Saturday, May 6, 2017

Why are so many indie albums missing from digital and streaming music services?

There is an interesting article on NPR about Bob Seger titled "Where Have All The Bob Seger Albums Gone?" Seger is a singer/songwriter from the 70s and early 80s who dominated classic rock radio for decades with songs like "Night Moves." As you might expect, this is a tale of a dispute over digital revenue and an older artist (and his longtime manager, "Punch") resisting the transition from full-length albums to digital downloads and streaming music:
Punch is aware of the new reality, though to hear him tell it, retailers are the ones to blame for the unavailability of Seger's back catalog. When I ask him why he hasn't kept more of the old titles in print physically, or at least released them as album only downloads online, he explains: "iTunes has a policy of not permitting 'album only' downloads except in some instances. From the very beginning, we were very concerned as to how this policy would affect album oriented rock artists in the long run and certainly there is evidence that this policy has contributed to a decline in the format. At the same time, physical retailers have been reducing the footprint of music in their stores to such a degree where deeper, back catalog titles have a tougher time reaching an audience."

If Punch is right about the state of the industry, Seger is in a pickle: The priorities of iTunes and Spotify might have changed the way people listen in the digital era, but those new priorities make it harder for him to argue for a reversal for the sake of Seger's back catalog. And if shrinking physical retail space means it's harder to market Seger's early LPs, letting them all fall out of print only makes it harder for anyone hear them as the artist intended. In the name of preserving his client's vision as an album artist, compilations have become the default option in both environments, causing the old albums to fade in favor of individual songs.

Aside from major artists like Seger, something I have noticed is many indie artists have not made the transition to digital downloads or streaming. I've seen lots of good stuff missing from Spotify, Amazon Music (streaming), and the old Apple Music (digital downloads) including early albums by the Lemonheads (originally released by TAANG records in the 80s), Kula Shaker's Summer Sun EP from 1997, and Christopher Parkening's Parkening Plays Bach LP from 1990.

What many of these recordings have in common is they were originally released on independent labels. I don't know if the labels are no longer in operation, or whether the rights reverted back to the artist or to another entity during a sale or special distribution deal. Whatever the case, important recordings are no longer accessible unless you have the LP, CD, cassette, or DAT (!) from 20 or 25 years ago ... or can find it on YouTube.

I think moving up the format ladder has always been problematic for smaller labels. I remember when Dischord started selling CDs I got the Minor Threat album which didn't have a barcode on the back of the CD case. It also came with a historical booklet so fat it almost didn't fit in the clear plastic case. They were just kind of flying by the seat of their pants.

One of my neighbors happens to be a former member of the Boston indie band O Positive. When I asked him why I couldn't get their songs on iTunes he said the singer (who now happens to be a lawyer) said it was too troublesome to sort out the paperwork and files (this is before Distrokid came on the scene). I just checked Amazon Music and only one of their albums is there, which happens to be their major label release on Epic/Sony. The indie stuff is still MIA.

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