Archive for the ‘Marketing’ Category

Maestros of the Concert Merchandise Movement

July 27, 2017

By VALERIYA SAFRONOVA NYTimes.com 7/25/17

Merchandise for the Weeknd is displayed in the showroom at the offices of Bravado, the division at Universal Music Group that works with entertainers to design, manufacture and distribute branded products.

One Friday morning in early May, eight high-end boutiques in the United States and Canada were flooded with desperate fans jostling to claim their piece of the Weeknd, snapping up bombers, hats, shirts and sweatpants celebrating his album “Starboy.” Two weeks later, at exactly 5 p.m., at more than 200 stores, Urban Outfitters released merchandise decorated with Lady Gaga’s face and the title of her album “Joanne” to barely controlled consumer delight.

Welcome to the world of elevated concert merch: special collections linked to specific cultural events, limited in availability, and one of the newest and fastest-growing subsectors in the fashion world. From the first half of 2014 to the first half of 2017, the amount of tour-related products sold online increased by 720 percent, according to Edited, a company that tracks analytics at more than 90,000 brands and retailers.

Driving the phenomenon is Bravado, the division at Universal Music Group that works with entertainers such as Justin Bieber, Desiigner, Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga and the Weeknd to design, manufacture and distribute branded products; it is led by Mat Vlasic, an energetic New Yorker (and Riverdale Country School alum) who favors a black-on-black uniform and meditation for handling stress.

Not far behind is the Thread Shop, Sony Music Entertainment’s merchandising arm, which collaborates with artists like Nas, Common, A Tribe Called Quest, ASAP Rocky, DJ Khaled and Fifth Harmony, and which is run by Frances Wong, also a New Yorker (but raised in New Jersey) who calls the Thread Shop’s savvy customers “kids” and worked for Rocawear, the clothing label started in 1999 by Jay-Z and Damon Dash.

In a twist of corporate musical chairs, Bravado’s Mr. Vlasic actually founded the Thread Shop during a 12-year stint at Sony, where he began in the finance department, while Ms. Wong worked at Bravado until 2015.

Now, the two are engaged in something of an arms race to own the increasingly lucrative cross-disciplinary fashion territory they have defined.

Founded in 1997 by Barry and Keith Drinkwater, and sold to Universal about a decade later, Bravado operates in 40 countries and works with retailers like Zara, H&M, Uniqlo, Selfridges and Barneys New York. Last year, the revenue for the merchandising arm of Universal, of which Bravado is a major part, was 313 million euros, or about $365 million, an increase of about 13 percent from the year before. Besides handling merchandising for dozens of living artists, Bravado also works with the estates of former powerhouses, including Prince, the Beatles and Tupac Shakur.

The Thread Shop is a much younger operation. It began in 2009 as a straightforward T-shirt business to support touring artists, and eventually grew to provide more exclusive, higher-priced pieces and capsule collections. The company now works with some of the same retailers as Bravado, including Urban Outfitters, Pacsun and Kohl’s, and, like Bravado, operates globally.

Sony would not provide revenue figures for the Thread Shop. But Richard Story, the president of Commercial Music Group, which handles licensing, estate management, television and film contracts and more for Sony, acknowledged that while currently a minor contributor to the parent company’s balance sheet: “There’s no question that when we’re in our strategic planning conversations, we look at these types of businesses and think, ‘Can they be very robust multimillion-dollar revenue operations?’ We firmly believe they can be.”

On a recent afternoon at Sony’s offices on Madison Square Park in Manhattan, Ms. Wong considered Bravado’s position in the field. “They are the leader of our arena,” Ms. Wong said. But, she added: “I start from a trend standpoint because I think that’s why people will come to us. How do you do a concert tee and take it to the next level? Do you crop it, do you cut it, do you put safety pins in it?” Ms. Wong, who previously worked at Bloomingdale’s, Calvin Klein and Benetton, was wearing an ASAP Ferg shirt that she had cut a V-shaped neckline into herself.

When first releasing an artist’s products, both Bravado and the Thread Shop will often do so through pop-up shops. “We’ll identify the ground zero retailers that create demand, create urgency,” said Frank Bartolotta, Bravado’s senior vice president for national sales. “That creates a crazy amount of energy. Because it’s like, ‘If I didn’t get it during that three-day cycle, I need to figure out when I’m going to get it.’ Then we go to a larger retail partner.”

Thus in early May, “Starboy” merchandise was sold for three days only at boutiques in eight cities across the United States, including Patron of the New in New York and FourTwoFour on Fairfax in Los Angeles, and also online for limited periods. After that, Bravado went to PacSun for a larger rollout. “If there’s not an experience tied into this, it becomes stale, it becomes mute,” Mr. Bartolotta said. “When we create these moments that live there for literally 72 hours, there’s an alertness, and that fan is rabid.”

The key is to ensure that pop-ups offer certain exclusive items. “The kid that goes to New York wants the New York piece,” Mr. Bartolotta said. “The kid who goes to L.A. wants the L.A. piece. And then there’s the main collection. So if you weren’t in L.A., you can then go, weeks later, to PacSun to get that extended collection.”

Ms. Wong takes it a step further and offers a different collection at each distribution point. “I don’t want fans to see the same thing over and over again,” she said. “If you’re a fan, you’re going to be shopping online; if we drop something at Urban Outfitters, you’ll go to Urban; and if you’re at the tour, you’ll buy a T-shirt, too.”

Or, if you know your way around the resale market, you might go to eBay, Grailed or similar online marketplaces for the items you missed. After all, not everyone lives in the city where a store pops up or a tour stops. “The reselling culture is now crossing over into the world of music and merchandise,” said Lawrence Schlossman, the brand director of Grailed. “With social media, when you see a line outside of a pop-up or you see people making money or getting a lot of likes and looking cool, that creates a hype cycle that feeds itself.”

Still, while the pop-up shops and exclusive items are a key for building attention, the moneymakers are the items that many consumers can afford and easily access. “You always need premium to sell the mass,” Ms. Wong said. “I can’t afford a Gucci bag at $5,000, but I’ll buy a wallet for $700 and still be part of that lifestyle.” And in fact, according to Edited, the artists who drive the most e-commerce traffic are Run-DMC, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Ramones (all Bravado clients). Not exactly of the moment.

“There’s a huge middle market in this trend,” said Katie Smith, senior analyst at Edited. “It’s not just buzzy, like, ‘Check out the latest Pablo tee.’” (Pablo being from Kanye West’s album “The Life of Pablo.”) “For retail, there’s still a big opportunity for the older, more known artists. That stuff doesn’t sell as fast, but it performs very well.”

Laird Adamson, the head of international at Bravado, said: “There’s an evergreen business that happens at Kohl’s that’s in constant replenishment. It’s the stuff that lives there all day long, drives volume for us, doesn’t make a lot of noise. And then there’s us identifying with key retailers where every other month there’s a different event happening. At Urban Outfitters, there’s a Gaga event for one month. Then there’s a Bieber event for two months and then that goes away.”

In reality, the products attached to one artist are not vastly different from those of any other: The design might vary — especially if you bring someone on board like Jerry Lorenzo, the designer of Fear of God, who collaborated with Justin Bieber, or Wes Lang, an artist who worked with Mr. West — but this is not high fashion, or even trickle-down runway style. The sense of diversification is manufactured by buzz built around the artist, and it is key to perpetuating consumers’ desire for the products.

“The challenge I have on a daily basis is, ‘How do we drive traffic to these stores?’” Mr. Bartolotta said. “You look at malls and you see traffic is down. We’re bringing an experience that’s being driven by the artists. When you do that, these retailers’ appetites are stimulated. If we don’t do this, we’ll die like a lot of malls are dying.”

Like all successful brand builders, Mr. Vlasic and Ms. Wong know their references.

Ms. Wong calls out “Armani and Valentino and Prada” because “you can look at it right away and know whose hand it is. And the same goes with artists. These kids are too smart. If it’s not authentic, they don’t want it.”

And for Mr. Vlasic, “Star Wars” and Disney provide inspiration.

“Do consumers tire of it?” he said. “Sure, but keep reinventing it, keep rethinking how to do it. ‘Star Wars’ products are everywhere. Your product can be in Target, in Coach, in Uniqlo. You just have to be smart about it

Why my guitar gently weeps The slow, secret death of the six-string electric. And why you should care.

June 27, 2017

By Geoff Edgers WashingtonPost.com 6/22/17

The convention couldn’t sound less rock-and-roll — the National Association of Music Merchants Show. But when the doors open at the Anaheim Convention Center, people stream in to scour rows of Fenders, Les Pauls and the oddball, custom-built creations such as the 5-foot-4-inch mermaid guitar crafted of 15 kinds of wood.

Standing in the center of the biggest, six-string candy store in the United States, you can almost believe all is well within the guitar world.

Except if, like George Gruhn, you know better. The 71-year-old Nashville dealer has sold guitars to Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift. Walking through NAMM with Gruhn is like shadowing Bill Belichick at the NFL Scouting Combine. There is great love for the product and great skepticism. What others might see as a boom — the seemingly endless line of manufacturers showcasing instruments — Gruhn sees as two trains on a collision course.

“There are more makers now than ever before in the history of the instrument, but the market is not growing,” Gruhn says in a voice that flutters between a groan and a grumble. “I’m not all doomsday, but this — this is not sustainable.
The numbers back him up. In the past decade, electric guitar sales have plummeted, from about 1.5 million sold annually to just over 1 million. The two biggest companies, Gibson and Fender, are in debt, and a third, PRS Guitars, had to cut staff and expand production of cheaper guitars. In April, Moody’s downgraded Guitar Center, the largest chain retailer, as it faces $1.6 billion in debt. And at Sweetwater.com, the online retailer, a brand-new, interest-free Fender can be had for as little as $8 a month.

What worries Gruhn is not simply that profits are down. That happens in business. He’s concerned by the “why” behind the sales decline. When he opened his store 46 years ago, everyone wanted to be a guitar god, inspired by the men who roamed the concert stage, including Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Jimmy Page. Now those boomers are retiring, downsizing and adjusting to fixed incomes. They’re looking to shed, not add to, their collections, and the younger generation isn’t stepping in to replace them.

