By Kevin Erickson from Future of Music Coalition.
Last week, beloved musical humorist âWeird Alâ Yankovic dropped his new album Mandatory Fun. Propelled by a set of eight viral videos, it quickly rose to the top spot on the Billboard charts, his first ever #1, with over 104,000 album sales. Al recently told the New York Times, âI wasnât thinking, âOh, Iâm on the bleeding edge of marketing, this is going to be a business model that will change the world.â But as a longtime (possibly obssessive?) fan of Al, Iâd suggest thereâs still a few things we can learn from him.
1. Exclusivity can matter.
Letâs say you are launching a new album with eight new videos. The obvious first place to go to premiere them would be the worldâs largest video site, YouTube, right? Well, while Alâs new crop of videos will all end up on YouTube eventually, Al didnât choose to launch most of them them there initially. Instead, he struck partnership deals with a bunch of different websites for exclusive premieres. As Al described in a somewhat bizarre interview with Fox Businessâs Stuart Varney, Al got sites like Yahoo, College Humor, Funny or Die, and Nerdist to pay production costs of videos in exchange for the exclusives. These sites benefit from extra traffic and ad revenue, while Al gets their extra promotional muscle in a different corner of the online world. And getting these third parties to pick up video costs means that Alâs label RCA isnât paying for it either, meaning the record will potentially recoup faster.
This runs counter to a currently popular notion that the best thing an artist can do is have all of their content in as many different places as possible as soon as itâs released. (To be fair, the album itself is on the major on-demand streaming services, but you wouldnât know that from Alâs website, which is set up to direct fans to download stores and direct-to-fan physical sales, presumably because the value of those purchases is higher.) And, while most artists arenât going to have the kind of leverage to be able to get a whole bunch of popular sites to pay for their videos, an artistâs ability to decide where and when his/her music is or is not used is something that can generate serious economic value.
(Incidentally, this is one reason that certain indie labels are reportedly angered by rumored clauses in YouTubeâs contracts with indies for its new streaming service disallowing âwindowingâ and limiting exclusives. Itâs possible that if Al had been constrained by these contractual terms, heâd have been unable to launch his album this way.)
2. Fair use is great, but actual permission can enable you to do more.
âFair useâ is a provision in US Copyright law that allows for the public to use portions of copyrighted works for comment and criticism. Every time a big fair use controversy comes up in the news, particularly when its associated with a new version of a song with altered lyrics, people start making references to Weird Alâs supposed invocation of fair use, in cases ranging from Frank Oceanâs rewrite of âHotel Californiaâ to Goldiebloxâs ill-advised appropriation of the Beastie Boysâ âGirls.â
In reality, Al doesnât invoke fair use, but generally gets permission from the artist and songwriters and negotiates a license agreement. The writers and publishers of the original song then earn a share of royalties on sales of Alâs version. (Indeed, TMZ recently stumbled on Al asking rapper Iggy Azalea for permission backstage after her concert.)
Some commenters have speculated that Al doesnât need permission, but asks for it anyway, just because heâs such a nice guy. But while parody is explicitly protected in fair use doctrine, one could make the case that most of Alâs song parodies may not be entirely parodic but cross a line into satire, which doesnât enjoy the same fair use protection. Technically, parodies are supposed to comment upon the original work, but in Alâs humorous rewrites, the object of the lampooning is often not the song or artist himself/herself, but some other sociocultural phenomenon that Al is commenting on. (Exceptions might include 2011âs âPerform This Way,â a perfect deconstruction of Lady Gagaâs persona, or 1993âs Billy Ray Cyrus parody âAchy Breaky Song.â) As the Supreme Court held in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music:
â¦parody may or may not be fair use, and [the] suggestion that any parodic use is presumptively fair has no more justification in law or fact than the equally hopeful claim that any use for news reporting should be presumed fairâ¦The Act has no hint of an evidentiary preference for parodists over their victims, and no workable presumption for parody could take account of the fact that parody often shades into satire when society is lampooned through its creative artifacts, or that a work may contain both parodic and non parodic elements. Accordingly, parody, like any other use, has to work its way through the relevant factors, and be judged case by case, in light of the ends of the copyright law.
And as attorney Rich Stim notes over at Stanfordâs page on fair use, the amount of the original work that gets used has also been a factor in existing case law; Al usually uses songs in their entirety. Alâs original style parodies, where he writes original tunes but imitates the general musical style of the original acts are another matter entirely, and donât require Al to obtain permission or any kind of license because nothing copyrightable is being appropriated. Examples include the new Pixies homage âFirst World Problemsâ or my personal favorite, the DEVO-spoofing âDare To Be Stupid.â
3. Vinyl really is back.
You might be surprised to learn that Mandatory Fun is being released in vinyl LP format, as was its predecessor, 2011âs Alpocalypse. That was Alâs first release on vinyl since 1992âs Off The Deep End. By now everyone knows that vinyl sales are one part of the recorded music business thatâs experience serious growth, reaching a 22 year record in 2013, and on track to set another record in 2014. Excitement about this growth has been tempered by an acknowledgement that itâs not enough to make up for digital declines, and it still only represents a small share of overall industry revenues.
Sure, itâs still a niche format, but itâs a niche with significant enough economic value that even singles-driven, mainstream-oriented artists like Al find it worth participating in. (Though this growth has created some challenges; the vinyl release was bumped back until August 5, quite possibly a result of the backlog at pressing plants created by all the new demand for vinyl.) Alâs always been willing to try new formats (2006âs Straight Outta Lynwood was realeased as a DualDisc), but itâs significant that even artists like Al who are deeply invested in a digitally-focused strategy see real value in analog physical media.
4. Every artistâs path is different.
Much has been made of Alâs recent speculation that this will be his last full length recordâhaving fulfilled his contract with Sony, heâs likely to just release singles independently, so he can more quickly respond to pop hits with timely spoofs. It would be easy to extrapolate from this that âthe album is deadâ or âyou donât need labels anymore.â
But remember: Al is weird, and so is his career, so we have to be careful about using outliers to define âindustry trends.â No one would have expected the kid with the accordion sending 4-track home-recordings to Dr Demento to have a number one album all these years later. While anyone can make a song parody and share it now, thereâs not many people making a living off of song parodies, and thereâs still only one Weird Al. For some artists, albums might not be the most important format, for others theyâre vital. Some artists have a business model that doesnât require label support; others find their assistance crucial. Most of the viral strategies that work for Al arenât going to work for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for example, even as they too are huge fans of Alâs work.
Every musician is different. Some, it turns out, are inimitable. And, yes, Iâm kinda making a meta-criticism of my own blog post here. But hereâs one thing that everyone can learn from Al:
5. Thereâs enduring value in being a really nice person.
Al is legendarily fan-friendly, and generous with his time and attention. Nearly every musician or journalist whoâs ever encountered Al reports that heâs genuinely, disarmingly humble and kind, and treats his team exceptionally well, including his band and crew. (Amazingly, heâs worked with the same backing band since 1981.) He only plays all-ages shows, knowing that kids grow up into life-long fans. That accumulated goodwill pays dividends, as a generation of younger comedians clamor to make cameos in his videos, and aging fans bring their kids to shows. While only a tiny handful of musicians will have a career as successful as Alâs, that ânice guyâ reputation is something anyone can aspire to earn.