These are fearful times for the music industry. As record companies train their considerable legal might on a Minnesota mother accused of illegal downloading, their talent is walking out the back door.
No sooner had Nine Inch Nails announced on Monday that it no longer was under contract to a record label, when word came that Oasis and Jamiroquai are considering whether to release songs online for free, according to British publication, The Telegraph.
Should they decide to go the free route, Oasis and Jamiroquai--two unsigned but very popular bands--would follow Radiohead, the British group that last week announced it would issue a digital version of its next album, In Rainbows, for whatever price individual customers are inclined to pay.
In addition, Radiohead, one of the world's most popular bands, said it would no longer be represented by a music label.
Even the hardiest music executive is going to struggle to spin this news. There's no hiding what's occurring here. The music industry is on the threshold of disintermediation, a fancy word that means the Internet is threatening to blast a thick layer of the sector's infrastructure into blue oblivion--just like it has with travel agents, stockbrokers and newspapers.
Bands don't need huge music conglomerates to give away songs. Legions of A&R teams are no longer needed to ferret out talent. Music fans can go online and decide for themselves what gets heard.
Should it occur, the extinction of music-industry suits will only be celebrated by the file-sharing crowd. To them, the businessmen who run the record labels stand at odds with art and music. The reputation of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was cemented in the minds of many last week when it won a $220,000 judgment against Jammie Thomas, a Minnesota woman accused of illegal file sharing. Thomas steadfastly claims she is innocent.
But artists should understand the direction they're headed. Album giveaways are the latest sign that music sales will soon no longer fuel the record industry's economic engine.
In Radiohead's case, the thinking is that even if only few people fork over money for In Rainbows, the group can make up some of the revenue with the sale of concert tickets and merchandise. And the bands could save big by not having to cut the label in.
If the system works this way, great. But for the performer this means we're heading back to the days of wandering troubadours and minstrels singing for their supper. Not really, but it does mean long days and nights on the road, for sure.
Will the artists be satisfied with that? Will they have a choice? Will they take to being merchants as well as musicians?
So far things look promising. Radiohead's promotion has attracted enormous attention, according to the story in The Telegraph. The paper reported that although the band declines to say how many fans have pre-ordered albums, the group's Web site has soared from the 43rd most visited music site in the U.K. to No.1.
Google reported that searches for Radiohead are 10-times higher this week, according to the paper.