Commentary

If Music Is All Free, Exclusivity Is The Value

Guys! Check this out. I’m serious: watch AC/DC’s Angus Young confront someone who douses him with a drink during a concert; check out Axl Rose completely losing it and going into a lecture during a concert. Dig this, too: Jimmy Page when he was little James Page, playing in a skiffle band and telling the condescending interviewer that he wants to grow up to be a biologist. Or John Lennon in a car with Bob Dylan, trying to keep up with Dylan’s booze-fueled riffing. I can tell you about a million more, too. Like this one, if you’re into Funkadelic? This is awesome: George Clinton in some whacked outfit doing “Flashlight” in Houston. Wait, one more. How about Metallica doing “Enter Sandman” with the San Francisco Symphony. It’s all free! And there’s more, more, more. 

I was at Spotify last week to hear results of a MediaVest study on how Millennials listen to and engage with music now. One takeaway that sticks with me as I remember how much music consumption has changed: Since it is now easy to listen to any song anywhere for free, and also because it is just as easy to watch your favorite band in concert, backstage, on interviews in the U.S. and around the world, videos you didn’t know existed, and more content about your favorite artists than you could dream of, there isn’t much real exclusivity anymore. And, as MediaVest’s report said, it’s all free as air. It is air, actually, as the content can be consumed anywhere, any time. 

How different that value proposition is now from when I was a youth back when the world was totally analog, about a week after the Gutenberg press was invented. That was when people bought these things called record albums. Along those lines, the best place to be in Atlanta, where I went to college, was Peaches, the famous store where they arranged records in packing crates by the millions. It was famous because they had everything, including bootlegs. Ah, bootlegs: if you wanted to hear something that wasn’t officially for sale, like a concert that wasn’t a label-produced “live album,” you had to buy one of those suckers. 

I remember being introduced to bootlegs when I was in college there at Emory, by a feckless dorm mate who was pretty much always on acid. The quality was bad to terrible to just awful. Not the acid, but the bootlegs. But there was a lot of cachet involved with having one of those records, and the fact that the quality sucked actually, paradoxically, increased the value somehow. You had something rare, obviously recorded illegally, and not with a phone or palm-sized MP3 player. Back then, it’s likely it would have been one of those cool, diminutive reel-to-reels, or cassette players, which had to be sneaked in, which in itself was an accomplishment, and which only added to the cachet. 

They were worth so much because an artist was fictional, a corporation condoned production, a commercial persona. That’s what you got, really, even in the interviews with Rolling Stone. The illegal recordings offered live mistakes, the rough-edged, sometimes mangled chord changes or forgotten lyrics that humanized the performer. 

MediaVest made the point that, thanks to YouTube, etc., nowadays people know so much more about the music and the artists they follow and find so many new artists through the social web surrounding that artist’s fan base, or from suggestions. 

And this gets to how a consumer brand can bring something to a table already overladen with musical content. The answer, as it was back in Peaches days, is cachet. Bring the cachet, baby. Bring something exclusive, something you can’t get for free on the tubes. Don’t just “sponsor” something like a playlist. Have you ever opted in to get a branded playlist? And don’t be a title sponsor of a concert tour that the artist is already doing and is letting you slap your brand upon because they want to defray the costs. Create an exclusive concert series, create exclusive content, create something that will make people go, “you have to check this s**t out.” And it probably doesn’t mean someone has to throw a drink, though that can’t hurt.

Tags: commentary, music
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