How Consumers are Driving the Conversation about Music

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How Consumers are Driving the Conversation about Music

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat on KCRW.

True hit singles only come around every few years. They are rare, and when they arrive, their presence is most often immediately felt.

One of those songs is among us now. It's the Gnarls Barkley record, Crazy. The single was originally released in the UK as a download single sale only, and it immediately debuted at #1 on the UK singles chart. That's the first time a UK download single sale has earned a #1-spot on the singles chart. Now seven weeks later, it's still at #1, which is an extraordinary achievement for a UK single. Normally.

UK charts run very hot, burning out quickly. US charts are more tempered, often debuting records slowly, and climbing.

The set up for this record here is perfect. The single and video have been blogged, streamed, and downloaded for the last eight weeks all over the internet. It's currently at #7 on iTunes. The album, St. Elsewhere, just out debuted at #20 this week on the Billboard Album Charts, with over 50,000 albums sold.

By all signs, Gnarls Barkley's Crazy should be a huge hit here, if the commercial radio format doesn't kill it off.

But the real story is about how the Internet, and the public rule the conversation about music, not record labels or radio stations.

Record labels are holding on to the notion that they matter in the equation. They don't. Traditional radio stations are praying that their audiences won't go to satellite, Internet radio or their iPods. Brick and mortar music retailers are hoping that someone is going to be buying records week after week. There was a time when a musician's appearance on the David Letterman Show meant something for record sales. Those days are long gone. The American public is now so saturated with marketing avenues and visibility campaigns that they seem to retreat to their own corner of the internet for personal satisfaction.

The reality is, that consumers want to feel like they are discovering their own music, passing them onto others, and celebrating in the process. That's the fundamental idea behind blogging, whether you're reaching millions or twenty-five people. MySpace has become the national school yard, with participants sharing their favorite songs and YouTube is now the largest public-access television station where anyone can become a star. We have become a democracy of creative output and opinion.

Some bands are embracing this change. Take the Beastie Boys. Adam Yauch, lead member of the band, reached out to rabid fans for an upcoming Madison Square Garden show, asking for seat numbers. Armed with that information, he plotted the best sight lines for 50 fans, and armed each of them with a Hi8 camcorder. After they all filmed the show, he and a film editor took on the task of making a fan-based movie. The title is not repeatable on air, but it is available in stores. If you want to know more, google the Beastie Boys.

As the record business continues to watch itself become obsolete, it seems powerless to stop it.

Unfortunately, most labels seemed to have missed the plot. The internet has democratized music, and it's up to the artists and their trusted business associates to define their next step. If record labels continue to remain the Big Bad Wolves of business, their role will certainly be diminished. Labels should be following the roles of their artists -- if you can't beat em, join em. Next week, I'll talk about how some labels are doing it right.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat on KCRW.