It’s no surprise that EMI execs would try to stress the positive in their interview with Billboard, and sure, there’s some red meat in there, particularly the bit about DRM-free digital sales not having any effect on piracy. Their explanation for how the company will work from now on–managing “the relationship between the artist and the fans” by giving each more information about the other–is less convincing, given the example of telling a country band that they have fans in Chicago. That’s been the label’s job ever since it started dipping its fingers in tour schedules. EMI’s new direction is better heralded by the company’s hiring of the founder of MyCokeMusic, one of the first legal download services. Instead of installing him in a sales position, however, they’re making him a VP of “brand partnerships.” Why would you do that with someone present at the creation of the new digital economy, who might have a better idea of how to actually get people to pay for music?
EMI’s excuse is that it’s focusing less on sales, which seems like a crazy thing for a profit-seeking enterprise to be thinking. But it’s true insofar as the label doesn’t care so much about individual sales as it does about getting people to pay for music in the first place. And because of music’s new position, brand partnerships are one of the best ways to do that. I’ll explain that in a second, but first, an example of this brave new world in action: “Tic Tac Chill,” a partnership between the candy company and Sony. By entering a code, you’ll be able to download for songs for free. Under the old scheme of music-as-culture, this doesn’t make much sense. Why would an association with breath fresheners prompt you to buy the latest hit single?
But things are different now, because music as a product is competing with itself. This makes it more like traditional commodities. Think, for instance, of Tylenol. You can get the exact same product in generic form for half as much, so the marketer’s task is to convince consumers to spend the extra money for the branded product. Music didn’t used to be like this. If you wanted to experience Thriller whenever you wanted, you probably had to buy it. Sure, you could get other kinds of music for less or no money, but they weren’t really the same product. Now, however, you can get the exact same thing for nothing: Thriller for free. So music’s traditional marketing technique of radio promo, designed to make people want a specific song or artist, isn’t as valid. They need instead to build up the brand to encourage people to pay money for something they could get for free. You do this through synergy, cross-promotion, brand partnerships, and all of that. Of course, it’s a problem for music if individual songs and artists don’t matter as much, since that means money and time won’t get invested in finding and pushing them. But as long as something is selling, record companies are happy.