A few days ago The LA Times killed a column by Patrick Goldstein advocating more free music giveaways like Prince's recent UK newspaper deal. The move was apparently to avoid music industry backlash. Here is the full text of the banned column:
"How would you like to pick up this newspaper one day and get a free CD or an MP3 file of new music from one of your favorite musicians? Earlier this month England’s Mail on Sunday and Prince — two symbols of two embattled businesses — stuck their big toes into the future, a future that has looked increasingly bleak for both the record industry and the newspaper business. In a move that sent shock waves across the British music business, the country’s leading tabloid distributed 2.9 million free copies of Prince’s new "Planet Earth" CD with its Sunday paper, reaping a publicity bonanza and a big bump in advertising as well." (continued)
"But the real winner was Prince. In an era where record sales are plummeting, Prince got his new music into the hands of millions of fans while pocketing a reported $500,000 payment from the paper. Most record store owners in England have protested by refusing to carry the artist’s new CD while his record company, Sony, has suspended its release in England. But Prince, who seems to have as much brilliance as an entrepreneur as an artist, is laughing all the way to the bank.
Like most artists his age, Prince, 49, doesn’t top the charts anymore. His last album, "3121," sold roughly 80,000 copies in the UK. He makes most of his money through touring — his last major tour, in 2004, sold $87.4 million in tickets, dwarfing anything he could make from CD sales. For him, giving away his record free — as he is for anyone who buys a ticket to one of his UK concerts, most of which have already sold out — is a way of creating exposure and excitement. That transfers into concert sales, which is how most artists, outside of a few pop stars, make the vast majority of their money these days. What older artists need today is a marketing partner, not a record company. The Eagles have Wal-Mart, Paul McCartney has Starbucks and now Prince has the Mail on Sunday.
Amazingly, much of the media coverage of the giveaway treated the event as a PR stunt. After all, the anti-gay, anti-immigration Mail is hardly natural Prince territory — in Harry Potter, the paper is favorite reading material for Vernon Dursley. But the strange alliance offers a striking example of how two struggling businesses could reinvent themselves. In fact, I have to admit that my professional assessment of the giveaway quickly gave way to a much more personal reaction.
Why couldn’t my newspaper do that?
Newspapers, as you may have heard, are in deep doo-doo. While the Times still is a profitable business, our revenue was down 10% in the second quarter while our cash flow was down, as our publisher put it the other day, a "whopping 27%, making it one of the worst quarters ever experienced." Times are so hard at the Times that the publisher has proposed putting ads on the front page to generate new revenue.
So far we’ve made little headway developing imaginative strategies to bring back lost readers — or compete for younger readers who get their information from the Internet. The record business has been just as slow to provide fans online with new, convenient ways to hear music — the only visionary idea, Steve Jobs’ iTunes store, came from outside the business. Unless you are a mainstream pop artist, it’s hard to see how the old-fashioned record company model benefits your career anymore. If you’re a respected older performer — known in industry parlance as a heritage artist — your biggest challenge is finding a way to get your music heard.
That’s where the newspaper comes in. As the Mail on Sunday has shown, newspapers remain a formidable distribution machine. My paper has roughly 1.1 million Sunday subscribers and generates 65 million page views each month. If you’re a heritage artist looking for exposure with an audience that might appreciate your work and has proven by reading a newspaper that it’s curious about the outside world, what could be a better starting point than the Times?
Here’s how it might work. The Times would start a free-music series, offering music (either on a CD or via downloads) from respected artists willing to think outside the box — meaning anyone from Elvis Costello, Beck and Ryan Addams to Ry Cooder, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. Instead of paying the artist a fat fee, we’d recruit advertising sponsors who’d be delighted to be associated with classy artists and the imprint of the Times.
If you haven’t noticed, music has a powerful mojo for advertisers. TV commercials have used pop songs to sell product for years. Lexus currently has a series of TV ads featuring Costello and John Legend seated in a Lexus, simply talking about their favorite music (Elvis sings the praises of Beethoven). But what they’re really selling is coolness by association. The same association could apply to us via a giveaway series. It would encourage readers to see the paper in a new light, as not just a news-gathering organization but a cultural engine. If we surrounded the music with news, reviews and features from our staff, it could also expose new visitors to our formidable music critics and reporters.
Could this really work? For a reality check, I called Jim Guerinot, an industry free-thinker who manages Nine Inch Nails, Gwen Stefani and Social Distortion. "Are you kidding — that’s a great idea," he says. "There are tons of these Hall-of-Fame quality heritage artists who don’t sell records anymore. It would be a real coup for them to reach their target demo through the newspaper and have the cachet of being an artist of the week or month."
Having the Times showcase new music would do more than attract advertising — it would help transform the image of the paper. "It could redefine the paper by making it a destination site for music fans," says Guerinot. "On the net, the big challenge is always about providing a filter for people. It would make the Times, with its critical voice, into a gatekeeper. People are looking for someone to show them the way — why shouldn’t it be the L.A. Times?"
Newspapers don’t just need new readers, we need new ways to serve them. So why shouldn’t we use one of our core strengths — our entertainment coverage — as a way to transform our web site’s pop music page into a place where you wouldn’t just find us writing about music, but find the music itself? It not only makes the paper feel more relevant, but it would create a new income stream that might be less intrusive than putting ads on the front page.
"What you’d be doing is turning the paper into a recommendation engine," says Fred Goldring, a leading industry attorney. "Everywhere you look, from car ads to the NBA, music is a big part of everything that sells. You wouldn’t just be giving away music, you’d be doing something no one else does better educating the consumer."
I can’t guarantee that my bosses will instantly embrace this idea — they don’t often look to columnists for business acumen. And there are plenty of naysayers. Retail outlets could punish artists that give away music by refusing to carry their new CDs, as they did in England with Prince. Cliff Burnstein, who manages the Red Hot Chili Peppers, believes music giveaways work better in England where "pop music is a national sport and the audience is a lot less fragmented than in the U.S."
But Prince’s gambit won’t be a one-shot deal. The British ska group Madness is considering a similar newspaper giveaway for its next album. One of Burnstein’s bands, Snow Patrol, is touring Australia in September. Since few fans bought its first album there, the group is mailing the first album free to anyone who buys concert tickets, bumping up the ticket price to pay for it, figuring the fans will enjoy the concerts more if they’re more familiar with the band’s earlier music.
Giving music away doesn’t mean it has lost its value, just that its value is no longer moored to the price of a CD. Like it or not, the CD is dying, as is the culture of newsprint. People want their music — and their news — in new ways. It’s time we embraced change instead of always worrying if some brash new idea — like giving away music — would tarnish our sober minded image. When businesses are faced with radical change, they are usually forced to ask — is it a threat or an opportunity? Guess which choice is the right answer."