Gruhn knows why.

“What we need is guitar heroes,” he says.

He is asked about Clapton, who himself recently downsized his collection. Gruhn sold 29 of his guitars.

“Eric Clapton is my age,” he says.

How about Creed’s Mark Tremonti, Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer? He shakes his head.

“John Mayer?” he asks. “You don’t see a bunch of kids emulating John Mayer and listening to him and wanting to pick up a guitar because of him.”

Guitar heroes. They arrived with the first wave of rock-and-roll. Chuck Berry duckwalking across the big screen. Scotty Moore’s reverb-soaked Gibson on Elvis’s Sun records. Link Wray, with his biker cool, blasting through “Rumble” in 1958.
Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and The Post’s Geoff Edgers deconstruct some of rock’s most iconic guitar riffs, from “Cult of Personality” to “Back in Black.” (Erin Patrick O’Connor/The Washington Post)

That instrumental wasn’t a technical feat. It required just four chords. But four chords were enough for Jimmy Page.

“That was something that had so much profound attitude to it,” Page told Jack White and the Edge in the 2009 documentary “It Might Get Loud.”

The ’60s brought a wave of white blues — Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards — as well as the theatrics of the guitar-smashing Pete Townshend and the sonic revolutionary Hendrix.

McCartney saw Hendrix play at the Bag O’Nails club in London in 1967. He thinks back on those days fondly and, in his sets today, picks up a left-handed Les Paul to jam through Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady.”

“The electric guitar was new and fascinatingly exciting in a period before Jimi and immediately after,” the former Beatle says wistfully in a recent interview. “So you got loads of great players emulating guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and you had a few generations there.”

He pauses.

“Now, it’s more electronic music and kids listen differently,” McCartney says. “They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.”

[Meet the critic who panned Sgt. Pepper]

Nirvana was huge when the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, 38, was growing up.

“And everybody wanted a guitar,” he says. “This is not surprising. It has to do with what’s in the Top 20.”

Living Colour’s Vernon Reid agrees but also speaks to a larger shift. He remembers being inspired when he heard Santana on the radio. “There was a culture of guitar playing, and music was central,” adds Reid, 58. “A record would come out and you would hear about that record, and you would make the journey. There was a certain investment in time and resourc

Lita Ford, also 58, remembers curling up on the couch one night in 1977 to watch Cheap Trick on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” She was 19 and her band, the Runaways, had played gigs with them.

“It was just a different world,” Ford says. “There was ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,’ Ed Sullivan, Dick Clark, and they would have one band on and you would wait all week to see who that band was going to be. And you could talk about it all week long with your friends — ‘Saturday night, Deep Purple’s going to be on, what are they going to play?’ — and then everybody’s around the TV like you’re watching a football game.”

By the ’80s, when Ford went solo and cracked the Top 40, she became one of the few female guitar heroes on a playlist packed with men, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Satriani and Eddie Van Halen.

Guitar culture was pervasive, whether in movie houses (“Karate Kid” Ralph Macchio outdueling Steve Vai in the 1986 movie “Crossroads”; Michael J. Fox playing a blistering solo in “Back to the Future” and co-starring with Joan Jett in 1987’s rock-band drama “Light of Day”) or on MTV and the older, concert films featuring the Who and Led Zeppelin on seemingly endless repeats.

But there were already hints of the change to come, of the evolutions in music technology that would eventually compete with the guitar. In 1979, Tascam’s Portastudio 144 arrived on the market, allowing anybody with a microphone and a patch cord to record with multiple tracks. (Bruce Springsteen used a Portastudio for 1982’s “Nebraska.”) In 1981, Oberheim introduced the DMX drum machine, revolutionizing hip-hop.

So instead of Hendrix or Santana, Linkin Park’s Brad Delson drew his inspiration from Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell,” the crossover smash released in 1986. Delson, whose band recently landed atop the charts with an album notably light on guitar, doesn’t look at the leap from ax men to DJs as a bad thing.

“Music is music,” he says. “These guys are all musical heroes, whatever cool instrument they play. And today, they’re gravitating toward programming beats on an Ableton. I don’t think that’s any less creative as playing bass. I’m open to the evolution as it unfolds. Musical genius is musical genius. It just takes different forms.”

An industry responds

Tell that to Guitar Center, now $1.6 billion in debt and so fearful of publicity that a spokeswoman would only make an executive available for an interview on one condition: “He cannot discuss financials or politics under any circumstances.” (No thanks.)

Richard Ash, the chief executive of Sam Ash, the largest chain of family-owned music stores in the country, isn’t afraid to state the obvious.

“Our customers are getting older, and they’re going to be gone soon,” he says.

Over the past three years, Gibson’s annual revenue has fallen from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion, according to data gathered by Music Trades magazine. The company’s 2014 purchase of Philips’s audio division for $135 million led to debt — how much, the company won’t say — and a Moody’s downgrading last year. Fender, which had to abandon a public offering in 2012, has fallen from $675 million in revenue to $545 million. It has cut its debt in recent years, but it remains at $100 million.

[How much did this guitar story cost me? $2, 376.99.]

And starting in 2010, the industry witnessed a milestone that would have been unthinkable during the hair-metal era: Acoustic models began to outsell electric.

Still, the leaders of Gibson, Fender and PRS say they have not given up.

“The death of the guitar, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is greatly exaggerated,” says Fender’s chief executive, Andy Mooney.

He says that the company has a strategy designed to reach millennials. The key, Mooney says, is to get more beginners to stick with an instrument they often abandon within a year. To that end, in July the company will launch a subscription-based service it says will change the way new guitarists learn to play through a series of online tools.

Paul Reed Smith, the Maryland-based guitar designer, says the industry is just now recovering from the recession that struck in 2009. He points to PRS’s sustained revenue — the company says they’re between $42 million and $45 million a year — and an increased demand for guitars.

“This is a very complicated mix of economy versus market, demand versus what products are they putting out, versus are their products as good as they used to be, versus what’s going on with the Internet, versus how are the big-box stores dealing with what’s going on,” Smith says. “But I’ll tell you this: You put a magic guitar in a case and ship it to a dealer, it will sell.”

Then there’s Henry Juszkiewicz, the biggest and most controversial of the music instrument moguls. When he and a partner bought Gibson in 1986, for just $5 million, the onetime giant was dying.

[Behind the scenes: how we got paid to set a guitar on fire]

“It was a failed company that had an iconic name, but it really was on its last legs,” Ash says. “[Juszkiewicz] completely revived the Gibson line.”

Juszkiewicz, 64, is known for being temperamental, ultracompetitive and difficult to work for. A former Gibson staffer recalls a company retreat in Las Vegas punctuated by a trip to a shooting range, where executives shot up a Fender Stratocaster. In recent years, Juszkiewicz has made two major pushes, both seemingly aimed at expanding a company when a product itself — the guitar — has shown a limited ability to grow its market.

In 2014, he acquired Philips’s audio division to add headphones, speakers and digital recorders to Gibson’s brand. The idea, Juszkiewicz says, is to recast Gibson from a guitar company to a consumer electronics company.

There’s also the line of self-tuning “robot” guitars that Gibson spent more than a decade and millions of dollars developing. In 2015, Juszkiewicz made the feature standard on most new guitars. Sales dropped so dramatically, as players and collectors questioned the added cost and value, that Gibson told dealers to slash prices. The company then abandoned making self-tuners a standard feature. You can still buy them — they call them “G Force” — but they’re now simply an add-on option.

Journey’s Neal Schon says he battled with Juszkiewicz when he served as a consultant to Gibson.

“I was trying to help Henry and shoo him away from areas that he was spending a whole lot of money in,” Schon says. “All this electronical, robot crap. I told him, point blank, ‘What you’re doing, Roland and other companies are light-years in front of you, you’ve got this whole building you’ve designated to be working on this synth guitar. I’ve played it. And it just doesn’t work.’ And he refused to believe that.”

Juszkiewicz says that one day, the self-tuning guitars will be recognized as a great innovation, comparing them with the advent of the television remote control. He also believes in the Philips purchase. Eventually, he says, the acquisition will be recognized as the right decision.

“Everything we do is about music,” Juszkiewicz says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s the making of music with instruments or the listening of music with a player. To me, we’re a music company. That’s what I want to be. And I want to be number one. And, you know, nobody else seems to be applying for the job right now.”

The search for inspiration

If there is a singular question in the guitar industry, it’s no different from what drives Apple. How do you get the product into a teenager’s hands? And once it’s there, how do you get them to fall in love with it?

Fender’s trying through lessons and a slew of online tools (Fender Tune, Fender Tone, Fender Riffstation). The Music Experience, a Florida-based company, has recruited PRS, Fender, Gibson and other companies to set up tents at festivals for people to try out guitars. There is also School of Rock, which has almost 200 branches across the country.

On a Friday night in Watertown, Mass., practice is just getting started.

Joe Pessia runs the board and coaches the band. He’s 47, a guitarist who once played in a band with Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt and has worked at School of Rock since 2008.

Watching practice, it’s easy to understand why.

With Pessia presiding, the school’s showcase group blasts through three songs released decades before any of them were born.

The Cars’ “Bye Bye Love” blends quirky, new-wave keyboards and barre chords. Journey’s “Stone in Love” is classic ’80s arena rock punctuated by Schon’s melodic guitar line. Matt Martin, a 17-year-old guitarist wearing white sneakers, jeans and a House of Blues T-shirt, takes the lead on this.

The band’s other Stratocaster is played by Mena Lemos, a 15-year-old sophomore. She takes on Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio.”

As they play, the teenagers dance, laugh and work to get the songs right. Their parents are also happy. Arezou Lemos, Mena’s mother, sees a daughter who is confident and has two sets of friends — the kids at School of Rock and her peers at Newton South High School.

“There are a lot of not-easy times that they go through as teenagers,” she says, “and having music in her life, it’s been a savior.”

