2007 Best & Worst: Music business survival tactics
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2007 Best & Worst: Music business survival tactics

By Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As the year rushes to a close, it’s time to sift through the mountains of pop culture detritus that have piled up on our computers and in our brains over the last 12 months. Let’s try to figure out what worked, what didn’t and what’s best forgotten by New Year’s Day.

Another year and another major decline in CD sales for the music business. But even as CD sales dip, labels and artists continue to find creative ways to try to sell them.

Radiohead, for instance, tried to make money by telling fans they didn’t have to spend a dime. Others opted for comic books.

There was plenty of great music released in 2007, and that’s all reviewed here, and here, but not here. Instead, what follows is a critique of what worked – and what didn’t – when it came to marketing the CD over the past 12 months. ()
The artist: Radiohead

The tactic: Completely disregarding the music businesses standard three/four-month lead time for new releases, Radiohead announced on Oct. 1 that its new album would be released in 10 days. The distribution system? The Internet. The cost? Whatever you want.

The review: Downloads went off without any major hitches, even if Radiohead is keeping a lid on just how many hard drives were graced with “In Rainbows.” And OK, with a higher-quality CD coming out Jan. 1, ultimately the move wasn’t quite as revolutionary as we press folk made it out to be, since Radiohead simply opted for a tiered release plan. But the band put the fans first, and no other group of its stature has so bluntly worked around the standard industry model.

Grade:(AFP / Getty Images)
The artist: Avril Lavigne

The tactic: The U.S. via Canada pop star said the heck with dwindling U.S. album sales and became the star of a comic book -- one targeted at mobile phone users in Asian territories. And she recorded lead single/pep-rally “Girlfriend” in at least seven different languages.

The review: The Avril-meets-“Buffy” comic “Make 5 Wishes” isn’t exactly “The Dark Knight Returns,” but credit Avril (and her management team) for thinking globally, and including some unreleased Avril tracks in the comic downloads. That being said, Avril completists would likely prefer to just buy the music instead of a comic. And for those who may be wondering, yes, “Girlfriend” sounds just as annoyingly dang catchy in Mandarin as it does in English.

Grade: B- (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press / Associated Press)
The artist: The Eagles

The tactic: Record labels may be in trouble and Tower Records is no more. But retail behemoth Wal-Mart seems to be doing just fine. So for the Eagles’ first album in nearly 30 years, the group partnered with Wal-Mart for an exclusive release.

The review: Dumping a record label for one of the world’s largest corporations is certainly not a play for credibility, and big box stores such as Wal-Mart are often blamed for killing off the mom-and-pop music stores. But the backlash was surprisingly minimal. The band’s “The Long Road Out of Eden” has become one of the top-selling albums of 2007 -- not bad for a record that came out Oct. 30. Yet from now on, the Eagles will forever be associated with the house that Sam Walton built, and all -- good and bad -- that it represents.

Grade: C- (Jeff Adkins / Associated Press)
The artist: Prince

The tactic: For the release of his new album, “Planet Earth,” Prince teamed with U.K. newspaper the Mail to bundle the Sunday, July 15, edition with his CD.

The review: The move caused the ire of retailers and prompted Sony BMG U.K. to refuse to release the album in the territory. But Prince’s deal wasn’t about retail exclusivity or branding. Instead, the artist has long been one of the first major artists to use the CD as a loss leader -- a means to selling concert tickets or merch. And with what Prince charges for concert tickets, being able to snare his latest CD for the cost of a Sunday paper was a gift.

Grade: B+ (letter grade knocked because it only benefited the English)  (Peter Kramer / Getty Images)
The artist: The New Pornographers

The tactic: In August, Matador released an “Executive Edition” (its words) with the New Pornographers’ “Challengers.” Available at indie retailers, the extra content consisted of three blank discs given to those who purchased the album. Buyers would then download the material themselves.

The review: Three discs of extra New Pornographers content, and at a reasonable price (about $20), is delightful. But the plan was overly convoluted, and had fans leaving stores with blank New Pornographers-branded discs, forcing them to assemble the package themselves. Please -- we’re paying for content, not for a craft project. Fans may be ripping and burning more and more of their own discs, but that doesn’t mean it should be a business model.

Grade: D+ (Matador)
The artist: Nine Inch Nails

The tactic: The release of “Year Zero” back in the spring was turned into an elaborate interactive game. Learning about the album turned into a giant online scavenger hunt that entered the real world via cryptic clothing and hiding USB drives at concerts.

The review: “Year Zero” ranks up there with Trent Reznor’s best work with Nine Inch Nails, and the marketing campaign took a larger view of the album, turning the world into an elaborate NIN-playing field -- at least for those in the know. Reznor was teasing fans rather than forcing them to buy another product, and those not interested in the game weren’t left feeling like they missed out on some exclusive music.

Grade:(Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times)
The artist: Bright Eyes

The tactic: Bright Eyes set out to make the CD package for “Cassadaga” indispensable, dressing it with fanciful artwork that could only be seen with a viewfinder -- one that cost Saddle Creek about 25 extra cents per disc.

The review: Though it probably didn’t snare Bright Eyes any more fans, inventive packaging is becoming rarer and rarer for the music business. Additionally, it likely inspired a few more fans to actually buy a physical product over a download. In its first week in stores back in May, downloads accounted for 24% of “Cassadaga’s” total sales, which was lower than other popular indie acts such as the Arcade Fire and the Shins, who saw early digital sales in the 30% range, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Grade:(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
The artists: Kanye West, 50 Cent

The tactic: FEUD! 50 Cent declared he would retire from making solo albums if Kanye West’s new album outsold his in the first week.

The review: At first, it seemed like buying West’s “Graduation” over 50 Cent’s “Curtis” would benefit a good cause. But we’ve all long suspected that hip-hop feuds were publicity stunts, and this time, the artists involved had no qualms about admitting that the sales battle was little more than an effort to get fans into stores. So yeah, the better album won, but it now appears unlikely that 50 Cent will actually retire. Therefore:

Grade:(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
1/9