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Prince and the price of music

29 June 2007

Desperate times make for strange allies, which is why Prince is partnering with the Mail on Sunday. His new album 'Planet Earth' will be given away free as a covermount with the conservative tabloid on 15 July 2007, before the album has even been released in the shops. I can imagine the two million readers spluttering tea all over their croissants as they catch snippets of Prince's bad-boy lyrics. The paper has reportedly stumped up half a million pounds for the rights to the album and is encouraging Prince fans to pre-order the paper. The deal has royally teed-off distributor BMG, which has pulled out of its deal to distribute the album to UK shops as a result.

Prince has also made his new single 'Guitar' available as a free download [link no longer available] in a promotion with O2 for a limited period. And that's free as in 'no money' and free as in 'no controls' too - it's an MP3 with no restrictions on how you can use it. O2 took out a quarter page full colour advert in Metro to advertise the promotion.

For Prince, these are smart deals. It's a long time since he had anyone putting any serious money into promoting his work. The last couple of albums had great distribution, but that just made it easy for existing fans to buy it. They didn't reach out to many new listeners, even though they marked something of a return to form following a few years of patchy output (albeit touched by genius, at times).

Prince could just upload his music to the web and give it away, but then who's going to pay for the cost of producing an album and sustaining the artist during its creation?

With this deal, Prince can afford to give his album away to as many people as possible. To give an idea of scale, this deal will put at least 2 million copies of his album on the street on day one. His greatest creative achievement 'Lovesexy' has only sold 4.82 million in nearly 20 years, according to Wikipedia. (His bestselling album 'Purple Rain' shifted 22.8m units, according to the same source).

Does this devalue the music? Undoubtedly. Most free CDs end up in landfill unplayed, I suspect. It's hard to argue that people shouldn't copy music if you're giving it away with the telly pages. Since there's no distribution deal in the UK for the album at the moment, these free CDs will probably trade briskly on Ebay for a penny plus postage.

Does this deal devalue journalism? Yes, it probably does, also. The Mail on Sunday, in common with most newspapers, seems confused about what business it's in. Clearly, publications are in the business of distributing advertising and this could be seen as advertising. But increasingly, newspapers foist unwanted films and CDs onto listeners who have no choice but to bin them. With this move, the Mail on Sunday is basically conceding that it doesn't matter what their writers produce; what sells papers is a good covermount. While this deal might introduce some Daily Mail readers to Prince's music, it seems unlikely many who buy the paper for the CD will become regular subscribers.

But these are desperate times. At work, we're mourning the loss of our local Fopp, after the chain announced it was closing. It's becoming hard for record shops to survive. They can't compete with the range and pricing of Amazon, and the bargain basement of second hand back catalogue CDs on Ebay. I bought many albums in Fopp, including several that I heard for the first time in the store and wouldn't otherwise have considered buying. Without record shops, brand is likely to become even more important when it comes to shifting units online because you can only sell what people already want. People don't browse just to see what's there in the way they do in a store, and you can't force shoppers to listen to the lastest releases online.

Prince has shown he can build his brand in today's ailing music industry. He's taken a first step towards changing the economics of his business, earning money through concerts and giving away music to build demand for tickets. But he might just have burned some bridges along the way. It remains to be seen whether the record industry or Prince has the more sustainable model in the long run.

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Slow news day?

22 June 2007

So in my BBC RSS feed this morning, sat between 'Stagecoach wins railway franchise' and 'Bomb strikes UK patrol in Basra', is the headline 'Shot kitten's leg was amputated'. The subheading reads: 'A kitten is recovering after its leg was amputated after being shot with a pellet gun in County Antrim.'

This heart-rending story is so important, it is also in the third place on the Northern Ireland news homepage at the time of writing, with a photo.

It is a distressing story, but what's going to keep me awake at night is that the reporter didn't find out the name of the cat.

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