An Open Letter to Warner Music Group

Dear Warner Music Group Executives:

The BBC reports that 20 million people wanted to purchase tickets to the historic Led Zeppelin show held at the O2 Arena on Dec. 10, 2007. Needless to say, with only 20,000 tickets available, there were many disappointed fans who couldn’t be there when the band took the stage for the first time in 19 years.

Immediately after the show, grainy, low-fidelity clips appeared on YouTube and were eagerly watched by fans. I was one—hoping to see how the band had changed since I had seen them in June 1977 at Madison Square Garden. Alas, within hours you started to pull down the clips, claiming copyright infringement.

Your actions completely underestimate the power of a rabid fan base to help sell legal recordings, which is, after all, what you want. I am absolutely confident that the buzz generated by the concerts is selling millions of dollars of Led Zeppelin recordings. The availability of YouTube clips enhances your sales, and you shouldn’t worry about these low-quality fan tributes. I, for one, am replacing my vinyl recordings with Led Zeppelin CDs, and I’m sure many other people are as well. All because we’ve been exposed, briefly, to the power of this band (which we may have ignored for several decades) via fleeting images of a concert we would have traveled halfway around the world to see if tickets had been available.

Yes, I understand the paid content world. Yet my book publisher, Wiley, was thrilled when I made parts of my book available for free on my blog, on many other blogs, and in magazines. We know that it sells books (nearly 30,000 as of this writing) when people have a taste of what they will be buying. The free publicity that’s generated by viral, word-of-mouse marketing can be worth millions of dollars, and you’re missing a tremendous opportunity to harness that power.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. And it’s not only fans—many music industry professionals are waking up and speaking out, such as this veteran who commented on my blog: “As someone who actually worked at WEA (the company is now Time Warner) back in the '80s, I can tell you that there is no way the record industry will change. Sure, there are some bright people, but it’s largely run by lawyers and accountants and they want to cover their asses every single step of the way. It’s also about ‘maximizing shareholder value.’ This translates into suing anyone who infringes upon their copyright, no matter what, even if the supposed infringement might even be a positive thing. It’s a shame really…these corporations can’t seem to shake their past, they are grounded in the idea that all copyrighted material must be protected, even if it means clamping down on the incredible buzz that YouTube provides. When I worked at WEA, if you wanted Led Zep, you had to buy it from us. There was no internet, there was no file sharing, and home taping offered marginal quality—so they pretty well had the market sewn up. The world changed and the music business didn’t. They have reaped what they sowed.”

But other music industry people see hope, coming not from the record labels, but from the artists: “David, you’ve given a great example of how much of the music industry refuse to let go of a '60’s mentality when dealing with fans. It’s amazing how many young (and some, very bright) people come into the industry only to continue using a 50-year-old playbook. It’s all about retaining power and control. A romantic and false notion of the old days, I think. An interesting thing that I’ve found, is that a lot of the older superstar artists have grown even more in touch with their fan base and know exactly what gets them on their feet cheering, whether they are in the arena, or thousands of miles away, dreaming that they could be.”

I encourage you to rethink your knee-jerk legal impulse to clamp down on fans with Draconian measures and consider the power that the web has to sell your artists’ music. Lighten up. Your fans are promoting bands like Led Zeppelin for you … free. If you want to remain relevant in an always-on, fan-centric, YouTube world, you need to embrace—not restrict—your most important supporters.

Best Regards,
David Meerman Scott