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Why Release a Digital-Only Album?
A Look At Jann Klose's Digital EP, 'Live At The Bitter End, NYC'
Copyright 2005 by
Eric de Fonteney, MusicDish.com
All rights reserved. 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 physical counterpart.

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 stream.

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 myspace 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 Agency."

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 track.

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.

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