One of the debates that continues to run through the music industry is whether consumers buying digital downloads will cannibalize, match or increase overall music spending. One of the fears is that the current a la carte model encourages cherry picking so that consumers skip filler tracks on albums and head straight for the killer tracks. The net result of this model would be decreased sales, and significantly, lower distribution of album costs resulting in decreased record label profitability. When Jupiter surveyed digital music executives in Europe some reported the balance between individual track purchases and albums being as high as 80 / 20 to singles. The music industry has got very strong vested financial interests in not going full circle and becoming a singles business all over again.
All of which explains why some artists are keeping their albums off the digital stores and services until the CD is released. US artist Ne-Yo’s debut album went in the US charts at #1 after his label decided not to release any tracks in any format prior to the album release. Though this indicates a wider strategy that goes beyond digital and is less applicable to countries that still have physical singles markets, it is evidence that some labels are beginning to be a little more thoughtful about how the incorporate digital into the mix.
A more extreme and higher profile case is Shakira, who’s album will not appear on any digital music store or service even when the CD is on the shelves.
It’s worth separating out the wider principle behind Ne-Yo’s album of building up pent-up demand from avoiding the digital channel entirely but the question remains whether avoiding digital could ever transition from exception to norm.
I doubt it sincerely. Different strategies work better for different artists. The Arctic Monkeys wouldn’t have had a debut number one if it hadn’t been for heavy pre-release digital activity. But the concern over protecting complete album sales is a valid one. As I’ve said many times before in this blog, creative pricing is a key solution, with sizeable discounting for album and play list purchases. But another solution would be for labels to stipulate that certain albums can only be sold in their entirety, or that all albums can only be sold in their entirety for a fixed period with the exception of maybe one taster track. It sounds restrictive but it is actually only replicating what consumers are used to in the high street. If the choice is between no digital presence and a restrictive digital presence I’d go for the latter.