The new album by the indie-rock supergroup New Pornographers, Challengers, won't be released until Tuesday, but I've been listening to it for the last two months. Not an uncommon occurrence -- virtually every album by anyone the least bit noteworthy surfaces, on illegal bit torrent sites, weeks or months before release date. The difference is that I beat the street date with the blessings of both the band and the record label.
Matador Records, the New Pornos' label, has come up with an ingenious way to please the fans, sell CDs, and help music retailers, all in one fell swoop. Their "Buy Early Get Now" deal lets you pre-order upcoming releases either through the label or participating local indie record stores. Once you've plunked down your cash (or entered your credit card digits online), you get a digital stream of the full album, accessible anytime with your password. The physical CD is mailed to you on release date. For a few dollars more, you can purchase the "Executive Edition," which features non-album tracks, demos, live recordings and more, all emailed to you for burning onto CD-Rs and inserting into the deluxe packaging.
It's a solution to the decline in music sales that keeps everyone happy. Download fans get their downloads. CD fans get their packaging and discs, even if they have to burn some of it themselves. Record stores aren't excluded. And the band and label get to sell their music rather than have it stolen from them. Why didn't anyone think of this before?
And more importantly, who's going to follow Matador and turn this innovation into a trend? Whoever it is, it probably won't be any of the major labels. In theory, the majors could turn "Buy Early Get Now" into standard operating procedure, and if it wouldn't stop the wholesale theft of music through illegal downloads, it could at least slow it down significantly. The majors have the marketing muscle to make a whole lot of fans aware of the program. And because it utilizes downloading and streaming as well as the CD, it's a modern solution to a modern problem.
The question isn't whether they can adopt a "Buy Early Get Now"-type program, or how they can do it. It's the artists they'd be doing it for. The New Pornographers' fan base is a lot smaller than, say, Rihanna's or Daughtry's, but it's also a lot deeper. New Pornos fans want those B-sides and other ephemera that the "Buy Early Get Now" program is offering, and they're happy to pay to get them. Most major label acts, however, live and die by their latest single; their fan base is wide but shallow. Would enough people want outtakes and live recordings by these artists? Would they be willing to buy their new albums without having heard a note?
The answer is, probably not. For over a decade, the major labels have gone after the big hit single over developing their artists for the long haul -- Nirvana has been replaced by Gym Class Heroes. Not only is there less allegiance to singles acts, but because there's less fan loyalty to one-shot artists, there are fewer qualms about burning their CDs, or downloading them illegally, instead of buying them. Which defeats the whole point of "Buy Early Get Now."
Such a program should be a boon for indie labels like Matador (or Merge or Sub Pop or Fueled By Ramen, to name a few) which still value quality artists who evolve over years, not weeks, and who still concentrate on albums, not singles. As for the majors, they made their choice a decade ago -- and they're the ones who are going to have to live and die by the ringtone.