Julie Martin says her son Matt was a quiet boy who played in Little League but never connected with sports. She and her husband bought him his first guitar when he was 6.

“It was immediate,” she says. “He could play right away. It gave him confidence, in the immediate, and I think long term it helps him in every aspect of his life.”

She remembers her own childhood in working-class Boston.

“I know exactly what he could be out doing,” Martin says. “That enters my mind. We are so lucky to have found School of Rock. He’s there Thursday, Friday and Saturday every week, all year.”

Rush’s prog-metal is not for beginners, with its time shifts and reggae twist.

“They’ve never played this before,” Pessia says, turning to whisper in awe. “The first time.”

So who are these kids? The future? An aberration?

It’s hard to know. But Matt Martin didn’t need to think long about why he wanted to play a Strat as a kid.

“Eric Clapton,” he says. “He’s my number one.”

To Phillip McKnight, a 42-year-old guitarist and former music store owner in Arizona, the spread of School of Rock isn’t surprising.

He carved out space for guitar lessons shortly after opening his music store in a strip mall in 2005. The sideline began to grow, and eventually, he founded the McKnight Music Academy. As it grew, from two rooms to eight, from 25 students to 250, McKnight noticed a curious development.

Around 2012, the gender mix of his student base shifted dramatically. The eight to 12 girls taking lessons jumped to 27 to 59 to 119, eventually outnumbering the boys. Why? He asked them.

Taylor Swift.

Nobody would confuse the pop star’s chops with Bonnie Raitt’s. But she does play a guitar.

Andy Mooney, the Fender CEO, calls Swift “the most influential guitarist of recent years.”

“I don’t think that young girls looked at Taylor and said, ‘I’m really impressed by the way she plays G major arpeggios.’ ” Mooney says. “They liked how she looked, and they wanted to emulate her.”

When McKnight launched a video series on YouTube, he did an episode called “Is Taylor Swift the next Eddie Van Halen?” He wasn’t talking about technique. He was talking about inspiring younger players. The video series, in the end, grew faster than guitar sales or lessons. Earlier this year, McKnight shut down his store.

The videos? He’ll keep doing them. They’re making money.

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It’s Not Their Pop Idol, but a Bot. Fans Cheer Anyway.

April 4, 2017

BEN SISARIO NYTimes.com 4/03/17

In January, Christina Ausset, a 24-year-old Maroon 5 fan in France, spotted an enticing Twitter post from another of the band’s followers: “I just had a conversation with Maroon 5! Awesome!”

The interaction, it turned out, had been conducted on Facebook Messenger with Maroon 5’s chatbot — an automated program designed to respond to basic commands. Not exactly a conversation with Adam Levine, Ms. Ausset noted, but it didn’t matter. She now happily talks to the bot, too.

“Having Maroon 5 on Messenger,” she wrote in an email, “makes you feel really close to your favorite artists!”

For celebrities who already use Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to lend a personal touch to their interactions with fans, the next frontier of social media is a deliberately impersonal one: chatbots, a low-level form of artificial intelligence that can be harnessed to send news updates, push promotional content and even test new material.

In the music world, “bot” is often a dirty word, conjuring up the tools used by high-tech ticket scalpers. Yet 50 Cent, Aerosmith, Snoop Dogg and Kiss have all deputized chatbots as their automatic, ever-alert greeters on Facebook Messenger, handling the flood of inquiries that would overwhelm any human.

When someone connects to Maroon 5 on Messenger, a text bubble pops up: “Hi,” it says, “I’m the Maroon 5 bot. Want to be the first to know when we release new music?” A series of questions with multiple-choice answers follows, leading the fan down a path lined with emojis and video clips; social media links then point other fans back to the bot.

It is a purposely simple interaction, created through technology developed by a start-up named Octane AI. Yet even in their programmed responses, chatbots can convey human personality, said Christina Milian, a singer and actress who has been among the earliest proponents of the technology, and helped found Persona Technologies, an Octane competitor.

“I feel like it’s personal,” Ms. Milian said of her own chatbot. “It’s definitely in my words. It’s how I talk. My fans know how I talk.”

Not all celebrity bots are quite up to the level of verbal verisimilitude, however. Aerosmith’s, for example, responds to virtually every inquiry with “Rock on.”
Photo
Matt Schlicht, left, and Ben Parr founded Octane AI, which lets anyone use its technology to build a bot. Credit Drew Anthony Smith for The New York Times

But Ms. Milian said her bot’s intelligence surprised even her. “When I’m communicating with my own chatbot,” she said, “sometimes I see something and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s so me!’”

The chatbots may also offer a glimpse of the music industry’s future, which is already beginning to involve virtual-reality concerts, playlist algorithms and virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, said Cortney Harding, a consultant to music technology companies and the author of “How We’ll Listen Next: The Future of Music From Streaming to Virtual Reality.”

“As A.I. develops, everything is going to go into a mixed-reality world,” Ms. Harding said, “where you could dial up a hologram of your favorite pop star and have ‘real conversations’ with the artificially intelligent version of that person.”

Octane AI, founded about a year ago, is one of a handful of technology companies tailoring these programs to the entertainment industry, with clients including Interscope Records, the label behind Maroon 5 and 30 Seconds to Mars. Matt Schlicht, Octane AI’s chief executive, said that with more than a billion users, Messenger — the chat app connected to Facebook — was too large for celebrities to ignore. And once they are paying attention, his company’s bots can help them make efficient use of it.

“Right now people are looking at bots and saying, ‘I don’t know, maybe they’re cool, maybe not,’” Mr. Schlicht said. “But based on the data we’re seeing, it’s not crazy to think that a year from now it’s going to be their No. 1 distribution channel.”

Chatbots have become a common part of online interaction for major consumer companies; Domino’s, for example, lets customers use one to order a pizza. They have quickly spread since April of last year, when Facebook made it possible for developers to build bots on Messenger.

The change made Messenger a more useful channel to broadcast information to numerous recipients, and for many artists and marketers it solved a frustrating problem: As Facebook has grown, its news feeds have become more crowded — not to mention pruned by algorithms — making it harder and harder to reach followers.

Chris Mortimer, the head of digital marketing at Interscope, said Messenger was now a critical way for his artists to reach their fans.

Octane AI’s clients say response rates to its chats are extraordinarily high. According to the company, when its bots send a new notification, 50 to 75 percent of its subscribers open the message and click a link within 10 minutes. Bots have become popular for musicians even though they have been slow to catch on over all; at a conference in September, a Facebook executive called the technology “overhyped,” and said that early examples were unimpressive. Still, Ms. Milian said her Messenger account had attracted two million people since she introduced her bot in October.

Maroon 5 also demonstrated its value for commercial research. In February, a day before the band released its single “Cold,” it sent a 10-second clip of the song to its chatbot followers. Within 24 hours, fans sent 100,000 messages to the bot, and shared the clip widely on social media.

“You can get pretty strong sentiment analysis in a snap,” said Ben Parr, Octane AI’s chief marketing officer.

Chatbots’ high engagement rates may be helped by their novelty. But as they spread, they will have to be reconciled with the sour perception of bots among the general public, which has been building for years because of the use of bots in fake social-media accounts and, especially, ticketing. Bots have become such a scourge in the global scalping market that last year President Barack Obama signed a federal bill outlawing their use in buying event tickets.

“I hate the word bot,” said Josh Bocanegra, Persona’s chief executive, who founded the company with Ms. Milian. “It’s never been associated with anything positive.”

Mr. Bocanegra entered the business last year, after making a Selena Gomez bot to entertain his daughter. Persona creates custom chatbots for clients including Snoop Dogg and one for the “50 Shades Darker” character Christian Grey, which tells fans that if it cannot trust them, “I’ll have no choice but to spank you.” Bocanegra said a basic bot could be ordered for $2,500 plus maintenance charges.

Octane AI, which lets anyone use its technology to build a bot, does not charge for its services. The company is supported by $1.6 million from investors including the venture capital firm General Catalyst, and says it will introduce revenue-generating features soon.

So far, the bots’ ability to create interactions with pop stars — even if those interactions are programmed in computer code — has been enough to intrigue fans.

Sue Winett, a Maroon 5 fan in the Los Angeles area, proudly notes that at age 61 she is far older than the average admirer of the band. But she said that her love of the band had led her to all forms of social media — her Twitter handle is @AdoreAdamLevine, after the band’s lead singer — and that aside from a few kinks in the programming, she was enjoying the band’s chatbot.

“I know it’s a robot,” Ms. Winett said. “Does it creep me out that it’s a robot? No.”

U2 Producer’s Other Job: Selling CDs in Indonesia’s KFCs

April 4, 2017

By JON REGEN NYTimes.com 4/03/17

Steve Lillywhite knows a thing or two about making music that sells. That six-time Grammy winning producer has worked on multiplatinum recordings with artists including U2, the Killers and the Rolling Stones.

Now Mr. Lillywhite is proving he knows how to sell music, too, although in a very unexpected way. He is the chief executive of Jagonya Music & Sport Indonesia, a company in Jakarta, Indonesia, that bundles recorded CDs with fast food at Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants throughout that country.

At a time when the United States music industry has seen physical CD sales in free-fall — according to the latest report from the Recording Industry Association of America, 99.4 million full-length discs were sold in the United States in 2016, the fewest since 1986 — Mr. Lillywhite’s company, a subsidiary of KFC in Indonesia, sells 500,000 CDs a month alongside menu items like the Chick ’N Fillet sandwich and the Colonel Yakiniku Rice box.

“My job is basically like running a record label, except this record label also happens to sell chicken,” said Mr. Lillywhite, 62, who acts as a curator, choosing the music that goes into the Indonesian KFCs. (At the moment, the songs come exclusively from Indonesian artists, though he hopes to expand.) “Record companies pitch artists to me and I’ll say either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Or I’ll approach an unsigned artist and say, ‘I will guarantee you a slot in KFC if you sign directly with us,’” he said in an interview at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan, while listening to a new U2 song he’s producing. The company orders CDs from a distributor and pays a percentage of the sales to KFC, as well as royalties to the artists.

