The Music Is the Marketing

There’s not getting it, then there’s Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) level not getting it.

Nearly five years have elapsed since the major music labels broke up the brand.

The RIAA has demonstrated a stunning lack of marketing acuity (as well as any sense of public relations) in slapping over 26,000 illegal file sharing lawsuits on people, including the woman who never owned or used a computer; the 12-year-old girl living in a public housing project; and the 66-year-old woman who allegedly shared gangsta rap on KaZaa (the fact her Mac couldn’t run the requisite software notwithstanding). They’re slapping subpoenas on universities (most recently Kansas State) to get them to narc out students who download music. Oh yeah, they tried to sue a dead person, too.

Most recently, they got a jury (which included one man who’d never been online) to levy a $222,000 judgment against single mother Jammie Thomas for allegedly sharing 24 songs. This has engendered an avalanche of rock star level news coverage, most of which elevates Thomas to martyr status.

Predictably, sympathetic supporters created a donation-accepting Web site supporting her cause, and Thomas launched a MySpace blog and YouTube video documenting her RIAA-induced travails.

The Artist Has Left the Building

The mainstream music industry isn’t just alienating their customers. They’re standing by helplessly as major artists flee major labels in droves. Prince. Radiohead. Paul McCartney. Oasis. Jamiroquai. And for solid economic reasons. (Several indie up-and-comers, like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, are doing just great with no label support.)

Most recently, Madonna walked away from her 25-year relationship with Warner Music into the arm of Live Nation, effectively an events company. The 10-year, $120 million deal covers every aspect of the Madonna music brand: touring, merchandising, fan club, Web site, DVDs, music-related TV and film projects, licensing and sponsorship agreements. Oh, and they’ll handle her albums, too.

The pop singer who once seeded file-sharing sites with MP3s of her voice scolding fans about the evils of downloading is now turning her back on the music establishment and embracing a digital future. “The paradigm in the music business has shifted and as an artist and a business woman, I have to move with that shift,” she said in a statement.

Music Is Marketing

Madonna is one smart pop star. Unlike her label, she recognizes music is the least of what she’s selling.

Author and professor Douglas Rushkoff sees it clearly. “I guess the flip moment was Moby’s record,” he told me the other day. (Moby’s 1999 album, Play,” was the first album in history to have all its tracks commercially licensed.) “And after that, the purpose of the music is to be the wallpaper or the hook for the marketers…Is it because the music is good, or because of what the music connects with?”

Music connects, all right. Emotionally, and above all, demographically. What other reason could there possibly be for using a song about heroin to flog a cruise line?

Licensing deals, brand extensions, product lines, live events, movie and TV deals: that’s where the money is. The music isn’t the product for sale, it’s the hook. It’s branding, merchandising, and targeting rolled into one.

Like celebrity itself, music is an abstract type of commodity. Recording stars like Madonna, Prince, Nine Inch Nails, and even old Sir Paul McCartney are seeing what several of their successful peers in publishing already know, authors like Seth Godin and Cory Doctorow who make their books available online for free.

They still sell books. And the books, in turn, sell them. It’s a phenomenon Rushkoff is all too familiar with. “I used to think I’d make money writing books,” he told me, “I’m not writing books for the money, but for the money I get for speaking as a result of writing my books.”

Few writers do much more than speak. They don’t sell out stadiums and arenas, launch product lines ranging from t-shirts and affinity credit cards and fragrances to coffins. They rarely star in reality TV series or land film contracts. They don’t license paragraphs of novels so auto manufacturers can use them to sell sedans.

Music. It’s marketing. Why can’t the RIAA figure this out?

And file sharing? File sharing isn’t the problem. In fact, it’s probably the solution.

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