks to their support! When it comes to purchasing Prince music in record stores, I have nothing but bad memories of snotty and clueless sales clerks.

In fact, the only really positive experience I ever had when it comes to purchasing Prince music in stores was with the owner of a… second-hand record store in downtown Strasbourg, France, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was a big fan too, and he really was a big help. It was in his store, for example, that I found a copy of the Aretha Franklin / James Brown 12″ maxi-single of “Gimme Your Love” from 1989, with an “extended remix” of the track by Prince (OK, “Paisley Park”). At the time, I didn’t even know it existed! Would I ever had found this little gem is a regular record store? Give me a break…

Needless to say, with the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s, everything changed, and for the better! Personally, I haven’t set foot in a record store in years. I buy all my records online. I don’t buy much music from outlets such as the iTunes Store, simply because I still want real CD quality with no copy protection, but I buy tons of stuff from Amazon and other online stores selling music recordings.

No more snotty sales clerks. No more lousy selection. If I need to sample something before buying it, I can either listen to excerpts or find a download somewhere. (I stopped listening to the radio a long time ago too.)

Mr. Quirk’s arguments would carry a little more weight if they were supported by a tiny bit of hard evidence. I haven’t spent much time in British record stores in my life, but I find it hard to believe that the experience has ever been much different from what it has been for me in France or in Canada.

As for the “perception of value around recorded music,” it is a phrase that is a bit rich coming the representative of a profession that persistently charges a premium for “rare” stuff—of which you know very well that nothing is actually going to the artist—and then discards excess stock in “bargain bins” or with “Nice Price” stickers…

We have all heard those stories from older people lamenting the disappearance of the “local store” where you could maintain a “personal relationship” with knowledgeable staff members who knew your tastes and could guide you in your exploration… Well, I grew up as a teenager in the 1980s, and I am afraid I never, ever experienced this in any of the stores that I had to deal with. Sure, on occasion, I would find a salesperson who would lend a sympathetic ear and actually put a little bit of effort into locating rarer stuff for me. But it was always for stuff I already knew I wanted, and it was only something that helped somewhat alleviate the inherent frustration of having to deal with numerous intermediaries when trying to get the stuff I wanted.

The reality is that the Internet changed all this, not just with Napster and free downloads, but also with much easier access to much larger catalogues of recorded music than any record store could ever hope to offer. And of course the problem is that the offline record stores have no chance of competing with this. The only thing that has really sustained them so far is the fact that a sizeable chunk of the population is still reluctant to purchase stuff online (for reasons of security and identity theft). But that’s the last barrier.

They are doomed, and they know it, but they can’t admit it to themselves or to others. And with people like this Paul Quirk at the helm, they really have no hope in hell.

As for the music downloads side of things, there are of course numerous other issues involved. But the fact that Universal is changing its… tune regarding the iTunes Store because “it is thought that Universal wants to be able to offer some music by some bands exclusively through other online music services in its attempt to reduce Apple’s control of the online business” confirms—if that was needed—that the record industry per se is pretty much as clueless as the offline music retailers.

If they really want to release stuff exclusively through other online stores that sell their wares in a DRM-protected format that is incompatible with the iPod, it means that they are still unable to understand that, fundamentally, what customers want is DRM-free stuff that they can buy anywhere and play on any device. There is nothing more frustrating than an “exclusive” release by an artist you like through a store that you do not have access to or whose products you cannot use!

And that goes for the iTunes Store—or I should stay stores—too, of course.

Just the other day, I got an e-mail from the V2 mailing list for Paul Weller fans with the subject line “New EP available to download now!“:

Hi everyone,

Some exciting news for you today. As you will know if you’ve checked the website recently, Paul has joined forces with Graham Coxon to write and record a brand new track ‘This Old Town’, which is available to download from iTunes right now, by clicking here:

A limited edition 7” will be available in the shops on July 30th.

Talking about the collaboration, Graham said “As a long time admirer of Paul I never dared imagine getting a chance to work with him so I was bricking it when we first met…but he is an absolute gent and a shockingly great singer and musician. It’s been a total pleasure.”

Lead track “This Old Town” is a Coxon/Weller collaboration. “Each New Morning” is a Graham Coxon composition, while “Black River” was written by Paul Weller. All tracks were produced by the duo and engineered by Charles Rees. Drumming on “This Old Town” courtesy of Zak Starkey.

Exciting news indeed. Only one small prob, innit? That link is to the UK iTunes Store—and, as a Canadian citizen, I am stuck with the Canadian iTunes Store!

Great! Now all I have to do is to buy a limited edition 7″ from an online UK retailer. Piece of cake!

As long as the recording industry (as well as Apple, on the behalf of the recording industry) continues to erect barriers between music lovers and the musicians that they love, I am afraid the decline will go on… Whether anyone in that industry will ever see the light or whether it will really die its slow death remains to be seen.

2 Responses to “The slow death of the middle man: Prince, record stores, iTunes and the music industry”

  1. Olivier2 says:

    Good post! I couldn’t agree more. About the recording industry, DRM, iTunes, record stores, etc. I’m also still buying CDs online, since it’s still the only (?) way to get “CD-quality” music legally.

  2. The Daydream Blog » Blog Archive » In Praise of the Middle Man says:

    […] One of the most prominent examples is the Music industry, where it was felt that the Internet would allow artists to reach their audience without signing to one of the much derided music labels. Prince has recently distributed his latest album for “free” with a Sunday newspaper in the UK. Pierre Igot, in his Betalogue, claims that this is an indication of the middle men in music is indeed slowly but surely dying off. The reality is that the newspaper acted as distributor, in place of conventional record stores. They made money from increased distribution and advertising, whereas Prince will have received a guaranteed amount from the paper, rather than being subject to the fickle music market. Whilst this is not an Internet example, it demonstrates that even well known artists still need distributors in order to make a living out of their art. […]

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