Novelties and Music Sales in the Internet Age

On physical, tangible music moments and how we can still hold on to them in the Internet age.

If you were born in the time before downloading , you would be familiar with an age where your music would be on CDs, cassettes, or vinyl record. Unless it was gifted or recorded off the radio onto a cassette, music was bought. If you liked a song enough that you wanted to listen to it over and over again, you would physically go out and buy it. And if it were sold out, then you’d probably order it in and wait, or go from store to store until you found it. It may be hard to believe for some young’uns out there, I know. But I remember living in a time like that (AND I can finally use “back in my day…” about something, which is nice and simultaneously not nice). I was young enough though that my poor dad had to chauffeur me around town until I found my beloved Spice Girls or NSYNC or (eventually) AFI albums, which I was forever saving up for to buy each time. But once I did have them, I would spend hours listening to them on repeat while taking in every single detail of the booklet that it came with.

And then we got the internet. Which eventually became high-speed, unlimited-downloads internet. And just like everyone else, downloading mp3s became the best friend that I couldn’t quit. A lot of it was happening illegally through file-sharing and stream-ripping. Flash-forward to the present day — and that is all people know. Music is now mostly available in mp3 form and a lot of it is being acquired for free. The excitement of opening up a new CD and looking through the pretty little booklet is all but a thing of the past for a majority of people. It is a big reason as to why the music industry is struggling after having relied on music sales for so long. Record labels and musicians are needing to find other ways to fill the gap that album sale profits has left.

So why not turn to downloads, especially if they won’t cost you money or time?

Apart from being online and downloadable, the traditional sales model for most new music that is released might be a media circuit (if they are big enough for that) followed by a tour (if there is enough funds available for it). Otherwise, it’s yet another album that is out there waiting to be heard. But this follows a model that is rather unoriginal and outdated. Then there is also the issue of convenience – physically setting out to buy the CD takes a lot of effort and extra travel expenses, and having it delivered involves waiting.

Which brings us to ‘novelties’.

Some may say that the music should speak for itself – there is no need for these ‘toy in a cereal box’-type gimmicks. This might be true, but a bit of excitement to grab attention wouldn’t go astray either especially when it could encourage sales. There is a lot of music out there to listen to, whether it’s existing or new artists. It’s definitely hard to keep up with it all. There is the risk of these releases all falling into the shadows because it’s just another album out in the big wide world. Gimmicks are about doing something different to stand out from the crowd and about engaging with people enough that they actually want to buy the product the artist is selling.

One of my favourite examples of this type of business model is Jack White and his label, Third Man Records. An advocate for the use of ‘novelties’, he understands how they draw people in and how it helps lead them to the music. His label is essentially equal parts record releases and equal parts novelties (plus a good sprinkle of freaking awesome, if you ask me). Take for example his latest album and vinyl release, Lazaretto. It came with so many ‘novelties’ that it needed its own article to talk about, but it broke records in sales. People actually bought it. People who had never bought records before (or who didn’t even own a record player) had bought his LP because they were drawn-in and excited by all the nifty features that made it different and that they hadn’t seen before. And, not to mention, the endless limited releases and special editions, which become collectables for vinyl enthusiasts (or if you missed out, hit up eBay and say goodbye to your life savings).

Thirty Seconds to Mars also had themselves a winner in 2009 with This Is War. Their ‘novelty’ was to connect with their fans, humbly named the Echelon. They took ‘connecting’ to a new level, from featuring them on pretty much every track, to pretty much every video, and even the limited-run “Faces of Mars” album cover campaign, plus the endless meet-and-greets and fan-focused events. This was a marketing model that was new and fresh, and that excited the fans and gained them plenty of new ones. It was certified Gold in 7 countries, platinum in 3, and double platinum in 2. So they must have done something right by the world.

For those who worry about spending their hard-earned cash on an album that that sucks, Kaiser Chiefs answered their prayers in 2011 by allowing fans to create their own customised album. This particular novelty campaign was directed at selling downloads. For The Future is Medieval, they allowed fans to make their perfect Kaiser Chiefs album. They released 20 songs of which fans could sample and then select their 10 favourites that they wanted on their custom album. They could also customise the order of the track list, and create custom artwork. Once purchased, they’d then have the opportunity to promote their unique album (and consequently, the band) to other fans as well as earn some money on the side from the sales (which was about $1 from the $7.50 it sold for).

Not that she really needs any help in selling albums, but Taylor Swift also recently took a different approach to promoting the release of her latest offering, 1989. She threw a few shindigs at her home for her fans, offering tea and homemade biscuits (which she actually made herself), plus endless cat-petting, all to the sound of her new tunes. For a non-fan such as myself, this definitely caught my attention simply because I’d never really heard of anything like it. It may have even made me ‘aww’ for a second. The fact is, I now knew Taylor was releasing a new album simply because an article headline read ‘Swift bakes her fans cookies for listening party’. Compare this to the sea of ‘[insert band name here] drop another album’ articles that are posted each day.

Novelties are about promoting and marketing an album in a way that is outside the traditional approach, in a way that is innovative and fresh. I’m not saying this is the be-all-and-end-all solution to a massive problem, nor would it be for everyone, but it could be something to think about for those still stuck in the old model of record sales.

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