Saturday, February 17, 2007

10 Ways to Fix the Music Biz

February 16, 2007

The CD business is broken, record stores are closing, and superstars just ain't selling like they used to. It's time to open up the machine, examine the parts, and offer some advice.

Make CDs cheaper. This is so obvious you wouldn't think it should have to be spoken. But we're saying it anyway. After two decades, CDs should not be more expensive than they once were.

Stop indulging artists. The prime example of this trend -- and one that has even further hammered home the idea that the CD is a bloated, overpriced behemoth that no one should waste money on -- is the dreaded double disc. Only artists who want more royalty revenue (and who could use a good editor) need them, and we mean everyone from Christina Aguilera to Red Hot Chili Peppers to OutKast. (As nerds, though, we're fine with those double-disc expanded editions of classic albums -- B-sides, outtakes, and alternate versions have to go somewhere, right?) Also, stop releasing upgraded versions of albums released mere months before. That means you, Bruce, and you, Usher. We don't want to have to buy the same record twice.

Have a TV network launch the songwriting equivalent of American Idol. It's no secret that the beat has overtaken melody in pop songwriting. It's time for that to change. A walloping beat or a mixture of groove and sample can still be a wonderful thing. But we need good songs and lots of them. Fast.

Give up the ghost of the blockbuster album. The old business model -- that one megaplatinum release would sustain hundreds or thousands of flops -- was crazy enough. But disc sales (and audience fragmentation) are now such that even a hugely hyped Jay-Z comeback album can drop 80 percent in sales during its second week. Take eMusic's cue and subscribe to the Long Tail theory put forth in Chris Anderson's book of the same name: Look to modest sales of lots of music to sustain the biz, rather than hoping the next Kelly Clarkson moves a gazillion units.

Only release certain kinds of music on CD. The fact that Barry Manilow was able to reclaim the No. 1 spot on the album chart with his karaoke-style covers albums proves conclusively that boomers are buying more CDs than younger music fans. So if a particular CD is mainly going to appeal to someone below the age of 30, go digital -- it'll be better for the environment, too.

Cut concert ticket prices. Since bands may have to rely on touring for even more of their income, it's vital that people be able to afford to see them. In terms of sustaining a business, it's ominous enough that the Stones and U2 remain the top-grossing live acts. Coldplay and Nickelback did well last year too, but not enough to crack the Top 10, according to Pollstar editor-in-chief Gary Bongiovanni. "It's been great while it's been lasting," he says, "but how much longer can it go?"

Stop making it so hard to choose between formats. iPod? Zune? And which file-sharing format we use? Which one is hooked up with digital rights-management software, restricting access to certain copyrighted material? (The right idea: A recent Norah Jones single, sold without DRM format, plays on any platform.) And while we're at it, Apple: Start making longer-lasting iPods. It's a genius product, but do we have to buy another one so soon?

Fully embrace the Web. Instead of making threats when an unauthorized song or video shows up on MySpace or YouTube, majors should welcome the exposure. In its early days, MTV made you want to buy records and go to shows. The Web has the ability to provide those same thrills.

Reinvent the record store. We're approaching a time when anyone who walks into a record store will truly be like those obsessives in High Fidelity. So why not cater to them? Sell only indie, alt rock, and hip-hop, not to mention vinyl and every type of iPod and iPod competitor.

Stop releasing crap. Again, this should be obvious, but let's go through the list of the kind of records that are reducing music as an art form -- and its place in the culture. No more records by celebrities without discernible vocal talent. And, of course, no more Rod Stewart covers collections. The guy was great at one time -- every iPod should come loaded with his cover of "(I Know) I'm Losing You." But enough already. The music biz relying on ol' Rod to keep things afloat is akin to auto makers hoping there's enough oil in the world to last forever: There isn't. And it's time to take that new hybrid, whatever it may be, out for a test drive.