Mr. Lillywhite’s journey from Englishman known for championing soaring choruses to creative guru of the Indonesian fried-chicken music market began six years ago, when he was asked to give a speech at a 2011 music festival in Singapore. He met some people who later invited him to produce music for the Indonesian band Noah. When he traveled to the band’s home to work on songs with them, “I immediately fell in love with the country,” he said.

“I loved the food, the people and the way they saw music as an experience. My synapses were overloading,” he added. “I imagined I would stay a year. I had nothing planned — I just thought I’d investigate the music.”

Mr. Lillywhite moved from Hollywood to Jakarta in 2014, and produced albums for artists like Iwan Fals, whose music he describes as “a mix of Springsteen and Dylan.” In March 2016, a mutual friend introduced him to Ricardo Gelael, director of PT Fast Food Indonesia, which owns 570 KFC outlets throughout Indonesia, as well as Jagonya Music & Sport, the company that places music in those restaurants. “He was looking to solidify and expand his company’s connection between CDs and chicken, as he realized he had become the new king of music distribution,” Mr. Lillywhite explained. When Mr. Gelael offered him a job to run and expand the company, Mr. Lillywhite immediately accepted.

“Steve has a proven track record in music as well as a love of Indonesia,” Mr. Gelael said in a text message. “So I thought he’d be the perfect person for the job.”

“CDs are still the No. 1 way to get music in Indonesia,” Mr. Lillywhite said, noting that a small percentage of the population has credit cards and internet connections are slow, hindering streaming. “In Indonesia, CDs are $4,” he continued. “And since nearly all of the record stores have closed down due to the cheap influx of pirated CDs, KFC is really the only place to buy them these days. People no longer go out to buy CDs on their own, but they do go out to buy chicken. And now buying a CD has become part of that experience. We even do concerts at KFC with some of our artists. So music and chicken have become intertwined.”

KFC has a more upscale reputation in Indonesia, where the flagship restaurants “are more like Hard Rock Cafes than fast food outlets,” Mr. Lillywhite said. Stores keep a display featuring 10 to 15 CDs on hand for browsing, and the cashier asks customers if they want a CD bundled with their meal. Mr. Lillywhite estimates that 98 percent of their music sales “are to people who go in to buy chicken but see the CDs and say, ‘Ooh, I’ll have a CD too!’”

When selecting music for KFC, Mr. Lillywhite draws on what he has learned “makes people’s emotions go wild.” He explained: “They love ballads, they love smooth jazz and they love to cry. I also always offer a kids’ album, as well as releases by big Indonesian artists like 19-year-old pop singer Rizky Fabian, the legendary rock band Slank and compilation albums too.”

He is considering a “duets” album pairing Indonesian and Western artists and a venture into streaming is also in the works. A smartphone app is starting this year.

Kasey Mathes of KFC public relations in Louisville, Ky., said that the company “doesn’t have any plans to bring this to the U.S. at this time.”

Whether or not this business model would work stateside is up for debate. “This is reminiscent of when quick service restaurants in the U.S. sold CDs of popular artists and compilations at a value price,” said Larry Katz, a music industry lawyer and the former senior vice president for business affairs at EMI Records, who once brokered a deal between EMI and McDonald’s that sold millions of CDs over a 30-day period in the mid-1990s. Considering the dominance of streaming in the United States, “Selling CDs at fast food restaurants here is likely a thing of the past,” he said, “but it’s not surprising that it still works in other areas of the world.”

John Burk, president of Concord Records — a company that experimented with placing CDs in Starbucks — said the concept “certainly has worked,” but also cited the rise of digital music as a deterrent now. “If you want to buy an album and put it on your phone, which is what most people want to do, it’s easier just to download it,” he said.

These days, while Mr. Lillywhite still takes the occasional trip to produce bands like U2, he is content in his new surroundings. “When I go into something, I go in feet first, with all my enthusiasm,” he said.

And what do the members of U2 think of his new venture?

“They think I’m barking mad,” he said. “Bono is obsessed with it. He’s always telling people: ‘Do you know what Lillywhite’s doing? He’s working for KFC!’”

Beyoncé Raised the Bar With ‘Lemonade.’ Now Others Are Leaping, Too.

September 29, 2016

By JOE COSCARELLI NYTimes.com 9/27/16

Does every pop star these days need a “Lemonade”?

Among Beyoncé’s more influential tactics at the moment is her insistence that an album should not be just an auditory experience and that the standard music video — a sort of trailer for an artist’s current sound or creative era — is far from enough. “Lemonade,” her sixth solo album, had its premiere in April as an artsy and provocative hourlong film on HBO, raising the bar set by “Beyoncé,” the surprise “visual album” that came with videos for every track in 2013.

As the value of digital music continues to hover near free for many consumers, some brand-name acts are following Beyoncé’s blueprint with high-concept mini-movies that can add artistic heft to projects competing for attention in an infinite pile of content. These extended videos, with their headline-grabbing cameos and high production values, have also become the latest theater in the music streaming war as services like Tidal and Apple Music function not just as platforms but as creative partners (and sometimes financial backers) with artists, in exchange for exclusivity.

On Sunday night, Apple Music released “Please Forgive Me,” a 22-minute video with a loose action-movie plot that strings together hits from Drake’s “Views,” the biggest album of the year so far. Shot in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, “Please Forgive Me” is available only as an Apple stream — even screenshots have been disabled, minimizing Drake’s usual meme-ability — and credits Larry Jackson, the service’s head of content, as a producer and co-writer. It follows the release last month of Frank Ocean’s “Endless,” a 45-minute “visual album” and musing on the artistic process that was also exclusive to Apple. (The “Lemonade” film is available for streaming and downloading only on Tidal.)

“We are living in such a visual time, social media-wise, with Snapchat and Instagram, that every project needs to have some sort of multimedia component,” said Jeff Rabhan, a veteran artist manager and the chairman of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. But a single with an accompanying four-minute video “just doesn’t cut through the noise,” he said.

By advertising “Please Forgive Me” as a film that was “inspired by the album” — not simply a long music video — Drake and Apple cryptically telegraphed the premiere as an event à la “Lemonade” instead of another step in the “Views” marketing plan. In fact, by aiming for prestige, artists may sacrifice some commercial impact: “Please Forgive Me” came in lieu of an earlier stand-alone YouTube video for Drake’s chart-topping summer single, “One Dance,” which could have juiced its Billboard statistics and extended its reign. (Streams have been a significant part of Drake’s success now that Billboard counts them, along with album sales, when calculating chart positions.)

“For an artist who is really wanting a body of work to be examined as a conceptual whole, this creates that environment in a singles-driven world,” Mr. Rabhan said.

Beyond the artistic-credibility incentive, the immersive experience of an extended video can also serve as “a commercial for the tour,” he added. “Drake, Beyoncé — they’re not making their money on streaming or sales. They’re making money when we spend $180 to go to Citi Field and watch ‘Lemonade’ in person.” (With Drake as its most prominent artistic face, Apple Music has also partnered with him on a Beats 1 online radio show and sponsored his “Summer Sixteen” tour with Future, another Apple-affiliated artist.)

While high-concept promotional music films and event videos date back to the Beatles and Michael Jackson, with Lady Gaga and Kanye West picking up the torch to begin the post-MTV YouTube era, more recent video projects have taken advantage of new outlets for distribution, knowingly sacrificing wider audiences by partnering with closed digital platforms thirsty for buzzy products.

Tom Connaughton, the senior vice president for content and programming at Vevo, the online music-video platform that provides some of the top clips on YouTube, said that a video is twice as likely to be shared on social media than an audio track, according to his company’s data. As a result, he said, “You’re seeing big multinational companies involved in a music streaming war using video in addition to audio to drive their agenda.” That includes luring subscribers with exclusives.

And while a major label may be reluctant to fund big-budget music videos in leaner times, ambitious artists can capitalize on their clout with streaming services that are willing to shepherd and promote such projects.

“There’s an element of competitiveness among top-tier pop stars to making bigger, flashier delivery systems for their music,” Mr. Connaughton said. “They all want to outdo each other.”

Fans still prefer music live to digital, Nielsen Music 360 report finds

September 17, 2016

By Randy Lewis LATimes.com 9/15/16

How do people most like to enjoy their music? Live, at least according to the Nielsen Music firm’s latest edition of its Music 360 report, which tracks how consumers take in music in today’s fractured, multi-platform world.

Of all the ways to experience music, Nielsen found, 36% of consumers’ money spent goes toward live events, far and away the most popular way of consuming music.

Of course, that no doubt partly reflects the fact that the cost of tickets for most live events far outpaces the cost of buying downloads, CDs or paying for a monthly streaming subscription.

But in an intriguing facet of the study into the changing habits of fans in an era in which music is increasingly defined by streaming services, 21% of overall music spending still goes toward physical CDs or downloaded digital singles and albums, compared to only 6% to streaming service subscriptions.

Among 13- to 17-year-old consumers, 38% of their money is spent on physical and digital albums and tracks, with a higher-than-average 9% for streaming services, and just 5% for satellite radio subscriptions.

Those are just a couple of highlights of the report, which Nielsen has excerpted for public consumption from the full paid study that goes out this week to its entertainment industry subscribers.

“Fans are interacting with music differently,” the report’s summary states, “but their passion for music remains strong. In fact, listeners are spending more time and more money on music-related expenses in 2016 than they did in 2015.”

On the streaming front, Nielsen reports that 80% of music listeners used such a service during the 12 months preceding the study. The report was conducted from July 14 to Aug. 5 of this year, among 3,554 consumers “reflective of the population of the United States.”

That figure is up five percentage points from a year earlier, when 75% of respondents said they had used a streaming service in the prior year.

In terms of the time spent listening to music, Nielsen reports that radio is still the most popular method, accounting for 27% of the time people spend listening by format. Digital music collections accounted for an additional 20%, followed by streaming of on-demand audio (12%), programmed audio (11%), and music video and physical music collections (tied at 10% each).

