Cast your mind back to a big announcement at the start of the year, the beginning of On Air/On Sale.
Put simply, it’s a music release strategy whereby as soon as you hear a song on the radio for the first time (the ‘exclusive first play’ if you will), that song is made available to buy immediately online. This closes the so-called ‘airplay window’, ending the practice of giving a song weeks or even months to build on radio before release. Some smaller labels already persued this strategy but 2 major labels; Universal (Bieber, GaGa, Florence + the Machine) and Sony (One Direction, SuBo, Kelly Clarkson), announced that they were to follow the same format.
The logic behind such a move was this: many sales of a record are lost to illegal downloads in the ‘airplay window’ since the song is not available to buy when it is being shoved in your ears on radio and TV. So sales could ideally be higher. They can always be better. Put the song out at the same time it hits radio and hopefully anyone who wants the song will buy it through the legal channels. Illegal downloaders are tamed and songs sell in higher quantities. YAY.
Naturally with this announcement came all sorts of declarations that this would change the very way our world turns. Music journos said it, radio people, record companies, music industry ‘bodies’ and even some artists. So why now has everyone chickened out? It’s like nobody announced anything – nothing has changed. Here’s how I try to make sense of it all as a humble music consumer…
Perhaps record companies need to be a little less protective.
Usually, anticipation for a song is built up over a few weeks and then unleashed on a planned date, concentrating that pent up demand into one week and ensuring (hopefully) a song flies to the top of the charts.
However, the problem is that OA/OS seems to take the ‘HIT’ out of a new single. Instead, a song appears online, catching music buyers off guard. Only diehard supporters notice immediately. The result is that sales are spread over a number of weeks, diluting the chart potential of the song, keeping it from the upper reaches of the charts.
Fans need to be given a chance to GET USED TO IT ALL and should be given time! I imagine in the meantime there will be ‘guinea-pigs’ if you will; the artists who take a brave leap for the rest of the industry and fall to their deaths. That’s show-business. We salute them.
Perhaps radio stations need to be a little more cooperative.
Usually, radio stations receive a song weeks before release and have to assess its sales potential without the help of the first week’s chart position.
However, when deciding a playlist in the world of OA/OS, a glance at iTunes can show that the latest single from Take That has failed to make the top 10. Shock! No-one is interested! So stations are less likely to playlist it and it may not become a hit. So does that mean adopting OA/OS means stations don’t have to use their initiative anymore? As a matter of fact, the opposite is the case. With OA/OS, a first week chart position can be deceiving, hiding a song’s ‘HIT’ potential. So playlist committees need to put their heads together and make some bold predictions. Its not easy.
Radio stations need to be given more of a chance to GET USED TO IT ALL. Then they could settle into the practice of predicting what songs to play, facilitating the growth of a mid-table OA/OS release into a top 10 hit.
Perhaps artists need to be a little more creative.
Usually a song builds and then an artist hits the promo circuit of TV shows and radio spots in the week of release.
However, in the world of OA/OS this won’t do anymore! Artists need to come up with clever ways of building anticipation for a song without actually premiering it. Reveal the artwork, or the song’s lyrics for example. Various artists have embarked on strategies whereby fans have to ‘unlock’ exclusive content leading up to a high profile release. This is genius! More of this please.
So guess what? Artists need to GET USED TO experimenting with different techniques that haven’t been tried before, thereby finding out what works well with their market.
So what can we take away from early experiments?
Tips for the perfect ‘On Air On Sale’ hit
1. Don’t surprise people. The idea is that you premiere the song and release it at the same time, OK? It is premiere and release, not announce and release. So tell people weeks in advance so they know. Even reveal the song title and the artwork. Fans can look forward to it and be ready. Radio stations can be aware. If you catch fans napping, they are not primed and ready to buy the song – a wasted opportunity.
2. Don’t release midweek. You want your song to make a splash so that radio are impressed and perhaps even pick it up. If you cut off half of the first week’s sales you undermine the chart potential of the song. The song makes a weaker than expected chart arrival and people wrongly assume its because it isn’t good enough. FAIL.
3. Treat each artist individually. On Air/On Sale will never work for some artists. There are different fanbases and different ways to promote a song. Others are perfect for it. Don’t be afraid to aim ‘in between’ for some artists either. Give a song 1 week between premiere and release for people to hear it, and like it. Maybe push it to two. Whatever you do, don’t decide on a blanket policy of On Air/On Sale across all artists. A good proportion of those artists will be doomed.
4. Have Patience. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Remember the beginning of the digital era? During the transition from the CD single to the download the charts slowed right down. Artists like Basshunter and Estelle were enjoying a good 4 or 5 weeks at number 1. Yes, really. It seemed as if the age of the ‘Top 40’ was well and truly dead. But it wasn’t. It was changing. And soon it was firing on all cylinders again with a different battle for number 1 every week and CDs a relic of the past.
Above all, follow On Air/On Sale if it suits. But don’t expect it to change the world. Many might argue that the system works in the USA. But I think apart from a handful of the biggest artists, it really doesn’t. All songs hit US iTunes within days of their radio premiere – often the same day. And have you taken a glance at the US Billboard charts recently? The same handful of songs occupying the top 10, barely moving week after week after week. I’m the biggest Black Eyed Peas fan you’ll find, but the fact that they were able to spend 26 consecutive weeks at the top of the US charts in 2009 is utterly absurd (I’ll save you the working out: it’s about 6 months. IMAGINE). And the US music industry is facing the exact same problems as the UK with regards to persuading people to buy music. Sales are in the toilet even though the music is available as soon as you hear it on the radio.
The very concept of On Air/On Sale assumes that people download music illegally because it is not yet available to buy.
I’ll admit I used to download music illegally. Family, friends practically everyone I know has. I know people who still download whole albums without paying. Maybe you did too, perhaps you still do. And the reason isn’t because the music isn’t available on iTunes or Amazon or wherever. It wouldn’t even cross the minds of most people to check. The reason is because they can get it for free. It’s that simple. Why pay when its accessible at no cost?
The sad truth is that many illegal downloaders won’t ‘convert’ as I did. The only way they will cease stealing music is if they are physically prevented from doing so.
Follow my ramblings on Twitter @davidmanero.