Music sales in the digital age: jury is out on release date reform
The UK music industry is going through somewhat of a transition. February brought the news that Fridays will now be the global release date for new music, and the announcement could mean changes in the structure of the BBC’s music broadcasting.
In a statement from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which represents 1300 record companies worldwide, Friday has been decreed as the ideal global date in order for the market to take full advantage of the weekend, when commercial footfall is at its highest, but not everyone is convinced.
The move has reportedly been made in order to ‘best serve the music consumer’, according to a comment made by IFPI CEO Frances Moore to Music Week recently, and there are set to be major consequences for the UK and US industries in particular, with some major retailers even considering dropping music from their stores altogether as a result of the costs incurred. Beggars Group boss Martin Mills also has his reservations, claiming the decision ‘crazy’; taking away the week’s two trading peaks and serving only to further marginalise the niche in favour of the mainstream.
However, this comes at a time when the UK industry’s commitment to independent music seems stronger than it has ever been, particularly within the BBC. Since the corporation’s reversal of the decision to discontinue BBC 6 Music, the digital-only station has flourished and, at the beginning of last month, it made history when it hit 2 million weekly listeners for the first time, with independent artists forming a core part of its appeal.
The BBC’s policy towards mainstream shows on its flagship station continues to come under consistent scrutiny. Since the mid-90s, the broadcaster has sought to attract a younger core audience for Radio 1, which has alienated older audiences from the concept of music charts, reflected best in the downturn of chart-orientated programming such as Top of the Pops. The announcement of a designated date for releases has fuelled some speculation that TOTP is due a return, with bookies even offering odds on the most likely presenters.
But the relevancy of charts is questioned more broadly than just on terms of demographic. Only less than a year ago, the UK charts incorporated the figures of streaming data into their calculation of chart success for the first time, creating ambiguity over what constitutes a sale of a musical product. Further, the changes in consumption seen in the industry over the last 20 years have also blurred the distinction of release dates specifically.
Previews, promos and premieres mean consumers are often familiar with tracks long before their scheduled release, while prominent examples of leaks and rush-releases in the last few years have meant that record labels have needed to be flexible towards the concept of releasing records in order to stay competitive. A review recently commissioned by the BBC Trust seemed to highlight these issues as they relate to broadcasting, stating that ‘a fresh definition should be found for “new” music, as release dates become increasingly unclear in the online era’.
It is difficult to predict what the impact of a global release date will be on industry sales broadly, but what is sure is that it presents the BBC with an opportunity to shake up their mainstream music broadcasting. It would allow for a programme like TOTP to reveal the new Top 40 hot off the press, and in doing so might mark a welcome platform for struggling TV pluggers, taking on a whole new relevance to boot in an industry where emphasis is shifting further away from the traditional modes of release and embracing a digital age of blurred lines.