It’s the holiday season, which means the record industry—or, more appropriately, what’s left of it—is scrambling to sell music which is widely available for free all over the ‘net.
Vinyl sells—discriminating record buyers want to support the artists they love and have a physical artifact for scene/cred points—but not like it did before the advent of CDs. Let’s face it: Albini was right. CDs were the death knell of the record industry. This isn’t news.
So the irony of the holiday season is pretty heavy (and tasty). In 2011 the model that could have kept the industry afloat is sitting right in front of us in the few record stores that are left, repackaged in a shiny new box for the holidays:
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a full-bore Morrissey worshipfest. We’re just using the Smiths as the focal point of a discussion on how the music industry could’ve kept itself fat and profitable rather than forcing consumers to illegal downloads because of bloated CD prices.
I was about to say that I’ve owned every Smiths LP, but that’s not quite right. I’ve owned every Sire-released LP, which is something completely different. So, here’s Smiths strategic point #1:
Release the same records with slightly different packaging/track orders in different countries to increase collectability.
Like a lot of punk and hardcore bands, the Smiths instilled a fanatical devotion that was based on scarcity. Unlike punk and hardcore bands, it was hard to find some stuff, but not too hard—just hard enough. It was more difficult and expensive to get Hatful of Hollow in the US than Louder Than Bombs, so Hatful made fans feel like they were bigger fans (and thus more devoted), even though, you know, the same songs appear on both records. Not all of them—remember, I said slightly different—but a lot. Labels are doing a great job if they can get consumers to buy the same material more than once and be happy about it. One of the main reason CDs died is because one great track would often be surrounded by a dozen clunkers.
Which brings us to Smiths point #2:
Release singles to instill listener loyalty and increase anticipation.
Since the Evens 7” came out last week, I’ve listened to it like three times a day. It’s a tease! I want more new Evens songs, but there aren’t any to be had right now. Because they released a great single, I’m totally there when they release another new record. If it’s another single, the wait for a new LP will be even more excruciating (and great). The Smiths knew this. They were a great singles band—cranking out awesome songs with ease. Going back to point #1, they then packaged and repackaged the singles in one place, which fans felt obligated to buy. And singles are cheap. Even if one 7” sucks, an intriguing band warrants a second purchase. But beyond that lies the more important third point of our discussion:
Bands that put out good singles don’t need to put out good albums.
It sounds crass, but c’mon, the only Smiths album that’s good from start to finish is The Queen Is Dead. Each album has good songs, but each album also has some fatal flaw in sequencing or pacing which renders listening a chore. Smiths fans in the band’s heyday never cared much, though, because the good songs on the albums were either a) previously released and happily familiar singles, or b) singles-quality. After albums were delivered, the next single would start the wait and anticipation for the next full-length.
The last Smiths point to be made here is this:
Make collectors want to re-buy old stuff.
This loops back to the beginning: it’s the holidays. Since the industry didn’t follow the model of the Smiths—different-but-similar releases, and singles to promote albums—the repackaging route is the only way to sell product nowadays. It didn’t have be like this. Just ask Morrissey.
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