Release a Digital-Only Album?
Look At Jann Klose's Digital EP, 'Live At The Bitter End, NYC'
Copyright 2005 by Eric de Fonteney,
Used by Permission. Added August 2005.
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There has been increasing discussion over the Net
regarding the role of digital-only album releases as part of an
independent artist's goal of maximizing the opportunities offered by
the online music world. As the editor of Mi2N.com, I've
certainly noticed a significant increase in digital-only album
releases just this year, although they are often offered for free.
Does this trend suggest that the CD is an increasingly antiquated
option for independent artists?
I am setting a few ground rules for the purposes of
this discussion: First, I am limiting my comments to the question of
digital-only albums that are offered for pay as opposed being offered
for free. If we're discussing a digital release as a
substitute for the physical product, it doesn't make much
sense comparing that with promotional digital products that already
fill a very different role from their retail counterparts.
Second, let's just put aside the classic "I don't
need to manufacture thousands of CDs" rational which, while valid, is
not sufficient to justify hopping onto the digital-only bandwagon. If
you only sell most units at gigs or sell primarily tracks at the
expense of the full album, you may still be better off taking on the
manufacturing costs of a CD. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that
the option of a digital release may in fact increase the sales of its
My intent is rather to look at the strategic reasons
that independent artists and labels may want to consider the
digital-only path. Let's first remind ourselves of the world in which
we live today: The iPod is just the latest manifestation of a digital
revolution that continues to fundamentally change the way we consume
music, just as profoundly as the WalkMan and radio did.
The digital world has turned the entertainment
industry on its face, from one of tightly controlled distribution to
one of unlimited content. Fans can consume magnitudes more music than
just a decade ago, and thanks to the iPod, they can bring it on the
go. Consumers are no longer happy with the CD holder and its
approximately 120 songs - they want all of the iPods' 5,000 songs and
are continuously finding more, whether through artists' websites, MP3
blogs, OMDs, file sharing or ripping their favorite webradio station.
As a result, fans don't have the patience to wait 18
plus months for an artist's next CD release. If you want to stay in
your fans' eyes, you need to feed their hunger for content, their
thirst for everything "music." And when I say everything music, I
mean everything: artists' personal blogs, photos and graphics,
videos, interviews, chats, demos ... they want it all. In this era of
reality programming, the artist's "behind the scenes" world is
perhaps more valuable to fans than the artist's over-produced CD.
In this context, digital-only releases may be a great
way to fill in the gaps. I've been working with singer/songwriter
Jann Klose for the past few months on mapping out strategies
and tactics to enhance his already active music career. His latest
EP, Black Box, was released in 2003.
His previous releases, The Strangest Thing and Enough
Said, have sold out. The Black Box EP continues to
register good sales, including through iTunes. Jann is now getting
ready to return to the studio for his next album while he
contemplates a second run of the music and dance show "Moonlight
Interior," a collaboration with choreographer Yo-el Cassell (like I
said, active music career).
Fortunately, Jann happens to be an active
performer, and his May 12th show at the Bitter End in New York City
was recorded by the local music cable show "Dave's Place." Dave's
Place provided us with a good quality recording of the performance as
well as great video footage that was broadcast on NY cable systems.
After listening to the show and some brainstorming between Jann and
me, we decided to proceed with a digital-only live EP release of the
show, "Live at the Bitter End, NYC" , which would
initially only be available for sale through Jann's site.
There were several reasons for our choosing this
strategy. The digital-only release of Jann's performance at the
Bitter End gave us an opportunity to introduce fans to two of Jann's
new songs, "Beautiful Dream" and "Doing
Time." Both will appear on his upcoming studio album. But more
importantly, the release gives fans the opportunity to experience the
feel of Jann's terrific live performances with his full band in an
energetic and exciting setting.
Companies such as Clear Channel and Immediatek's
DiscLive have focused on recording live events, but this strategy is
still a largely overlooked opportunity for artists to provide fans
with a new recording experience as well as artists with a new revenue
Of course, the entire project was dependent on the
sound quality of the Bitter End recording and our ability to turn it
into a viable retail product within the confines of a small budget
and a tight release schedule.
"The initial recording came off the board at the
Bitter End, with Gabe Martinez as our engineer, who had done a great
job," says Jann. "After listening to the recording I thought the
energy of the night came across very well and the sound quality was
warm and accessible. Sometimes board recordings are very unbalanced,
both sonically and level-wise.
