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Earth to MP3

NMC/Radio and Records eChart main column as published in the 5/31/02 issue of R&R Although not the first to venture into the online space with MP3 files of their artists' music, Maverick Records has gone where no man, woman or major label imprint has ventured: they are selling to the general public a digital version of a potential hit. The release comes in MP3 format, with no digital rights management, and at a reasonable price.

Previously: Napster Nearly Zeroes Out >>
Next: Copeland: Death of the CD? >>

It's the talk of EAT-M, the Emerging Artists and Technology in Music Conference this week. Both independent artists who would love to create an income stream as well as a promotion stream and established labels are watching to see how the digital music community reacts to this development.

The cut is the Ben Watt remix "Earth" by Meshell Ndegeocello, whose music is much easier to listen to than her name is to pronounce for the mainstream media anchors who have never heard of her before, and that release will be the test baby for a potential sea change in the label's attitudes over digital versions of music. What makes this interesting is that it comes at a time when the labels are also trying to get their own online music offerings off the ground, and doing so on a subscription basis, with no clear stampede towards their offerings. In addition, the price point chosen for this cut is one that many have said is the magic number for new music: a dollar.

A parallel to movies, pay-per-view, video and cable might be the next format tried: as a song matures on the charts and begins to fall and the sales begin to slack, the labels release the digital version of the song to the Net at a price that extends the income stream for the cut without the raw material and distribution costs of a CD.

But the Earth model might be more interesting, and certainly more in line with what the more vocal proponents of KaZaA and its brethren: give us what we want in whatever format we want, and we'll pay for it. Imagine an unlimited digital equivalent of that fairly limited CD single rack at the record store, except that everything is available the moment it's released. A note to the labels: if you're going to charge for the MP3 file, treat it the way you would any other packaged release: fill out all of the MP3 IDv3 tags, including the album art, the artist's bio, lyrics, album title and the like - it's a marketing opportunity you don't want to pass up. For hard cash, the Ndegeocello, a typical 128k joint stereo file, is decidedly sparse in that area; indie artists often have more foresight and planning.

Will this cannibalize full-album CD sales? Would it move the labels away from the larger price point to a series of smaller single sales and return to the 50's and the 45 RPM record? Will the labels be feeding the very networks that are causing a drop in hard good sales? The answers to those questions have been fascinating and terrorizing labels over the last year.

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