Demographically, Hispanic consumers (as defined by Nielsen) spent on average 90% more on music than the general population and also scored higher numbers than average for attending DJ events and smaller live music sessions.

Hispanics also posted higher numbers than teens or millennials (ages 18 to 34) for attending live concerts with one main headliner, small live music sessions, live concerts with multiple headliners, music festivals, club events with DJs and club events with a specific DJ.

The survey also explored music preferences broken down by political affiliation, with Democrats scoring higher than the general population in money spent on club events with DJs (124% more than average), small live music sessions (+54%), digital music (+43%) and video on demand or pay-per-view services (+38%).

Republicans, meanwhile, spent more on premium TV subscriptions (76% above the general population), comedy performances (+65%), sports events (+35%) and satellite radio services (+32%).

Entertainment options that appeal the most to independent voters were video games (+42%), live music concerts (+31%) and paid online streaming (+14%).

The study also digs extensively into how consumers respond to branding affiliations at concerts and festivals they attend, with nearly two-thirds of festivalgoers saying they viewed a brand more favorably if they offered product giveaways at live events and nearly as many (64.8%) saying the same if a brand sponsors an air-conditioned tent at a festival.

More than half (53.7%) said their estimation of a brand improves when that brand sponsors an existing festival, while 46.3% said they view the brand more favorably for producing its own music festival.

Epic Records Whips Up Hit Album Out of Thin Air (and Online Streams)

August 9, 2016

By JOE COSCARELLIAUG. NYTimes.com 8/08/16

You technically can’t buy the digital compilation album from Epic Records featuring hits by French Montana and DJ Khaled that has been a steady presence on the Billboard chart this summer. In fact, the album has sold a total of zero copies since its quiet release seven weeks ago.

Yet thanks to an updated formula for determining positions on the Billboard 200 that accounts for online activity, as well as some savvy opportunism from the label, the album, “Epic AF,” has become a disruptive presence on the charts, landing in the Top 10 four times by exploiting — or mastering — the new system.

It works like this: Since late 2014, Billboard has counted 1,500 streams or 10 paid downloads of a song as the equivalent of one album sold. But if a hit single comes from an album that is unreleased, the millions of plays it tallies on services like Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music go nowhere.

Epic has collected its album-less artists’ most popular summer songs across streaming services — “Lockjaw” by French Montana and Kodak Black, “Don’t Mind” by Kent Jones, “Pick Up the Phone” by Travis Scott and Young Thug — into one digital playlist, giving it a hip title and some generic cover art. In 2016, that’s enough to call it an album.

Now, when Billboard counts the weekly plays for “Don’t Mind,” which has 139 million Spotify streams to date, they are attached to the album, catapulting the digital compilation over traditional albums from artists on competing major labels. Chart position equals bragging rights — and its own form of marketing via brand visibility.

Dave Bakula, a senior analyst for Nielsen Music, which supplies the data Billboard uses for its charts, said that some could see the tactic as “trying to manipulate the charts.” But “if they’re living within the rules, good for them in being creative and having enough of a stable of big-name artists and big songs,” he said.

“It feels a little bit like a ‘Now’ record for streaming services,” he added, referring to the “Now That’s What I Call Music!” CDs, which peaked in the early 2000s.

Billboard declined to comment on Epic’s methods. But this week, the chart company opted to change its rules slightly so that paid downloads of singles included on this album do not count toward its chart position but streaming numbers do.

Still, the system is flexible.

The album which has added tracks since its initial release, includes current hits from DJ Khaled (“For Free,” “I Got the Keys”). Before the release of DJ Khaled’s own album “Major Key” on July 29, the streams for those songs were going toward the compilation album. This week, however, they were counted toward “Major Key,” which hit No. 1. (As a result of losing those streams and all song sales, the compilation album dropped to No. 32 from No. 5, having accomplished its goal as a placeholder hit.)

“It did what it was supposed to do,” said Celine Joshua, a senior vice president for commerce at Epic and its parent company, Sony Music Entertainment, who oversaw the project.

“It was born out of a need and a problem,” she said. “I was thinking about our hot roster and the cycles of which content was coming out when, albums that were around the corner and how young fans on these platforms are behaving — consuming in the playlist manner.”

For hip-hop and R&B especially, streaming has become the dominant mode of consumption. Streaming activity nearly doubled in 2015 as traditional sales and digital downloads fell; this year, on-demand audio streams are up another 97 percent. As a result, the online discovery of new artists increasingly comes from streaming playlists like Spotify’s influential Rap Caviar, with its more than four million subscribers.

“Why don’t we design a product that behaves the way our consumers do?” Ms. Joshua said she had asked, bringing the idea to Epic’s chief executive, L. A. Reid, who gave the green light and helped to pick the track list. (The associated costs — “none,” Ms. Joshua said — helped the process along.)

Buoyed by the label’s biggest names, including Future and Puff Daddy, the album also features lesser-known artists, like Lotto Savage and Rory Fresco, who the label hopes will take off with young fans.

The album title, which includes a popular online abbreviation for a vulgar phrase, was designed to speak to millennials as well, Ms. Joshua said.

Assuming Billboard does not further adjust its rules to block digital-only label compilations, imitators can be expected. Already, within Sony Music, more versions are planned, including another from Epic featuring more pop-leaning acts, and a potential follow-up from sister label RCA.

“Streaming,” Ms. Joshua said, “is the now and the future.”

Record labels are far from the evil suits Prince made them out to be – they’re redistributive business models

April 27, 2016

When big acts attack the funding model of record companies what they are doing, whether they know it or not, is pulling up the ladder behind them

Ben Chu http://www.independent.co.uk 4/26/16

When pop stars go to war with their record companies which side do you get behind? The creative artists or the money-grubbing, talentless, suits? Surely a no-brainer. And yet reading about Prince’s epic battle against Warner Music in the 1990s I can’t help but feel sympathy for the suits.

Prince was signed as a precocious 18-year-old by Warner in 1977. He produced an album every year between 1978 and 1981. None of them were commercially successful but Warner kept on funding him as a promising prospect. Then the breakthrough came with the hit single “1999” and Prince was suddenly pop royalty.

The dispute apparently came when the prolific Prince wanted to release a studio-load of new material all at once. Warner said no, arguing that oversupplying the market was not the way to maximise revenues. They wanted the best possible return on their investment by restraining the supply of Prince. This would avoid swamping demand and also enable them to maximise the sense of occasion around each new release.

Warner got their way because they owned the rights to Prince’s music. Prince was royally annoyed though. He eventually likened his relationship with Warner to “slavery” and, later, advised all new artists not to sign contracts with record companies.

This was – and probably still is – terrible advice. Around a decade ago there was lots of optimistic chatter about how the internet would enable new artists and bands to reach audiences directly. They could, we were told, make the commercial big time without having to tap the promotional resources of record companies. The web would enable the talented to cut out the greedy middle man. But it hasn’t worked out like that. Vanishingly few artists have made it big without serious support from record companies somewhere along the line.

But don’t record companies milk top artists like Prince unfairly? Not really. Think about the model from the point of view of the record company. You sign a host of promising new acts. You pay for them to record. You promote their work. But only a tiny number will prove successful. The money the record company has spent on the unsuccessful acts is gone for good. The company makes all its money from the ones that do make it. That’s why it takes such a large share of the proceeds from a minority of successes.

The big acts simply see the large sums of money made by the company from their work and they resent it. But they often fail to grasp that these funds are what enable the record companies to invest in new acts and keep the machine running. Globally, record companies spent $4.5bn (£3bn) on marketing and investment in 2014, representing a quarter of their total revenues.

Small acts might be tempted to think established artists are looking out for their interests when the big guns attack the rapacious record company model. And there has been a lot of purple prose in recent days talking about how Prince valiantly stood up for all musicians with his various battles with record labels. But it’s nonsense. When big acts attack the funding model of record companies what they are doing, whether they know it or not, is pulling up the ladder behind them.

This isn’t to defend the taste of the record companies and the acts they select to sponsor. And there are signs that they do not stick with new artists as long as they should. It’s unlikely that an artist today would get funding for four years without any major hits, as Prince did. They would probably be cast aside much earlier. Nor is this to argue that record companies are saintly. It’s merely to point out that the underlying business model is a redistributive one in a way that the top artists generally fail to acknowledge.

Prince certainly didn’t acknowledge it. Yet he was remarkably quick to capitalise on another trend in popular music economics. He released his Planet Earth album free with the Mail on Sunday (of all publications) in 2007. People said he was crazy for giving away his product. They said he was devaluing it. That’s certainly what his (new) record company felt. They hadn’t been told and were forced to scrap plans to sell the album in UK shops. But Prince himself still made a commercial killing from a back-to-back run of 21 live British shows in the wake of the stunt. What Prince discovered – and many have discovered since – is that the big money in music is now in the live “experience”, not the recorded product.

Of course Prince was a quixotic character – and not just creatively but commercially. He spent a lot of time in the years following that Mail on Sunday give-away trying in vain to stop his music being distributed for free online. In that sense Prince actually had something in common with the record companies, who wasted vast sums fighting an unwinnable battle with the unlicensed distribution of music online.

Record labels are starting to be more sensible now. They seem to have grasped that there is money to be made from working with the internet rather than fighting it; from advertising revenues from music videos on YouTube, from legal downloads on iTunes and from royalties from streaming sites. Global industry revenues in 2015 rose for the first time in two decades.

But the digital world is still in flux. Online music consumption is increasingly shifting from downloads to streaming. And the lion’s share of revenues could in future flow to the streaming companies – cutting out artists and maybe even record companies in the end.

In response the big players of the artistic world including Jay-Z, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Arcade Fire have established their own streaming service: Tidal. This week Beyoncé released her new album, Lemonade. It will exclusively stream on Tidal. The dominant streaming players, such as Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer, have been cut out (although it is available to buy on iTunes). This is an attempt by group of successful artists to monetise musical content once again, not just experiences. This will be the biggest test yet of their model. If an artist with the reach of Beyoncé can’t make it work, it may be a dead end.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. That’s the reference in the title of Beyonce’s new album. It’s what Prince, generally, did. It’s what the record companies seem to be, finally, doing. The Tidal crew are trying it. The question as far as fans are concerned, though, remains the same as ever: is the music sweet or not?

