Ten years after piracy first began to ravage the music industry, Britain’s two biggest record labels will finally try to play their part in stopping it by making new singles available for sale on the day they first hit the airwaves. Universal and Sony Music – home to Take That and Matt Cardle, respectively – hope the effort will encourage the impatient X-Factor generation to buy songs they can listen to immediately rather than copying from radio broadcasts online. David Joseph, the chief executive of Universal Music, said: “Wait is not a word in the vocabulary of the current generation. It’s out of date to think that you can build up demand for a song by playing it for several weeks on the radio in advance.”
Songs received up to six weeks of radio airplay before they were released for sale – a practice known as “setting up” a record. But the success of selling the winner’s single immediately after the X Factor final has made record bosses think again. “What we were finding under the old system was the searches for songs on Google or iTunes were peaking two weeks before they actually became available to buy, meaning that the public was bored with – or had already pirated – new singles,” Joseph added.
Sony, which will start the “on-air, on sale” policy simultaneously with Universal next month, agreed that the old approach was no longer relevant in an age where, according to a spokesman for the music major, “people want instant gratification”. Cardle, who signed to Sony via an agreement with Simon Cowell, sold 439,000 copies of When we Collided when it made Christmas number one; the track went on sale just as the X Factor final ended on television.
Industry insiders believe instant sales will make it easier for records to climb the charts as excited about a new song builds, developing a trend first seen when download sales joined the mainstream. In the past, heavy pre-release marketing had tended to mean a new single crash-landed at its peak position on its first week of release – making the top 40 a dull narrative of short-lived new entries leavened by falling songs and fading glamour. Jessie J’s Do it As a Dude went on sale and the radio at the beginning of December, and the 22-year-old’s R&B single climbed steadily to reach number 5 last week. As more singles follow suit, the charts will briefly become uneven as songs adopting the old and the new marketing policies mix.
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Piracy remains a crippling problem for the British music business. The overall market fell by nearly 6% in 2010, and album sales slumped 7%, despite the success surrounding Robbie Williams’s rejoining Take That and Simon Cowell‘s television-fuelled hits factory. Although pirating songs from the radio is as old as tape recorders, the record companies believe the move will show ministers that they are playing their part in fighting copyright theft. Universal and Sony have notified Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture and the creative industries, of their plans.