Record companies get aggressive

Record companies get aggressive to sell old-fashioned CDs
by Eric Benderoff
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
28 June 2007
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CHICAGO – When The New Pornographers’ fourth album goes on sale in August, ardent fans will have already streamed the songs on their computers and received extra tracks that won’t be on the album. And some time in the fall, they will own a live recording from the band’s coming tour.

The band’s label, New York’s Matador Records, hopes that an extra dose of songs – some available now and some when the cool weather returns – will help stem the flow of illegal copies of the new album and drum up a bit of extra revenue.

Call it the summer of promotional love for music fans, as record labels step up already aggressive campaigns to lure consumers with unique downloads, bonus videos, special vinyl versions and music that hasn’t been recorded yet.

“The people who go out to the record stores on the first day of a release deserve something extra,” said Paul Cardillo, who handles sales for North Carolina-based Merge Records, whose top-selling artists include Arcade Fire and Spoon. “And for those people who may be interested in a record, you want to give them a reason not to download it illegally.”

It’s no secret music sales are in a deep funk. In 2006, CD shipments fell nearly 13 percent, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, continuing a trend that saw CD shipments decline in five of the last six years. Year-over-year sales for the first quarter of 2007 are down 20 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

So to slow the slide and give music fans a reason to buy, labels are stepping up the promotions for paying customers.

“It’s become more prevalent in the last couple of months,” said Liz Tooley, co-owner of Chicago’s Permanent Records. “Our customers are commenting on these things. `Oh, wow, it comes with free MP3s,’ they’ll say. They may buy the record anyway, but it’s definitely an extra push.”

From big labels like Warner Bros. Records to independents like Chicago’s Touch and Go Records, the programs can be “aggressive, but it makes sense,” said Justin Sinkovich, who handles Touch and Go’s digital distribution. “We want to reward people.”

On June 19, Warner released multiple formats of the White Stripes’ latest album, “Icky Thump.” The CD is priced at $15, vinyl is $30 and two special-edition USB thumb drives are offered for $57.50 each. One thumb drive looks like Jack White, the other Meg White.

Earlier, before the release, the label used an application on social networking Web site that allowed people to stream singles.

“You could hear their new song, then when the video was available, we streamed that,” said Robin Bechtel, head of new media at Warner Bros. On the release date, the “entire album was available through the app.”

The extras for The New Pornographers’ release are considerable.

“We are being very aggressive,” said Patrick Amory, Matador’s general manager. “It seems we have to reinvent our business plan every six months, maybe even with every new release.”

The “Buy Early, Get Now” promotion is offered for $5 on top of the album’s retail price if buyers prepay for the “Challengers” album. The “executive edition” includes a streamed version available now, two months before the Aug. 21 release, and a box set of bonus material: B-sides, alternate mixes, videos, photos and a concert CD titled “Live from the Future.”

In addition to trying to halt piracy, the label is doing the promotion in an effort to take advantage of the publicity a band gets before an album is released.

“At the time we are promoting the record, when the biggest buzz is going on about the record, people can’t buy it,” Amory said. “But they can often download it for free” from an illegal file-sharing site.

Review copies of highly anticipated albums are shipped three months before release to help magazines meet deadlines. At the same time, singles are released to radio stations to create additional buzz.

But this early exposure can come at a steep price: New albums start popping up on illegal file-sharing sites shortly after review copies are distributed.

So, as writers and critics begin to craft stories ahead of the release date and radio stations start playing singles, Matador wants fans to listen to a streamed version of the album, legally, instead of downloading an illegal copy.

But even streams might not be enough, Amory said, and that’s why the promotion for the “Challengers” album is the most aggressive the label has offered to date. Matador hopes to sell 250,000 copies of the album, which Amory called a “very good” figure for an indie label. The group’s 2005 release, “Twin Cinema,” sold 160,000 copies.

So far, it has been effective. More than 1,000 people have prepaid for the executive package of “Challengers,” Amory said.

On July 10, Merge will release Spoon’s “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.” The first pressing of the CD will come packaged with a bonus disc, available at big-box retailers and independents such as Permanent Records, and the smaller stores also will get a 7-inch vinyl single.

The vinyl version of the record, as with all vinyl copies from Merge and several other labels, includes a coupon to download a free MP3 version of the album.

Touch and Go, which will release a new album from punk favorites the Mekons in August, is preparing “a lot of cool footage,” Sinkovich said, “as part of the bonus material we will be offering to online retailers.”

For brick-and-mortar stores, plans are still in the works, but there will be a lot of emphasis on the packaging. “If people like the music, the goal is to get them to buy it,” he said. “It needs to be worth buying.”

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