 

Now that’s what I call an oral history of Now That’s What I Call Music!

January 19, 2016

Now that’s what I call an oral history of Now That’s What I Call Music!

By Lauren Duca avclub.com 1/15/16

Now That’s What I Call Music! feels like a distant memory, a present you got for Christmas when Juicy sweatsuits were a thing. Yet, the series continues to be successfully sold in CD form. It’s remarkable to think that anyone besides Adele might be able to move physical copies, never mind the irrelevance of professional curation in the age of streaming services. But this juggernaut of nostalgia has endured since the days of the teenaged music industry of the early ’80s.

At the time, the U.K.-based record company Virgin was a smaller unknown on the precipice of its golden age. Virgin was using a share of its fledgling library to license tracks to companies like K-tel and Ronco to recoup royalties. The compilations that came out of those negotiations were so cheesy and phoned-in that one of them was actually titled Raiders Of The Pop Charts. As Culture Club launched and The Human League’s third album began taking off, Virgin’s repertoire began expanding. It occurred to the company’s legal representative Stephen Navin and head of marketing Jon Webster that the label might be able to make its own compilations.

Before Now! was introduced in 1983, compilations were seen as tacky. The compression was messy with tracks often being cut off mid-song. Sleeves were simple, if not simply cheap. For the most part, the business was helmed by companies who dealt in TV advertising, sloppily pulling together songs as just another product to be sold. From the start, Virgin—and eventually Virgin in partnership with EMI—understood that the company needed to replicate the visceral joy of purchasing an album using the medium of compilations. Virgin needed to create a brand.

The other challenge was convincing major artists to participate. Along with their managers, big acts were concerned about how being on Now! would affect their reputation or cannibalize sales. But the promise that this was a record company curating the best of the best with care convinced them to take the risk. Well, that and a few personal calls from Richard Branson. Eventually, Now! came to represent the gold standard in compilations, with more No. 1 hits than The Beatles. It became a snapshot of the musical moment, and, at one point, allegedly had Queen and Paul McCartney vying against one another for a track one, side one spot.

The A.V. Club spoke to Webster and Navin; original compiler Ashley Abram, who worked on Now! from 1983 to 2012; the current U.K. heads of the brand, Peter Duckworth and Steven Pritchard, who joined the company in 1991; and U.S. compiler Jeff Moskow, who has been with Now! since the fourth edition of the series was released in the states. Together, the six men told the story of Now!, from the inception of its title—derived from a picture of a pig talking to a rooster—to the establishment of the current family-friendly iteration of the brand, and the way it has defiantly survived in spite of the rise of digital music and streaming services.

Jon Webster: Stephen and I came up with the idea, though we still slightly argue about who it was.

Stephen Navin: It’s one of those classic music industry comments: A flop is just a bastard, but a hit has many fathers.

Webster: In those days, there were three TV merchandising companies doing these compilations. I worked at Virgin and they were constantly telexing us—it was even pre-fax back then. These compilation companies were making us offers for tracks and often competing with each other. Stephen Navin called me and said “Who are we going to license these to? Should we give all to one company or some of them?”

Navin: I was a business-affairs lawyer at the time at Virgin, and one of my tasks was to license all of our tracks to third-party TV advertising companies, names like K-tel and Ronco. It was a lot of bargaining and convincing them to take lesser tracks as well when we needed to recoup royalties.

Ashley Abram: Ronco was barely even a music company when I worked for them on compilations. They had put out products and gadgets with compilation records on the side.

Webster: These companies would write and say, “I want to license six tracks, I will pay you £2,000 and a royalty of 18 percent” or “I want eight tracks and I will give you £3,000 and royalty of 20 percent.” We’d say, “Okay, if you take these few tracks as well.” It just went round and round, until one of us said, “Well couldn’t we do this ourselves?”

After we came up with the idea, we drew up a plan for how we might do this and how much it would cost. Then we just sat there and went, “Wow, this could be fun. This could be really lucrative.”

Navin: The head of the company at the time was Simon Draper. I worked very closely with him in the context of whether we should license tracks or not and whether we should go back and get the artist’s consent or the manager’s consent or whatever, so I went to see him one day. I said, “We’ve just had an incredible run on licensing tracks, but it seems to me that there’s a real commercial opportunity here that we should be grasping, to do the licensing ourselves.”

Webster: We almost had enough tracks on our own to make that first record, because it was one of Virgin’s best-ever years.

Navin: We had such incredible talent on our roster at the time. You could put out a compilation album with just a mass of our tracks. But, of course, that’s not what the Now! series is about. The Now! series is about getting the very best, the actual cream of the cream of what was hot. So, we realized we needed partners.

Webster: EMI was our distributor and they were a big, old-fashioned record company in the U.K. So, we went to have a meeting with them and said, “Why don’t we do this together? You’ve got lots of hits, we’ve got lots of hits.” It’s like a show tune, you know, [Singing.] “Let’s fall in love!”

Navin: Simon said we ought to talk to EMI and perhaps we can talk to one of the other majors to make sure we get a fantastic combination of tracks. And I said we should get Jon in. Jon was the marketing director at the time and I knew he’d be great for it. Then the question became, “Oh, well, what should we call it?”

Webster: We just got an idea of the logo and did it on the back of a cigarette packet.

Navin: I’m afraid I’m a man given to punning, and looking around Simon’s room there was a little framed advertisement for Danish bacon, which is a lovely drawing of a cockerell on the wall and a pig with some musical notation coming out of his beak. And on the ground looking up at it in admiration is a pig and the shout line beneath the pig is saying, “Now that’s what I call music!” My eyes alighted upon the wording and it just seemed to me, “That’s it! Let’s call it that! It says exactly what we want to say.”

Abram: The series took its name from a picture of a pig saying, “Now that’s what I call music!” as he listened to a chicken singing. It’s ridiculous. There was a lot of worry that people wouldn’t know what it meant. I think there was a real concern of “What does that mean?” Or “What on earth is that?” But it’s like any name, once it takes a hold and people get used to it, it’s kind of a different story.

Peter Duckworth: I came on in 1991 and one of the ways I’ve been involved in marketing is with the visual element. The Now! logo has changed quite a bit over the years. There was a strange pig involved in the very early days. I’m not sure who came up with that.

Jeff Moskow: Compilations have always been, to this day, significantly more popular in the U.K. than they have in the U.S. There’s a separate compilation chart in the U.K. Retail is different now, but in the late ’80s and ’90s, you would go into a record store in the U.K. and there would be a compilation wall. There would be a whole separate compilation section. So, it just became more a part of their culture. And, for some reason, here it just wasn’t.

Webster: Before Now!, these three companies had carved out a compilation market for themselves. If you look back in the U.K., we always had a tradition—and I don’t think happened in America—of people doing cover versions of big hits, of putting out cheap albums of cover versions of hits. They were called Top Of The Pops. An album in those days might have cost £2 and an album of cover versions of hits would cost, like, 75 pence.

Navin: Compilations were considered irrelevant by a lot of record companies. The original albums done before Now! were done badly, because the compression was a mess. They’d be cut off randomly in the middle of the song to make them fit, and they didn’t sound very good because the grooves were so tight.

Abram: They weren’t always the best quality and didn’t always have the best artists, but they were fairly popular in the U.K. They were successful and did well in terms of sales.

Webster: Overall, they were seen as tacky. So, lots of big artists decided they didn’t ever want to be on those records, and they did have the kind of controls in terms of having to give permission to stop them happening.

Navin: You would have some fantastic discussions with managers and artists about whether it was a good thing for their career or not deep down to the sales of a single. Did it help? Did it hinder the sales of the album? All of those sort of conversations were had with artists and managers on a regular basis, especially in the beginning.

Steven Pritchard: I think for one of the first Now!s, Richard Branson actually phoned up Mick Jagger and got the Rolling Stones to participate. That was a few years before I came along, but that sort of attitude helped with U.K. artists.

Abram: Richard would say things like, “Oh, should we get The Rolling Stones for Now! 2.” And a lot of people would say, “Oh, no, they’re the past, they’re not really the cutting edge of 1984 pop music.” But I thought, if we could get them, we might be able to get someone else, which is what happened. Then, bit by bit, you walk away with a lot of acts.

Webster: We did have to work quite hard to convince people. Partly what we did was give better royalty rates than the third-party companies were offering. Then, of course, it got so successful, people began to see the cash flow that was coming in and going, “Oh, we like this.”

Navin: When the damn thing took off it just was so successful. It was a phenomenon.

Pritchard: Today, Now! confirms status. People expect to see artists of a certain stature on Now! Artists will share that they are included or tweet about it. It’s become a mark of having arrived.

Webster: Eventually, it got to the point of artists quibbling over being side one, track one. There was one particular battle, I think between Queen and Paul McCartney. They said, “Yeah, we’ll be on the album, but we want to be track one, side one.” Luckily, that was an EMI problem, not a Virgin problem. I think what they did is they put one on track one on disc one and the other on track one, side one on disc two or something like that. I can’t remember; it was some ridiculous compromise.

Abram: The first album I officially compiled was Now! 2. I managed to get superstar acts like Queen, David Bowie, Paul McCartney on the first Now! that I compiled. I think what convinced them is the fact that it was being done by the record companies. So, I managed to get some of these bigger artists on and eventually we got to a stage where a lot of the acts were coming on the album.

Webster: From the start, we separated ourselves from the previous compilations with packaging. They were all basic black-and-white or black-and-red sleeves; there was no class to it. So from the first one, we made sure we put sleeve notes on there; we made sure we put pictures of the albums that they came from.

Abram: One thing that I helped in convincing artists is that Now! was sort of souped-up. It had beautiful packaging, liner notes and all that. It made for a luxurious product that was much more exciting than the original third-party compilations.

