April 29, 2008 / 5:27 AM / 9 years ago

Labels mull release strategies in age of piracy

DENVER (Billboard) - It used to be so easy. When the entertainment industry had control over its distribution, back before piracy set in, there was this notion of a "release window."

It allowed the film industry to rake in billions by carefully orchestrating exactly where its content was consumed and via what format. Movies appeared first in theaters, then on home video, premium cable and finally network TV, with domestic and international releases interspersed among them.

It's something the music industry has long hoped to replicate. But in a sort of cosmic joke, the dawn of digital entertainment gave the music industry a host of new products to sell beyond the CD -- such as ringtones, ringback tones, videogame downloads and digital downloads -- and digital piracy to render the "windowing" effort powerless.

"In a perfect world, we would be able to execute more of a windowing strategy," says Jeff Dodes, senior VP of marketing and digital media at Zomba/Jive Records. "But (when) we plan a strategy and then the track leaks . . . what strategy do we really have? That happens to us fairly often."

Once a track leaks, that's it. No more control. The result? Everyone scrambles to make money where they can, as fast as they can, on whatever format holds the most potential at the time. That's what led urban pop duo Gnarls Barkley and rock group the Raconteurs to rush-release albums in physical and digital formats rather than build demand with an early single.

But that doesn't stop the industry from trying. Despite the chaos, there are islands of sanity where a savvy label can still manage the staged release of music.

"Some things are more controllable than other things," Jupiter Research music analyst David Card says.

Take CDs. The physical release is one of the few music products that is solely under the label's control; in some cases staggering a physical album's release after its digital debut can help regain some lost ground. Radiohead found success debuting its "In Rainbows" album as a digital download months before releasing the physical CD, and the latter still became a No. 1 seller. Many indie and emerging acts are following similar strategies. Even Columbia Records is embracing the concept with the release of U.K. songwriter Adele's U.S. debut,

"19."

Things get tricker with digital products, particularly downloads. Conventional wisdom says that barring the occasional iTunes exclusive, the best bet is to make the album available everywhere the moment the first single is serviced to radio.

"When you go to radio, you may as well make it available everywhere," Dodes says. "Because essentially, it will be."

But with more unconventional products -- videogames and mobile -- controlling the release window might still be an option.

Ringtones for some time were considered a piracy-free product, and as such have been one of the few controllable early-release formats. It's now common to release ringtones before the full album is released. They not only spur sales, but also act as a test product to determine whether the label is pushing the right single.

At one point, labels tried releasing singles as ringtones before aiming for radio airplay -- sort of like a teaser for a film. But once it became clear that radio drives ringtone sales, the practice changed.

"If they haven't heard the song," Dodes says, "people aren't going to buy a ringtone -- even from an artist they know."

The mobile attention is now moving to ringback tones. Ringtones are no longer as controllable as they once were, now that fans can create customized ringtones from their personal music collection. Ringbacks are a network-based application, and therefore cannot be similarly replicated.

Videogames are a newer area of opportunity. Games like "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" let users buy and download new songs to play with the game. Because developers must program these downloads to work with the game, piracy is not a concern, and distribution can be controlled.

One new tactic involves using games as an early-release platform. Motley Crue and Def Leppard have already released new songs exclusively through "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero," respectively.

Some wonder if videogames would prove more effective as a late-stage release platform instead, much like how ringtones were once offered too early in the release-window schedule.

"Isn't the whole point of the game to play stuff you're familiar with?" Card asks. "If you're actually trying to build demand for a song, this should be in a later window."

To be sure, experimentation will be key to the industry's attempts at replicating the movie release-window strategy. But in the digital age, time is of the essence.

"The film industry had 50 years to figure this out," Card says. "The music industry has no time whatsoever."

Reuters/Billboard

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