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The post-Napster world of marketing
The benefits of giving away music
(CNN) -- Sure, the whole Napster issue is tied up in legal maneuvering, pitting major players in the recording industry against representatives of the groundbreaking peer-to-peer Internet music application.
But that hasn't stopped labels and recording artists from using Napster and other Internet sites to promote releases. And it appears to be paying off.
Take Radiohead. The quintet from Oxford, England, recently became the first British band in more than three years to top Billboard's United States charts with the October 3 release of "Kid A."
The CD was one of the most anticipated releases this year, but no thanks to traditional publicity tactics such as granting interviews or creating videos or planning a lengthy tour.
Instead, the band released "Kid A" in its entirety, free, on the Internet just three weeks before its street date.
"We knew in advance that the entire album would be up on the Internet anyway, so we wanted to be proactive and offer the full album to as many partner sites as we could, like Radiohead fan sites, radio station Web sites, online retailers, music and lifestyle sites," says Robin Bechtel. The head of Capitol Records' new media, she devised what can best be called a self-defense strategy.
"Also, we wanted to make it easy for people to be able to access the music and to be able to spend time with the record before it was in stores," she says.
In other words, Capitol abandoned traditional marketing practices to take "Kid A" to the people, not an easy task for an album critics characterize as hardly radio friendly. "Kid A" is a moody, melancholy collection of electronic and ethereal vibes, melded like a movie soundtrack with lead singer Thom Yorke's detached musings.
That, says Bechtel, was another reason to post it in full on the Internet.
"We wanted people to be introduced to this album in its entirety, from start to finish," Bechtel says. "'Kid A' is a full-album listening experience, like the way you listen to Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon.' If you hear it in pieces you won't experience it in the way it's meant to be heard."
Certainly, Radiohead is not the first or last to use the Internet to promote its release. Madonna released online "Music," her most recent single, before the street date for the album of the same name.
Such tactics highlight out a marketing contradiction: Representatives of most major labels, when discussing Napster, don't want to be forced to give music away for free. But they're doing it anyway.
Web as a marketplace
Meantime, other music bigwigs are banking on the business of selling music on the Internet.
Mark Geiger has been in the pulse of the music industry for years. He helped found Lollapalooza, the alternative rock fair that debuted in 1991. Now he runs Artistdirect.com, a network of sites devoted to promoting and selling music acts over the Internet.
Free-dealing Napster has shown the world the potential of music on the Web, he says.
"I don't know any program that has grown as fast as the Napster application," he says. "The problem is, the consumers took songs and are sharing them, and there's no business model that the world can see that says, 'Oh, there's a business there.'"
Still, Geiger, 38, is willing to gamble on Internet sales of music. One high-profile, Internet-only release coming up through Artistdirect.com is Cher's new CD, "Not Commercial." You can preorder it now at Cherdirect.com for $13.99.
Cher's label, Warner Bros., decided it didn't want to release the record, which features songs written by Cher and was recorded before her 1998 successful LP "Believe." Geiger had no such qualms.
"I think it's an excellent record, a lot more serious than her other works," says Geiger."Warner Bros. elected not to put this one out after a pop record because they wanted another pop record. So they were happy to let this come out through Cher."
Such an effort illustrates how labels, artists, and Internet companies can work together to offer listeners music they wouldn't normally hear, Geiger says. It also inspires bands to stretch their creative wings, he says.
"When the pressure's off and you don't have millions of dollars in marketing behind you and you don't have sale expectations, that's when you're going to get creative," Geiger says.
Artistdirect.com plans more releases soon from acts like k.d. lang, John Bryan and Spearhead.
Geiger foresees a time when Internet music may be like cable TV, with customers paying a monthly rate to have access to catalogs of music old and new.
Or maybe they'll mimic something even older: buying singles. Customers may pay for each song they download in much they same way people once bought 45-rpm records. They can do that now, says Geiger, but the songs cost up to $2 each.
"When the price gets closer to 10 cents per song and is automatically billed, then maybe there's a healthy business there," he says. "But that involves a lot of technology in how to secure those things."
Together again on the Web
Back to the artists who create the music: The Internet is offering such potential that at least one band got back together in reaction to it.
It started with Stan Savage, 27. He's the director of artists and repertoire at MusicBlitz.com, which he bills as an Internet music label. The company pays for bands to go into a studio and record music, which MusicBlitz.com posts for free, while offering hardcopy CDs for sale. It also pays bands each time one of their songs is downloaded from its site.
"We can afford to give songs away for free (and pay bands) because we make money getting them into film soundtracks and TV shows, and that's a pretty lucrative means of money," says Savage.
Savage also happens to be old friends with The Presidents of the United States of America. Remember them? The Seattle, Washington, trio of Chris Ballew, Dave Dederer and Jason Finn rose to mid- and late-'90s success with quirky, catchy rockers like "Lump" and "Peaches," then promptly broke up.
Earlier this year, Savage called The Presidents. It turns out they were still playing together, along with Seattle rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot, in a band they called Subset. Savage, providing money and studio, convinced them to cut a single as The Presidents.
The result was "Jupiter," which MusicBlitz.com posted on its site. The song was one of its most popular downloads, says Dederer, who follows closely the issues surrounding online music.
"So they wanted to see if we wanted to do a record," Dederer, 36, says. "And we did it, and it was fun."
The band turned out "Freaked Out and Small," released in September. Recording the album was an Internet experience in itself, one that could foreshadow a new way of making albums for all music artists, Savage says.
"We had someone film the entire recording process," says Savage. "People could watch the record get made online. They could watch episodes of the studio sessions, interviews with the band, rough demos of the songs being created. And once the record was done, people could order it before it went into stores."
In fact, the CD features in its liner notes the names of the first 500 fans who ordered the CD, a sort of thank-you to those who cast a vote of confidence for The Presidents .
Guess how Savage is promoting it. Yep, he's giving away one of the CD's tracks, "I'm Mad," in MP3 form to any site that wants to post it. The Dederer-penned tune, Savage says, is timely, as it addresses political frustrations.
"That was the only political song that they've ever written," says Savage. "We figured it was appropriate with the elections. And it's a band called The Presidents, so ... ."
So, hovering like cloud above the entire Internet music business is the question: Will people continue to buy CDs if they can get music online?
Savage says yes. Handing out a few singles on the Web should only whet appetites, he says.
"It's the Mrs. Fields cookie idea," he says. "If you give out samples in the store, you hope people will come back and buy a bag of cookies."
But in the case of Radiohead and its full-album release, something else was at work. Capitol promoted the idea that "Kid A" was worth more than an Internet-quality listen. And the CD packaging contains a secret booklet for fans. It's filled with bizarre art and stream-of-consciousness phrases.
The bottom line: The business potential for music on the Internet is there, but until the dust in the Napster case -- and the dust from other Internet music pioneers -- settles, that potential is as predictable as the wind.
Meantime, people like Bechtel at Capitol Records are using the Internet's free-music capabilities to promote top bands. But where she stands on the Napster issue is apparently left for the courts.
When asked in the e-mail interview whether she's pro-Napster, she left her answer blank.
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