Webster: There were also the ad campaigns, which made it so easy to sell to retail. I said, “Look, we’ve got this album coming out. It is full of quality hits and we’re going to spend a quarter of a million pounds TV advertising it.” It was as simple as that. We went out and opened with a 60-second ad, which was unheard of at the time, and it just went mad.

Navin: You also have to remember, that first vinyl was gorgeous. It wasn’t the logo you see today.

Pritchard: But by the time I came one for Now! 19, they were really struggling with an identity. I was concerned that the sleeve was changing on every release. I felt the brand should have a logo and stick with it. So, Now! 20 was the first one where we developed the 3-D logo, that is still used today. It was an attempt at something that looked monumental, almost like 20th Century Fox. It was harder to do that than I realized. It would be easy to do that on a computer, but going back 25 years it was actually stretching the capabilities of 3-D graphic engineering. That first 3-D logo I think it took about a week to render and it was fairly expensive.

Navin: There are two components of sequencing. One is making something that’s listenable. And as important is making something that’s marketable. So, we know that when people look down a track list, they’ll often just scan the first and last tracks to see if there’s consistency. We have to make sure that the tracks toward the top and bottom of the CD are the most successful or the most popular in order to keep the consumer’s attention.

Webster: There is an art to compiling a record. It’s not just all by numbers. You’ve got to get a flow right; you’ve got to get ups and downs. It’s the same way a DJ would do it if you’re out clubbing or whatever. There are also certain tracks that, even though they were massive, they often polarized people. You’ve got to think about that.

Abram: In January 1983, about 10 months before Now! started, I was a young fellow compiling compilation records. The second one I did for Ronco was called Raiders Of The Pop Charts and it managed to get to No. 3 in our combined charts of everything. That got me a bit of attention. Eventually, I got phone call from the man himself, Jon Webster. He said, “If you phone this number, you might learn something to your advantage.”

Webster: After the first Now!, we hired a guy named Ashley Abram to compile the records and also to make sure that no fillers got on. The purpose was for him to be independent. He talked EMI and Virgin into what else they could do with those filler tracks and ensure Now! was the best it could be.

Abram: I phoned the number Webster gave me and didn’t know who I was speaking to. The soft-spoken man on the other end said, “Oh, we’re thinking about getting into this compilation business and I’m told you’re the person to talk to.” And at the end of the conversation he said, “Oh, I run a record company, you probably know me, my name’s Richard, and I work on a houseboat, so come see me and have chat.” Of course, that was Richard Branson.

They were talking to me about getting involved with compiling, but because they had so many of their own tracks, they weren’t licensing tracks from the outside. They needed a third party to look at the thing. And that was hard, because they were just looking to get this album into the marketplace for Christmas in 1983. The album actually came out in November, so it was quite late, but it did make it.

Moskow: I came on in the U.S. for Now! 4. In the beginning, I was involved in creating and compiling the record. That meant identifying what the songs would be, licensing the songs, negotiating for the licensing of those songs and then you compile them. So, there’s the aspect of actually deciding what’s going to be on it, getting the rights to put it on and then the ability to create a compelling story with the repertoire. This part usually makes people’s eyes glaze over, when I tell it, but there’s an art to the sequencing.

Abram: It was just kind of a feel for it that you sort of build up, really. You sometimes try to link the songs in some way.

Moskow: We don’t sequence by power, we sequence by story. I was a club DJ for a number of years in my hometown of Philadelphia. It was very similar really to being a club DJ, because, again, every club DJ will tell you that their job is to take listeners on a journey. You’re playing this and that and you’re playing it in a flow that makes sense. That’s the art. It’s like painting with these beautiful colors that these artists have created, which are the songs, and putting them together in a way that makes sense. I take it very, very, very seriously.

Abram: It’s also easy to look back now and say certain songs are missing from some albums, but you can’t really do that. At the time, not everybody wanted to be on the records.

Moskow: I can give you one example. With Now! 56, we opened with “See You Again” [by Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth] very specifically. We did that because what we’re saying to our fans is, “We’re seeing you again.” It had to be a huge song, but I didn’t have to open with it. But we’re saying, even though the song doesn’t mean that, it lets someone subliminally think “I’m comfortable with this brand again, they’re seeing me again.” It’s a little cheesy, but that’s the example I can think of right now. I can tell you that every song is thought about for hours, if not days.

Abram: A big challenge was keeping things current. We needed to make the album live longer, and that was hard since it took a while to get things to marketplace. I also liked to include upcoming hits. We put Culture Club on one album and had a little blurb on the cover that famously said, “Almost certain to be No. 1 by the time you have this LP.” I think it went to No. 3 or No. 4 or whatever it was. So, that kind of set the precedent.

Moskow: It would really easy to say, “Oh, these are the songs, let’s just put them in random order, it doesn’t really matter. But then, if you do that, you’re not really building the essence of what your brand is, and that is so key to us.

Navin: Now! reached the parts of the record-buying market place that, in some cases, no matter how much marketing money you would spend, it just couldn’t deliver those people from those recesses. We managed to get to those outlying areas of Britain who would never have gone into a record store, or may have, at most, bought one album a year.

Duckworth: From the start, we were selling to our version of middle America. The “middle England” market, as we might describe it, are the people who don’t have their finger on the pulse. They don’t measure their own sense of identity by music, but they are very much into music. So, buying a Now! album was fine for them. It didn’t have any meaning. They didn’t define their personality through music, so they could buy a Now! album and it wasn’t a guilty pleasure like some music can be considered. It was just a way of accessing the charts.

Webster: I’ve always thought that music buyers fall into two groups. There are people who are really into music, who buy a lot of stuff and pride themselves on what they like. And then there are the one-album-a-year buyers. Maybe they buy two or three, but it’s harder to get them into the record store.

I think you go through a sort of life cycle with Now! You grow up with them. Until you’re a young teenager, you’ve got the latest Now! album. Then, suddenly when you become 16 or 17, you think you’re the coolest person on the block and suddenly you wouldn’t be caught dead with a Now! album. Eventually, you might get married and have your first child. You might have a party and you need music, so you go out and buy a Now! album. I think there’s very much a sort of flow that happens in terms of the people who are predisposed to buy these records. I think there’s an age gap where they’re distinctly uncool, which is probably 18 to 30, but then after that they are very welcome and liked and people still buy them.

Pritchard: There are at least two generations of moms and dads, even grandparents now, who are using Now! to keep up with their kids’ music and to share music. But I think it probably took about 10 years for it to really develop into a family brand with a bit of nostalgia and trust. It’s been a fixture. If you look at the consumers of Now!, the end-user profile is strongly preteen and early teen. Then it starts coming back with peaks up in mid ’30s, who are people buying for young families.

Navin: I think the thing about Now! is that it cuts across generations. It’s like Adele, who has obviously has struck an enormous chord. People buy the album partly as a knee-jerk reaction either for their auntie or their daughter. It’s that must-have piece of music across the board.

Pritchard: Children never understand if you try to be nostalgic about a band. They’ll say, “You listened to this? It’s rubbish!” Whereas you can be nostalgic about a Now! album and buy it today and children will love it because it’s still current. To you, it’s a Now! album and to them it’s all the current hits. It does work far better than trying to be nostalgic with your children because not many artists try and transcend.

Moskow: We make statements like, “No one listens to CDs anymore” or we say, “No one has CDs in their car anymore.” And the truth of the matter is that there’s been something like 90 million CDs sold in the U.S. in 2015. I mean, besides what Adele did, which is a whole different story. Are sales down? Of course they’re down. No one is arguing that point. But it’s still a huge business.

Webster: We thought that digital music would be the death of CDs, but it’s not for two reasons. One is that they are a much better deals than buying individual tracks. And two is that when in the U.K. we killed off the CD single, which was just about when digital came in. There are still huge amounts of people in the U.K. who buy CDs. The only way you can buy a track, on a CD, if you don’t want to by the album, is on a Now! album. They just don’t exist anywhere else.

Moskow: There are still lots of people who have CD players in their cars in the U.S. Most do. So, imagine your family is going on a road trip and you have a choice. Your choice is, “I’m going to fumble around, connect my phone and play a playlist that may or may not be clean, where I have to fumble around and skip songs” or, “I can just get a brand that I’ve grown up with, pop it in the CD player and know that it’s clean and that it reflects reasonably recent pop culture.”

Abram: The CD format still lives on and it’s very successful. In the U.K., the CD sales now are largely through supermarket chains. So, in Tesco and Sainsbury’s, especially this time of year, they carry huge volumes of CDs. Digitally, it’s available and it sells, but 10 to 20 percent of the sales are digital, which is still fairly minor. CD is still a massive format.

Pritchard: We do have digital sales, but at the moment we’re about 90 percent CD. Of course, the next struggle is streaming services. When Spotify came along, we were very quickly into Now! in experimental ways, trying to draw more attention to the tracks. Obviously, going forward, we’re trying to devise ways of actually monetizing Now! itself instead of just the individual tracks. The digital download thing was quite easy to spot. We’re trying to look at that behavior within streaming products.

Moskow: CD physical sales are declining, yes, more people are consuming music by streaming or downloading, but there are still a substantial amount of people who buy physical CD or who buy the album via digital download and enjoy it because someone has done the curation for them. We’ve made the playlist for them. They come to us for the Now! brand, and I think they’ll keep coming to us for the Now! brand.

15 Innovative Album Releases That Shook the Music Industry

September 15, 2014

From Radiohead’s payment scheme to Beyoncé’s midnight surprise, the most unusual drops in recent history
By Daniel Kreps Rolling Stone 9/09/14

Album releases can be a monotonous pattern of press releases, cookie-cutter Q&As and by-the-books song premieres. Or they can be industry-stunning moments that show an artist’s creative powers go beyond the music studio. As the biz has changed in the digital era, so has the art of album promotion, and doing something unique and retweetable is often more powerful than a page-one interview. Here’s a look back at 15 of the most innovative, game-changing releases ever — from midnight sales to surprise freebies to alternate-reality games.

