So Led Zeppelin has finally decided to sell the digital rights to its music. They're about the last major band to figure out that digital distribution is the shape of things to come. Now it's only The Beatles and Garth Brooks are still locked in the past.
Cutting edge their music may have been once, but their deal-making skills belong squarely in the 20th century. They're distributing songs through Verizon. In an age when music is about ubiquity -- music that is everywhere all the time -- these old timers are still trying to strangle distribution by feeding it through a narrow mobile pipe. You must really respect your own music when you long to hear it as ringtones.
And what does Warner/Chappell think its doing? Taking a big, bold leap into (gasp) cyberspace? Hardly. Bear in mind that this is a band that has already sold three hundred million albums. There are, I'm sure, a few new fans out there -- but this isn't groundbreaking stuff on any level. In an industry that's lost four billion dollars a year over the last seven years, this isn't a life line; it looks more like keeping your shoes on in a flood. The old orthodoxy was that the labels may know not about music - but they sure knew about marketing. (That's how they lured so many bands, with so many promises, to sign deals that were the musical equivalent of child abuse. I've worked with the record labels and every time I did, I came away needing a shower. It's the closest I'll ever come to working with organized crime.) But how much marketing can you do for a band with such a vast installed base? Sixty million dollars may buy Plant and friends a few more vacation homes but it's not going to Warner with much spare cash to nurture new talents or devise bold new strategies. But then, it's never really been about the music, has it?
Warner/Chappell has been rightly criticized for dumb old-fashioned deal making. But it takes two to tango. It's probably hopelessly romantic to expect adventurous artists to be just as forward-looking in their deal-making. But a little respect for their fans might have been nice. Fortunately, all my Led Zeppelin tracks are safely ripped from CD onto my iPod so I won't get sucked into supporting a bunch of executives and musicians who appear to care about anything except music. And it's funny. I've never been a big Madonna fan. But now, looked at from a business perspective, I'm always going to be more interested in someone investing in the future than cashing in on the past.