Ramblings | November 23, 2013

A Misfit’s View of Digital Distribution

Several months after its release on CD, Fusion Orchestra 2’s Casting Shadows is now available for digital download on CDBaby, Amazon and iTunes. While the announcement on the Fusion Orchestra 2 site explains briefly the complications that lead to the delays, this sheds a bit more light and opinion piece on the matter.

I’ll start by saying that I am and always have been a fan of the advances technology can bring to music. Digital distribution itself opens doors to many artists who would otherwise have needed the support of record companies, and it makes it easier for listeners to deal more directly with the band and hear what they intended without the interference of A&R departments talking about appealing to demographics.

Digital distribution has the potential to knock down barriers, but as it currently stands it is simply shifting them. At the moment, it isn’t far off the truth to say that if you’re not on iTunes and Amazon, your chances of selling your music are at a huge disadvantage. Last time I checked, between them they accounted for 85% of the sales of digital music, so artists are under great pressure to deal with them.

The problem we faced when releasing Casting Shadows was this: the album, and our music, does not fit the normal mould in this day and age, and the standard distribution channels make several assumptions which caused us problems. Essentially they expect an album to be a collection of independent songs, all of which stand alone and are around the three or four minute mark. With Casting Shadows we have seven songs: three long “main” songs framed by four short musical sketches, and some of which are segue into each other.

While there are some technical issues with the MP3 format¹ which we needed to think about the main problem was a lack of control over how our music was going to be sold. Once we’ve delivered the master tracks to our agent, we actually have surprisingly little say over what happens next, and what happens next is different for each of the main distributors. iTunes, Amazon et al make their own decisions about pricing and about what parts of the album may be purchased independently of the rest, and we had to jump through some hoops to try to ensure that what they sold was what people would most likely want to hear.

The main thing we wanted to avoid was the four short tracks, which are not representative of the rest of the album, being listed as “singles”. People paying $0.99  something like Unseen, Unheard, Unfinished, which is an atmospheric but mostly silent epilogue to Secret Shadow, would most likely feel a bit cheated. On the album the track plays a role, but it is not intended to stand alone. The same can be said of Don’t Forget Your Key which acts as a musical foreword but again, doesn’t really make sense unless it is followed by Leaving It All Behind and unsuspecting listeners would probably regret buying it rather than another track, or the whole album. Even with Troubled Dreams and Fairy Queens and See What We Left Behind where there’s more musical structure, listening to them as singles is misleading as they are solo keyboard pieces and taken on their own they are not representative of the meat of the album.

With iTunes the blanket rule is that any track longer less than 10 minutes is sold as a single and anything longer is only available as part of the whole album. We compromised by merging Don’t Forget Your Key with Leaving It All Behind, and Secret Shadow with Unseen, Unheard, Unfinished to make the seven track CD release into a five track digital release. While we weren’t thrilled that the two remaining short tracks would be downloadable and the long tracks not (which is the wrong way around really) we had no real choice.

With Amazon we were wrong-footed by a miscommunication which saw the album listed as an EP of five singles. Eventually this got straightened out but again we have the wrong tracks available for individual download and would have preferred that each of the main tracks could be bought for, say, $2.99 and the short tracks be part of the album-only deal where they actually make musical sense.

Part of this is about the dying art of the album I feel that the three main tracks stand well individually, but that placed directly next to each other they jar at the edges, like oil paintings on raw canvas stapled to a wall. The point of the intervening tracks was to frame them and make the album as a whole flow, but the effect of the rules of the digital distribution channels is that you can buy either the full set of framed photos, or each of the individual frames, but not the individual pictures themselves! This isn’t the choice we wanted to give our listeners.

There is no good reason for these rules beyond a one-size-fits-enough mentality that makes life easier for the distributors. It is presented as a question “choice” and “value” to the consumer but it’s not quite that clear cut. As musicians, we still haven’t really regained the control over our work because we are still faced with the need to deal with big players who have no real incentive to listen to anyone who doesn’t fit their template.

Now if you think I’m stamping my feet about how unfair it is, there’s perhaps a small element of that but in a follow up blog I will ask a question from a slightly different angle: Are musicians misguided to expect record companies to act in anyone’s interests but their shareholders?


¹ The MP3 format doesn’t support gapless playback, or segues. With some careful cutting of the tracks this actually turned out only to be a minor problem for Casting Shadows but will be a much bigger problem for whatever album my tracks Sketch of a Day and Dawn Light go on as they both use segues much more signficantly. While FLAC and Ogg (and indeed WAV) all do,  MP3 by its design has a short but audible gap of silence at the end of each file.

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