"After a lot of listening, we decided on four
specific numbers. Then Nils D'Aulaire (www.futurefolk.com) mastered the recording at his
home studio using his Pentium 4 PC. We used Soundforge for the
initial editing and leveling, and then T-Racks to master. I did the
layout, video editing and compression as well as the compilation of
all of the materials at home on my G4 Powerbook."
The fact that Jann and Nils were able to master a
high quality product without the time and expense required for
professional studio mastering was one factor that made the
digital-only release possible. Otherwise, the project's cost would
not have given us the flexibility in pricing we felt was necessary to
successfully retail the EP as a digital release.
Another important consideration was the project's
deadline. We wanted the official release party to coincide with
Jann's July 5th Bitter End show. While this would have been
impossible in the case of a physical product, we felt we did have the
time and resources for a digital release to meet that deadline.
The Bitter End's management has been very supportive
of Jann and this project. "I spoke to Kenny and Paul at the Bitter
End about using the name of the club in the title. They were excited
about the idea and gave me the go-ahead to do it. After a preview on
and a great release show at the Bitter End, we are now
concentrating on marketing the release itself."
Another issue that we had to consider was whether to
include cover songs on the digital release. "Because we're using 'Stormy
Monday Blues,' which was written by Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, I had
to obtain a specific digital license. I contacted Cherry Lane Music
in New York City, which administrates the copyright to the song. They
were very helpful and explained to me exactly how to go about getting
a license for downloading as well as for streaming from the Harry Fox
The advantages of including a cover song are, of
course, obvious. Cover songs place fans in a comfort zone and allows
them to hear the artist in a context they are more familiar with. The
fan reactions captured on the recording can also provide a rich
experience, as illustrated by the lucid call and response rendition
of "Stormy Monday Blues" on the EP. This is, in fact, the only track
that we decided to make available exclusively through the full
digital EP package, and it will not be offered as a downloadable
Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby, has also noted on
the MusicThoughts list another reason for including cover songs:
Based on the tracking of sales through iTunes, he noted that CDBaby
artists with cover song(s) on their albums had the highest sales.
"Most of these programs have a song-based search, so people go to
iTunes or Rhapsody or Napster and search for their favorite SONG -
and in the search results, they probably see their favorite artist on
top, but then they see a few below it that they've never seen before!
They click into the song, like this new version, and then click into
the artist's full album to see what else this artist has to offer."
Of course, this means that you will have to create a
certain number of physical copies of your digital release to ship to
your online music distributor in order for them to be included in
iTunes. But you will want to produce a number of CDs for press and
radio, in any case.
But back to the digital release. One thing we must
not forget is that a digital-only doesn't mean that consumers expect
anything less than they would get with a CD. While many music lovers
are doing away with the orthodoxy of the "album" by cherry picking
their favorite tracks for their iPod, the album is still alive for
the majority of music consumers. (That is one of the attractions of
DVDs - it provides so much more content than its predecessor at a
comparable price.) And we of course want to entice fans to buy the
full EP versus individual tracks.
Consequently, in addition to the four live tracks,
Jann's full digital EP includes an eight-minute video clip and two
wallpapers composed of pictures from Jann's Bitter End show as well
as the standard song lyrics and CD-style liner notes. We decided to
also give fans a choice of downloading the EP cover using one of two
different print resolutions when they purchase the full digital EP.
Let's not forget that we wanted a product that could
be priced as accessibly as possible to attract potential fans. At
$1.99 for the full digital EP, we believe we will capture impulse
buyers and expose Jann's music to a much broader audience. None of
this would have been possible with a physical product.
We plan to remaster Jann's The Strangest Thing
CD and re-release it as digital-only. This will help us to gauge the
demand for the CD so that we can determine whether it's worth the
investment to press the CD and if so, how large the pressing should
be. And in the meantime, the digital release gives fans access to all
of Jann's music while keeping old revenues stream alive.
A final note: keeping your entire discography
available for purchase by your fans is another important strategy
where digital album releases can be advantageous. Let's face it;
"out-of-stock" is an oxymoron in a digital world.
Eric de Fontenay is
the founder of MusicDish,
and has spent his career developing solutions for
the emerging telecommunications and digital markets. He has worked on a wide
range of issues including the development of e-marketplaces, impact of broadband
and the state of digital distribution and rights management. As a founder of
e-publishing and content service provider Tag It, Eric has been at the forefront
of tackling issues facing the publishing industry, including author rights,
digital content management, syndication and other business models. A thoughtful
& outspoken member of the new media revolution since the early nineties, he
has been invited to speak at leading industry forums such as Euroforum, DDMI and
CES and has had his works published in numerous trade publications.