The likes of iTunes, iLike, and Imeem might be making troubled record labels' lives a bit more complicated. But on a brighter note for the music industry, they've also created digital music's ultimate publicity stunt.
A press release came out Wednesday from our sister company Last.fm, touting the fact that Radiohead's landmark album In Rainbows is now available for free streaming on the site.
In Rainbows has been out since October, and it was famously distributed across the Web with a name-your-own-price policy. So it's not exactly the freshest story, though In Rainbows is no longer available for free and had not been turned into a free stream anywhere on the Web. The band had originally opted to distribute it through its own Web site.
But these "digital release" announcements, where an artist that already has a decent fan base teams up with a digital music service, are growing more and more popular. R.E.M. debuted its most recent album, Accelerate, as an ad-supported stream on iLike in February; and in May, Imeem debuted Anywhere I Lay My Head, the album by actress Scarlett Johansson.
It's probably a win-win situation for both the site doing the promotion and for the album: the artist gets extra publicity, especially if accessing the streaming file requires joining a mailing list or signing up as a "fan," and the site gets some buzz from new visitors who may be fans of the band but haven't heard of the site. Assuming neither party paid an arm and a leg to get the promotion in place, it's a cheap way to promote an upcoming album even as the concept of "albums" grows increasingly antiquated.
AOL and Yahoo have done this for years with pre-release "listening parties" and exclusive tracks, but because sites like Last.fm and iLike use developer platform access to tap into the social-networking audiences of Facebook-MySpace-Bebo-ad-nauseam, they can reach a more distributed network of music enthusiasts. And bigger digital-music players are doing it too, with iTunes and MySpace debuts (not to mention exclusive songs) already industry mainstays.
That said, it's only a matter of time before this sort of promotion is so commonplace that it's no longer newsworthy--remember when we all wrote breathlessly about every big Web company's foray into Facebook applications?
Disclaimer: Last.fm is a part of CBS Interactive, which also publishes News.com.