More on releasing music online

Further to my earlier piece on the internet’s effect on how we engage with artists and discover new music, I’ve been thinking about whether there’s a new model (or models) for music distribution in the offing, and if so, who’s driving it.

Listening and buying to music via the Internet has never been easier. As well as iTunes and other online music stores, there are streaming sites and music blogs that offer first tastes of much-anticipated tracks from famous artists and promotion for up-and-coming acts.

And Twitter, as well as the usual stuff about engaging with fans, etc etc, has become an actual distribution channel for artists willing to make that leap, as well as a venue for spontaneous collaborations (Kanye! Raekwon! …Bieber?). While a quick and convenient option for less well-known acts trying to build buzz, it’s also been used by bigger artists. The most famous example is Kanye West, who has committed to releasing a track a week as a free download. And UK grime artist Wiley spontaneously gave away over 200 tracks via Twitter back in July.

These artists are the exception rather than the rule (Wiley in particular is a fasciating individual who clearly sees the business of labels, publicity and promotion as an active obstacle to what he really loves; making music), but there’s definitely a change in the air here.

While new methods of online distribution are impacting every genre of music, most of the really inventive tactics in this area seem to be coming from “urban” music (hip-hop, grime), and electronic music, with the remixes that have been part of dance music since it began, as well as the recent surge in mashups.

A reason for this could be that the first-single-album-second single model is much less locked in place in hip-hop than it is in rock. In its infancy, hip-hop was like rock in the 60s; singles reigned supreme, in large because most people heard individual tracks being mixed together by DJs.

While hip-hop artists nowadays release albums by traditional routes, mixtapes given away for free online are an essential part of the discourse around a given artist, helping to build their profile before they take a step into traditional releases. (To give just one example, Wale’s free mixtapes outclass his debut album by a long, long way.)

This isn’t to say that non-hip-hop artists are completely hidebound. Radiohead garnered plenty of publicity with the online, pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows, due in large part to their high profile. More recently, Sufjan Stevens released an 8-track EP online with next to no publicity, letting the word spread through music blogs and social media. This, to me, is a very canny move; Stevens isn’t exactly a superstar, but has a devoted and vocal fanbase, a lot of whom are connected to each other through following the same blogs or Twitter feeds.

Anyway, the “drop a track when you feel like it” approach doesn’t seem to have filtered out to rock or indie artists (I could be generalising here; let me know if a well-known artist does do that on a regular basis). Maybe it’s an effect of the longstanding rock belief in the album as a discrete unit, with a playing order that has to be honoured. (There’s a school of thought that iTunes, digital music players and the shuffle function are bringing an end to this; I personally hope that’s not true. The best albums are the ones with a clearly defined structure, where listening to the songs out of order is as bizarre as skipping back and forth between chapters in a novel.)

My overall point is that the Internet is still changing the music business in ways that won’t even be apparent from our current perspective. But as every genre adapts, they all carry something of their original DNA into the future. This isn’t a revolution; this is evolution.

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