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‘No. 1’ With A Bullet: Is Pre-Release Killing Our Business?

10th March 2010 @ 6:30 pm - 9:00 pm

Venue: The Basement, PRS for Music, Copyright House

Event photos: See here

“…the panel was well thought through with a range of key people from their fields…it reduced the speculation that can happen and was centred around people genuinely aware of the subject and with the power to respond to the concepts…my first MusicTank event and I will definitely return.” – PAUL JONAS,Tru Thoughts
“…informative and will return.” – RICH WALKER, 4AD
“…a great and entertaining panel…good key people amongst them and in the audience, too.” – MARIANNE PETERSEN, MarpLondon
“..stimulating…” – STEVE MELHUISH, Music Business School

INTRO: The UK release process is one of the most front-loaded in the world, with pre-release promotion starting up to three months ahead of release.  The problem is that, with everything riding on building pre-awareness, we’ve produced a system that creates demand for a product that is by definition not legally available – which doesn’t work when it takes just one promo CD to be uploaded to a p2p network for a release to spread around the world.  Industry bodies including ERA and the MMF are calling for abolition of pre-release windows in their entirety. With speakers including the BBC’s Head of Music for Radio 1 George Ergatoudis, this event will bring an artist manager, label, distributor, journalist and retailer together with the Official Charts Company to scope issues the release system has faced since the advent of the digital download.

MusicTank will itself experiment with a new format – following the keynote presentation, attendees will be split into groups, each led by one of the panellists, who will set to work developing their own ideas before presenting them back to the wider group.  MusicTank 2.0 you could say…


TOPIC: “You do it to yourself” sang Radiohead in 1995.  Though Thom Yorke was not critiquing the music industry at the time, the sentiment could certainly apply today.  Whilst much of the debate on filesharing has focused on how to change the behaviour of the public, MusicTank asks whether it’s the behaviour of labels and the media that must be modified instead?

As a result of being one of the few countries still boasting a healthy singles market, the UK has developed possibly the world’s most front-loaded of release processes.  Overwhelmingly, the majority of campaign activity is focused on the pre-release window – necessary to ensure good first week sales and thus support down the line.

The problem here is that with everything riding on pre-release awareness, we’ve produced a system designed to create demand for a product that by definition is not available legally.  As all it takes is for just one promo CD to be uploaded to a p2p network for a release to spread around the world, that demand is easily catered for in other ways.

Indeed the better the pre-release campaign, the higher the demand, the more people are encouraged to download it from wherever they can, and artists and labels lose out on their biggest sellers.

Not only are we losing sales to file sharing, but the effect on this front-loading is that songs usually enter the charts high and then drop like a stone, instead of naturally building in a meaningful way to fans.

Still the charts are relatively buoyant, with the average weekly sales for a number 1 in 2009, 94,000 units, being a marked improvement of 2007’s nadir of 55,000, and 2010 figures already look set to improve further.

So far, a tally of sales by week 5 shows the top 10 biggest selling singles in 2010 have shifted 1.9m units, 40% up on the same time last year (1.4m).  That’s before factoring in the effects of R1’s much anticipated midweek chart show – adding a welcome new level of excitement to the weekly race.

Taking a long view though, the bigger picture is somewhat different, with sales well down on a decade before, when the average chart topper sold 160,000 units in a week.  Houston, we do have a problem.

This has prompted ERA, the MMF and others to question whether the time is approaching for root and branch reform of the system – an end to release windows entirely.  They argue that making product legally available as soon as demand is created will undermine piracy, enabling people to go to legal sites in the first instance.

Furthermore, we’d see songs build again – giving fans the thrill of watching a single edge its way up the charts, gaining momentum and popularity on the back of word of mouth and reviews.  It wouldn’t stop high selling tracks going straight in at number 1, it would just be a lot rarer.

But can or should we wean radio off its addiction to pre-releases?  Would the printed press be willing to change their policies and review singles and albums that are already in the shops?  No one has yet fully reconciled the ability of digital media to be spread instantly around the world with the long lead times of the printed press.

One thing’s for sure, no label can ever hope to achieve results working unilaterally, indeed those that have tried to shorten the pre-release window, even for established artists, have met with disappointing results.

A consensus approach is necessary, and it’s not going to be easy, if it’s possible at all.  The very act of most of the labels, the media and retail agreeing to a new approach, would naturally incentivise other smart-thinking labels to play the system and use a pre-release window to build demand.  And we’d soon be back where we are today.

In fact that’s how it all started – go back 20 years and it was the industry that started holding tracks back, obtaining collusion from media who wanted to be ‘cool’ by playing tracks the punter couldn’t buy – for higher chart positions, more airplay and a TOTP slot.

Changing chart rules to disqualify tracks that are released after promotion would work, but that is one mighty sledgehammer, and arguably restricts labels’ freedom to market their music as they like.

MusicTank will be bringing artist managers, labels, journalists/broadcasters and retail together with the Official Charts Company to find a solution to the biggest issue the release system has faced since the advent of the digital download.

To help reconcile the media’s need for advance copies against the pitfalls of pre-release leaks, MusicTank will itself experiment with a new format and attempt to crowdsource the answers. Following the keynote presentation, attendees will be split into groups, each led by one of the panellists, who will set to work developing their own ideas before presenting them back to the wider group.  MusicTank 2.0 you could say…

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