"Hey, I have something for you.”
As I’m leaving a recent music industry event in San Francisco, a colleague reaches into the inner pocket of his coat and produces a chocolate bar wrapped in bright, yellow psychedelic paper. The name of a mutual friend is printed on the wrapper, along with the title and artwork from his new album.
“Turn it over.”
On the back is a QR code with the words “scan to download” next to it. Beneath it is the label name and URL, as well as an alphanumeric code to type in when I am ready to grab the music files. Later, my iPhone’s Quick Scan app takes me to the artist’s Website where I enter the data and get immediate gratification.
Yet, as I ride home on the train that night, I have mixed feelings. (Not about the artisanal chocolate or the music itself.) But has it really come to a point where we have to surreptitiously convince our fans to purchase our music?
The concept of a download card is not new to me. As a gigging musician and indie label owner, I’m in touch with the trends: My friends and I still sell our recordings at shows; see our tunes pop up on Pandora, Spotify, and illegal torrent sites; digitally distribute our tracks through all the usual suspects using an aggregator.
Yet there was something about getting music as part of a food purchase that was eating at me.
Maybe it’s because we are now being asked to disguise what we do as artists in order to successfully navigate the uncharted territories of the so-called digital economy. As we work to diversify our income between various royalty streams, merch, sync rights, and so forth, it’s hard not to consider schemes such as offering download cards with novelty products. It’s something that we all have joked about for years.
Except that the joke has become a paradigm. One Bay Area band is even selling underwear with the download code printed on the tag. It’ll be difficult for fans to separate the band’s songs from that particular delivery system, because the conditions under which we first hear a tune are imprinted in our memory.
Remember when you bought an artist’s new LP or CD and stared at the artwork as you listened to it? The fact that music is now delivered as a generic file may be one of the reasons why listeners today do not get as attached to the music they download or stream: Nothing else related to the artist’s vision of the project is involved. Perhaps there’s a video for the single. Beyond that, it’s disposable.
Similarly, the wrapper of the chocolate bar is discarded once the contents are consumed. But an article of clothing—with or without a download code on the tag—remains useful, and the fan will remember the band every time he or she wears it.
Still, there is something undeniably attractive about connecting music with something delicious. The label (who requested anonymity while they finalize their Website) explained that the upfront cost is under $3 per bar in the smallest quantity, and artists have been selling them for $7 to $10 a piece at shows. That’s a smaller markup than you got from a CD during its heyday, but not bad considering that everybody loves chocolate.
As I picture myself lugging boxes of chocolate through airport customs or in the back of a hot van during a summer tour, I am reminded that the modern musician is expected to be part retail outlet, offering a full line of branded products at every price point. But the chocolate bar isn’t simply about promotion. It represents a desperate search for ways to monetize our career—something, anything—at a time when fewer people than ever want to pay for just the music. If it’s purely for promotion, hell, just give the chocolate away like we do with low-bitrate MP3s.
As I am writing this, I stumble across the article exposing the myth that “everyone knows musicians make all their money selling T-shirts.” Kristin Thomson and Jean Cook of the Future of Music Coalitionexplain that that statement “… is one of the most disheartening comments to hear routinely—that society sees more value in a band’s name on a T-shirt than in their creative output, and that it also thinks that this is the preferred way for artists to be compensated.”
But it is cellist Zoe Keating who sums up my feelings about this, in the trailer of the film Unsound: How Musicians and Creators Survive in the Age of Free: “I’m a musician. I’m not a T-shirt maker. I’m not a designer. I want to sell music. I believe that my music is worth something.”
The music industry hopes so as well, as it prepares to open the floodgates for high-res audio delivery in 2014. Many in the biz believe that listeners will want to pay for music when it actually sounds good. Perhaps. But the challenge remains: how do musicians engage their audience to the degree that they used to, offering a complete artistic vision of a project when the music is no longer delivered from a physical object?
As I ponder that question, I plan to enhance the experience of a recent download by enjoying it with a bar of my favorite dark chocolate and a glass of red wine.