Deep Catalog Experiment Works For UMGI

stuart_a1.jpgIt happens all the time.  I get a craving to hear some old, forgotten song.  A few weeks ago it was “The Saints Are Coming” – the original version by the Skids – and it’s nowhere to be found online.  Wal-Mart, the closest so-called “record store” in my small town, obviously won’t have it, and even if Newbury Comics did, it’s not worth the hour-plus round trip, and I want the song, not the whole album.

So I fired up LimeWire and stole it.  I felt bad, but music junkies like me are unaffected by guilt when confronted by such situtations.  What else was I supposed to do?

I’m fine with buying songs, though I prefer to hear them on Rhapsody through my subscription.  Either way, copyright holders are compensated.   But when the track’s not available through legal channels, what’s a music fan to do?

If, on the other hand, record companies digitized everything and made it available online, things would be different.  Universal Music Group International sensed this, and in January launched a program to see how unlimited availability might affect demand for music too marginal to keep in physical release as compact discs, releasing thousands of out-of-print songs as digital-only tracks:

The UMGI programme is open-ended, expected to extend well into the future and involve substantial investment, particularly for the excavation and digitisation of older, rare analogue material.  Planned for delivery before the end of 2006 are thousands more deleted tracks.

Last week, the company made public the initial results of this experiment:

Online music fans have downloaded more than 250,000 tracks of previously out-of-print recordings by European artists since the launch of Universal Music’s pioneering digital catalogue reissue programme earlier this year.

Consumers bought music by a diverse, eclectic range of performers, including rock bands such as France’s Noir Desir, Germany’s Accept, and the U.K.’s Del Amitri, Cast and Eddie & the Hot Rods, as well as household names Chris De Burgh and Nana Mouskouri, and cultural icons Jacques Brel and Brigitte Bardot.

Interestingly, the top album download was “Steeltown” by Big Country, the band Stuart Adamson formed after leaving the Skids.

The programme validates the theories explored in Christopher Anderson’s “The Long Tail: How the Future of Business is Selling Less of More,” says a Universal executive:

It’s easy for our consumers online to find and download current artists and current hits, but through this deep catalogue reissue programme, we are now able to respond to and quantify the appetite for more eclectic, diverse recordings from the past.  It’s clear that this is a ‘tail’ worth chasing.

“We are now able to respond to and quantify  the appetite…”

This approach exposes demand where no one suspects it exists.  I won’t reproduce Anderson’s work here.  Everyone should read his book.    “The Long Tail” reinforces the fact that once content is digitized and published, its value increases with each purchase.  If it’s unavailable, it has no value.  Once the revenue from purchases exceeds the cost of digitization, the value curve moves ever upward.

It’s interesting, as Tower Records shutters its doors, what’s most lamented is the lack of a retail establishment that has, literally, one of everything.  The physical space required to make it possible is too cost prohibitive for the business model to work.  With digitization, all that’s needed is cheap hard drive capacity and, I suppose, encryption to control piracy.

Closer to home, a local band held a CD release party the other night that was marred by their distributor, who didn’t ship the disks in time.  Had the band digitized the record and published it to a digital music store, they might have simply collected email addresses and sent links to everyone who bought the record.  As it was, they had to schedule ANOTHER release party in three weeks, and apologize profusely to their fans.

With those email  addresses in hand, they’d also have a mechanism for reaching fans with music and news later on.

This only works as digital distribution becomes the norm.  We’re not there yet, but it’s getting closer every day.