NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Free Music? Consider the Alternative of No Income

Prince's Experiment With Free CDs Raises a Ruckus

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The artist Prince caused a huge stir in the music industry a few days ago when 2.9 million copies of his new CD Planet Earth were bundled with Sunday copies of the UK newspaper The Mail. There was a furious backlash from the music industry — including his own label, Sony BMG — at this act of heresy of giving music away free. But it will probably pay off for Prince in the long run. To begin with, The Mail paid him a reported $500,000 for this venture.

Prince’s overall logic? Well, his last CD sold only 80,000 copies in the UK. As a so-called heritage artist (meaning one who’s been around a while and doesn’t sell millions of CDs anymore), he figures since his main income derives from selling concert tickets and merchandise, including sales of his previous CDs, it makes sense to try to attract new listeners and expand his fan base. And offering free music may be the best way to do that. And the UK has been way ahead with that. For years, British music magazines such as Mojo and Q have done that with sampler CDs inserted in their magazines, and the Oxford American does that here at home.

If the music industry had gotten out in front of paid music downloads in a timely fashion, the industry wouldn’t be in the pickle it now finds itself in. As it is, the only viable solution for the downloading issue came from a music industry outsider — Apple’s Steve Jobs with his iTunes and iPod. As CD sales continue to plummet, there are few options left for the music business.

In a related event to the Prince matter, my colleague Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times wrote a column about Prince’s free CDs and, as a reward for his initiative, had his column killed by his editor. Now, naturally, his column is all over the Internet and has attracted many more readers than the Times normally gets every day. Goldstein suggested that the newspaper, which is losing money, might do better by trying initiatives like Prince’s rather than by staff layoffs and introducing paid ads on the front page, as it is planning to do. Presumably, his editor is not open to such suggestions.

Let me quote from Goldstein’s killed column a bit: “Here’s how it might work. The Times would start a free-music series, offering music (either on a CD or via downloads) from respected artists willing to think outside the box — meaning anyone from Elvis Costello, Beck and Ryan Adams to Ry Cooder, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. Instead of paying the artist a fat fee, we’d recruit advertising sponsors who’d be delighted to be associated with classy artists and the imprint of the Times.

“If you haven’t noticed, music has a powerful mojo for advertisers. TV commercials have used pop songs to sell product for years. Lexus currently has a series of TV ads featuring Costello and John Legend seated in a Lexus, simply talking about their favorite music (Elvis sings the praises of Beethoven). But what they’re really selling is coolness by association. The same association could apply to us via a giveaway series. It would encourage readers to see the paper in a new light, as not just a news-gathering organization but a cultural engine. If we surrounded the music with news, reviews and features from our staff, it could also expose new visitors to our formidable music critics and reporters.”

It’s not that radical a suggestion for newspapers which themselves are in a downward audience spiral. iMedia International has already joined with the Dallas Morning News and the New York Daily News to insert CDs in their Sunday editions containing music samples, movie previews, video games, comics, celebrity interviews and ads. A spokesman for the Dallas paper said that so far the CDs seem to be received very well by readers. In Nashville, The Tennessean might do well to try such an effort with artist CDs or sampler CDs. God knows, there’s any number of heritage country artists who are mainly making their living by touring and playing live. And there are plenty of new artists struggling to find an audience.

There are precedents in country and related fields. CMT.com has presented complete plays of many new CDs, which draw substantial audiences. And our free videos on demand amount to the same thing. It’s artist promotion as well as entertainment content. The group Wilco made their then-new CD Yankee Hotel Foxtrot available free in MP3 form in 2002 and still ended up selling a substantial number of CDs of the album as well as gaining new fans.

I think it might be worth an experiment in country music, for both heritage artists and for fledgling artists looking to gain a toehold in getting their music to a wide audience.