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New Business Models for Music Sales

A few years back, I grappled with the distinction between “Christian” and “mainstream” music. This pondering often led to related questions during my artist interviews. I brought up the topic years ago. Then I noticed other media joining in on the discussion. Recently, my deep contemplation revolves around record labels and music sales. However, in this case, perhaps other media have been considering this topic longer than my preoccupation.

I hear about continual layoffs of record label employees. I read about lowering statistics of music sales. I learn of bands getting signed to a major record label. At the same time other bands have decided to remain independent. These thoughts run around in my mind a lot.

Late last year, I subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine. I had no idea at the time that reading each issue would help further my current reflections.

The November 29, 2007 issue has an article titled, “Reinventing Record Deals” that caught my eye. According to the article, artists have been signing 360-degree contracts with record labels. Seeing that there is revenue from concert touring, merchandise sales and music publishing, record labels are taking a cut of the profits from more than just recording. With this new type of deal, the label gets a certain percentage of money on all sides, thus the name 360-degree.

In some ways this may be great for a new band. With all that possible income at stake, I would expect the record label would want to spend more money marketing the artists on their roster. Yet, knowing that many bands make more money while touring and merchandise sales than simply selling records, I wonder how many bands would run to sign such a contract. And I am not sure if this translates into higher ticket sales, or less money for the promoter, booking agent, and business manger. According to the article, though, Paramore signed this type of contract with Atlantic Records in 2005 and it has worked out well on all sides.

“Biz Bets on Subscription” caught my eye in the December 13, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone. Not a new topic at the record label boardrooms, the article reports that folks are taking a new look at month-to-month fee based music. When I first saw the article, I was intrigued. How many people do you know who rave about paying money each month in order to have access to a bunch of music choices? As for me, I still like having the CD in my hand. Others around me speak of the wonders of legal downloading song by song.

Despite my skepticism, we may soon notice some changes that will make the subscription fee seem worthwhile. Wi-fi streaming to portable players and cell phones might entice more listeners to join. The wheels are reportedly moving in this direction. Though evidently improved technology is needed, as well as more price cooperation with record labels, before this will go much further. And … well … apprehensive people like me must get over the idea of “owning” music before this business model will replace current trends.

These two considerations represent a small piece of a huge pie called music sales. Most people would agree that the old recipe does not satisfy any more. But the new recipe has not yet been found. Until then, I will continue to ponder.