Veteran Rockers Head to the Front Lines of Digital Distribution


      Bookmark and Share

It is a case of musical Darwinism. When your career spans decades, it is inevitable that you have adapted to the times in order to survive. Such is the case with Metallica and Pearl Jam who have both made major strides in adapting to the use of the Internet for digitally distributing their music.

Metallica—notorious in certain circles for coming down hard on music pirates—has led various efforts to decrease the amount of pirated music available and inflict harsher penalties on those who steal content. But not wanting to leave fans out to dry digitally, Metallica recently unveiled MetallicaVault.com, a Web site devoted to freely distributing bootlegs in MP3 format.

When a fan purchases Metallica's latest release, St. Anger, they receive a key code that lets them into the "Vault" and grants access to a variety of content—for free. None of the music available through MetallicaVault.com is available on regular CD; it is all live material or other songs that the group is interested in allowing fans to hear.

Metallica assumed that despite their best efforts, songs would inevitably end up on Kazaa and other distribution sites anyway, and MetallicaVault.com allows the group to appeal to fans while controlling the quality of material that is available. Metallica created the site with the help of Speakeasy and thePlatform. According to thePlatform's VP of marketing, Andrew Olson, the group is not inherently opposed to digital distribution, but this format allows, "fans to get first crack at it."

Olson says that the "goal of this is to continually add new content and to keep it fresh." A note on MetallicaVault.com encourages fans to submit tapes from their personal collections to be added to the site in an effort to amass a large set of quality selections. The band is also considering adding video content in the future.

Consistent with Metallica's sensitivity to copyright infringement, they do not include any covers on the site at this time. The site explains: "Unfortunately, if we didn't write the song, we can't post it without permission from the songwriters…We're working on getting clearance for as many or all of the great cover songs that you've come to know and love…In the meantime, thanks for understanding."

thePlatform's software enables artists to upload content themselves—even from the road. Since there is a large demand for acoustic songs, artists can satisfy demand by recording songs on the road and posting them online immediately. The objective, Olson says, is to, "make it as easy to use as a Hotmail account."

Pearl Jam has taken a parallel, but slightly different approach to distributing their content online. They too have worked on the assumption that since their music will ultimately be posted on file-sharing services, they might as well distribute it on their terms. They launched PearlJamBootlegs.com at the start of their 2003 Riot Act World Tour to offer fans bootlegs of the shows virtually immediately.

Working in conjunction with WAM!NET, Pearl Jam now offers fans an alternative to bootlegs that were hastily burned during a show and then sold out of the back of someone's car. Now, a fan can jump to the site immediately after a show and order bootleg CDs of any show on the tour. Fan club members pay $12.98; others pay $14.98 for a fully-mastered double CD. While waiting for the CDs to arrive, they have unlimited access to lower-quality MP3s of the same music. The files are posted almost instantaneously and there are no rights-management issues, so once a fan purchases the CD, they can use the MP3 files as they wish. Tom Moran, WAM!NET's director of media and entertainment explains that this, "goes to the need for immediate gratification."

Pearl Jam pushed for the MP3s as a concession to fans and insisted that the actual CDs go through a mastering process. "Live performances are very difficult to record," says Moran, because of the volume issues, crowd noise, instruments, and other variables. This is particularly problematic with vocals, so an instrumental group may not have as many problems.

For security reasons, WAM!NET offers a dedicated line managed by WAM!NET; it is entirely separate from any network or Internet connection. The other benefit of using a service like WAM!NET is that it significantly shortens the production process. Music labels often stagger worldwide release dates, but this leads to increased piracy in countries where content is not yet available legally. "If you can't walk into a record store in China and buy a CD but you can buy it on the street corner, you drive people to the pirates," says Moran. He cites a statistic from the Report on Commercial Music Piracy 2003, published by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, that over 90% of all recordings sold in China are pirated. This translates into over $530 million. Customers have estimated that WAM!NET can shave up to four or five days off of the production cycle, which can generate a great deal of revenue from legal sales.

Metallica and Pearl Jam seem to have struck a chord with fans as both sites have seen success thus far. At least two of the CDs offered on PearlJamBootlegs. com have made the Billboard 200 the week of their release, which is unprecedented for an Internet-only release. Many fans who illegally share music digitally have expressed a willingness to use legal means if they were inexpensive and easy to use. Since both WAM!NET and thePlatform plan to continue working with musicians to develop sites along the same lines as MetallicaVault.com and PearlJamBootlegs.com, this could be the beginning of a new era in digital distribution. Only time will tell whether fans will use these sites instead of file-sharing services or whether they will be a way to supplement collections. (www.speakeasy.net; www.theplatform.com; www.wamnet.com)