GnR (1991)
Four years. That’s how long Guns N’ Roses made fans wait for the follow-up to Appetite for Destruction. When GN’R finally finished their new LP, it was revealed that they had two albums worth of material. But instead of releasing Use Your Illusion as a standard double-disc set, Axl Rose and Co. opted to split up the albums as Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. As the release date drew near, fans couldn’t wait one minute longer to buy it, lining up outside music shops starting on Monday, September 16th, 1991 in order to get a copy, even though the album was due out Tuesday — making the Use Your Illusions one of the earliest and most high-profile midnight releases. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1991, over 1,000 record stores nationwide stayed open until midnight so they could get a jump on the September 17th release date. Geffen estimated that nearly 500,000 copies of the albums were sold by Tuesday morning.

U2 (2004)
In 2004, Apple wasn’t the music industry force it is today. The iPod and iTunes were still in its infancy, and MP3s still weren’t quite as popular as CDs. In an effort to tip the scales toward the digital side, Apple teamed with the biggest rock band on the planet, U2. With Bono and Co. ready to release 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, they teamed with the tech giant for a commercial that made memorable use of the single “Vertigo.” Next, Apple crafted limited edition iPods that came stocked with the entire U2 discography, which included unreleased songs, laser-engraved autographs and, of course, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. A decade later, Apple and U2 reteamed again for the surprise release of Songs of Innocence.

Nine Inch Nails (2007)

While the lead-up to a new album’s release is often just a parade of press releases and song premieres, Trent Reznor turned promotion into an immersive, addictive alternate reality game. It all started with a portable USB flash drive in a Lisbon, Spain concert venue’s bathroom. Nine Inch Nails performed at the venue that night, and the USB ended up containing a new NIN song as well as a clue that would unlock a massive Internet-based universe that revolved around the band’s upcoming new album Year Zero. Reznor and game creators 42 Entertainment crafted a dystopian online world and riveting storyline that helped spread the word of Year Zero’s arrival in an innovative way no press release could ever match. The alternate reality game was such a hit, HBO even considered turning it into a TV drama, though those plans have since stalled.

Radiohead (2007)

Radiohead fans waited four years for the band to follow up their 2003 disc Hail to the Thief, but a post on the band’s Dead Air Space site changed all that in an instant. “Hello everyone. Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days,” guitarist Jonny Greenwood wrote. “We’ve called it In Rainbows.” Finally free from their longtime record deal with Parlophone and Capitol, Radiohead would forever change the music industry by offering up their new album to fans with a “pay what you want” option. While there was extra incentive for hardcore fans to shell out cash, if the casual fan wanted to pay nothing, it was theirs as a free digital download. The experiment worked: The band is on record as saying they made more money from In Rainbows than any of their other albums. Plus, when the album arrived on compact disc in January 2008, it still topped the Billboard 200.

The White Stripes (2008)

As a member of the White Stripes, Jack White had gone to great lengths to keep his new albums from leaking before release date. When the Stripes sent out promos of Elephant to critics, it was in vinyl form only, making digitizing the albums almost impossible. With his side project the Raconteurs, White concocted another plan: Announce second album Consolers of the Lonely only a week before it would hit shelves, which would handcuff critics and illegal downloaders. Unfortunately for White, Rolling Stone uncovered his scheme when listings for Consolers of the Lonely started popping up unexplained in music stores’ inventory listings. When the band begrudgingly announced the album a few days earlier than planned, iTunes accidentally made the album available before street date, totally crushing White’s intentions in the process.

Nine Inch Nails (2008)

The In Rainbows pay-what-you-want scheme changed the way established, veteran artists could economically navigate in the music industry, and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, fresh off his Interscope contract, was eager to “pull a Radiohead” and test the waters. Just over a year after Year Zero, Reznor self-released Ghosts I-IV, a collection of instrumental recordings. While a portion of the four-part, 36-song album was made available for free, Reznor toyed with different pricing plans to reflect different physical formats or better digital file quality. Like In Rainbows, the self-release was a massive success for Reznor, so much so that he gave away NIN’s album The Slip four months later as a free download to thank fans. “This one’s on me,” Reznor wrote.

Smashing Pumpkins (2009)

Billy Corgan is well known for being prolific, but here’s one instance where he grasped beyond his reach. When Smashing Pumpkins announced their 44-song Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, it sounded impossibly ambitious. Corgan and his revolving door of Pumpkins would record a song and then promptly offer it as a free download or – for the diehards – a limited edition EP. The project held Corgan’s attention for 10 songs that spanned from December 2009 to May 2011 before he dropped it entirely. The following year, the Pumpkins released Oceanea, and the 13 tracks on that “album within an album” were added to the Teargarden lot… but two years later, the project remains stalled at 23 songs. Corgan has said the next two Pumpkins albums will complete the half-decade-old project, but don’t hold your breath.

Prince (2010)

Prince has always had difficulty with record labels, going as far as changing his iconic name to “The Artist” and that “Love Symbol” after falling out with Warner Bros. in the mid-Nineties. He also expressed his undying disdain for the Internet by hiring the Web Sheriff and warring with his own fan site. Operating without a record label, Prince schemed a unique way to deliver his 2010 album 20Ten, and we use the word “deliver” literally: Prince included his LP within copies of select European newspapers and magazines, like the United Kingdom’s Daily Mirror and the German Rolling Stone. In all, 2.5 million copies of 20Ten were distributed, and while the album was free of charge, it did give all the newspapers a temporary boost in circulation while also eschewing the Internet’s mercantile system. To this day, 20Ten still hasn’t been released officially stateside.

Kanye West (2010)

Kanye West recorded so much music for his 2010 epic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that he could have easily made the overstuffed album a mega-sized double-disc affair. However, the rapper instead opted to take those extra cuts and distribute them as a free downloads on every Friday leading up to Twisted Fantasy’s release. The weekly handout was dubbed GOOD Friday as a nod to West’s record label, and it featured some standout all-star tracks like “Chain Heavy” with Q-Tip and Consequence, “The Joy” with Jay Z and Pete Rock and “See Me Now” with Beyoncé. That’s right, Bey was relegated to a free download, that’s how much good material Kanye accumulated. In the end, all the GOOD Fridays tracks made for the perfect compliment to West’s masterpiece.

Death Grips (2012)

This is not how you impress your new record label. From the beginning, Death Grips signing with Epic Records seemed like an imperfect pairing. While the release of 2012’s The Money Tree went relatively smoothly, the abrasive and elusive duo promptly canceled a tour to promote the album in order to record their next one. The band always planned on releasing both LPs in 2012, but when Epic wanted to delay the second LP until 2013, Death Grips responded by dropping No Love Deep Web — and its ultra-explicit album cover — as a free download on October 1st. “The label will be hearing the album for the first time with you,” Death Grips tweeted at the time. After a very public war of words with Epic that featured legal briefings and leaked e-mails, the record label dropped Death Grips from its roster in November 2012.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (2012)

Imagine going to your favorite band’s concert and then going home with an awesome album of theirs that you never knew existed. That’s the experience Godspeed You! Black Emperor fans had in Boston. It had been 10 years since the Montreal post-rock collective had released an album, but when they performed at the Orpheum Theatre on October 1st, 2012, attendees found something surprising at the merch table: A brand new LP titled Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!. And just like that, the decade-long wait for new Godspeed You! was over. Word quickly spread about the new album’s arrival, and two weeks later, Constellation Records was distributing it to the masses. Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! ended up winning the 2013 Polaris Music Prize as the Canadian album of the year.

Boards of Canada (2013)

Record Store Day is like Christmas for music fans, and in 2013 Boards of Canada delivered the best present. At only a few of the hundreds of shops participating in the event, hidden among all the other exclusive releases, were a 12-inch cardboard sleeve that simply had the words “Boards of Canada” and part of a code. When all the 12-inch vinyls were uncovered and the entire code was deciphered, it revealed that the mysterious electronic music duo would be releasing Tomorrow’s Harvest, their first full-length album in eight years, in June 2013. And those rare Record Store Day 12-inches that Boards of Canada secretly distributed? You can buy one of the six on eBay now for only $5,700.

Jay Z (2013)

Ever the entrepreneur, Jay Z devised a clever partnership to deliver his new album to (some) fans. First, there was the way Jigga revealed that his new LP Magna Carta Holy Grail was arriving: A minute-long commercial that co-starred producers Rick Rubin and Pharrell Williams that was shown during a key moment in the NBA Finals. As part of the deal, 1 million digital copies of MCHG were distributed for free to Samsung Galaxy users via a special app on July 4th, three days before the album’s wide release. While the free downloads didn’t count toward the Billboard 200, for one long July 4th weekend, everyone was crowding around someone with a Samsung.

Beyonce (2013)

This was the most shocking, industry-shaking album release since In Rainbows. On December 13th, 2013, Beyoncé’s long-awaited new album, titled simply Beyoncé, appeared in the iTunes Music Store. No press release, no big announcement, no promotional tweets. It just appeared, and it left an aftershock that could be registered on the Richter Scale. Fans knew that Bey had an LP in the works, but it was rumored to arrive in 2014, not 12 days before Christmas. Not only did Beyoncé drop an hour’s worth of new material, it was accompanied by a “visual album” that featured cinema-quality videos for each of Beyoncé’s songs. “The whole project is a celebration of the Beyoncé Philosophy, which basically boils down to the fact that Beyoncé can do anything the hell she wants to,” Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield wrote in his review.

Wu-Tang Clan (2014)

Thanks to Kanye West and Jay Z, hip-hop has shifted its gaze toward art galleries, and the Wu-Tang Clan are taking that to the extreme. In March 2014, Clan mastermind RZA revealed that the long-running collective had recorded a new 31-song album titled The Wu – Once Upon a Time in the Shaolin. Only one copy of the double LP would be produced, transforming the album into a singular work of art. As RZA revealed, he envisioned having The Wu tour the world’s art galleries as a special installation, allowing fans to hear the album in a museum setting before auctioning the lone copy off to the highest bidder. “Mass production and content saturation have devalued both our experience of music and our ability to establish its value,” Wu-Tang Clan said in a statement. “Industrial production and digital reproduction have failed. The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero. Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity. This album is a piece of contemporary art.”