Marillion triple physical sales on free online release

Marillion’s move to make the band’s latest album available through file-sharing networks raised lots of eye-brows, with industry mutterings claiming the scheme would never, ever work…they were wrong.

The band’s business manager, Erik Nielsen, MD of Intact/Racket Records, told attendees at yesterday’s hugely interesting EconMusic Conference just how successful the free release has been for the band.

“We made our album available through BitTorrent, ” he said. “Since then we have tripled our sales of physical product…” That’s right – they tripled physical sales – by being nice to their fans.

Reflecting on the Radiohead ‘In Rainbows’ launch, the panel noted that the tip-jar approach used by that band may well have driven some fans to seek out the tracks on file-sharing networks, but also drove 85,000 sales of the available online-only boxed set, at a cool £40 per set, generating a mighty £3.7 million – and that was in the first few weeks of release.

Nielsen effectively urged that any band with a strong following could emulate Marillion or Radiohead’s success, saying, “Our model is working really well. We already know our fanbase, so that can work for any established band.”

He warned bands that lack such a connection with a fanbase should maybe work a little harder to create this valuable two-way relationship. “You may have to sacrifice a little profile, but you can make a living doing this.”

What gets in the way of most such operations isn’t inertia, but the impossible task of securing and ensuring rights – from the labels and from the dizzying array of rights organisations which – while attempting to secure the rights of copyright holders and artists – also frustrate some new an innovative ways to bring music to market.

For example, We7 boss Stephen Purdham noted: “Peter Gabriel was a founder investor in We7, and we wanted to get his music onto the service. It took us 18-months to achieve this – Gabriel’s own music on a service he had ownership of took 18-momths.” Why? Because of the innovation destroying nature of copyright and permissions that frames the lawyer-led music industry.

One audience member who had insider knowledge of Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ project pointed out that the only way that band’s multi-stepped release strategy was made workable was by the band itself hosting all its rights with Warner/Chappell, rather than having to negotiate separately with an array of sometimes conflicting rights-holders.

“What was evident,” the audience member explained, “is that licensing needs to be a lot simpler for all concerned.”

Defying the mutterings from many industry insiders, who complain that many Radiohead fans didn’t pay for the music downloads on the tip jar model – grabbing the music off of BitTorrent, for example – thus making the experiment a failure, the Radiohead insider pointed out that their own research shows many who grabbed the album for nothing then purchased the physical product, or attended one of the many sold out international tour dates.

“As far as the band and Warner/Chappell is concerned, ‘In Rainbows’ has been a great success,” they said.

At root, a strong communication between artists and fans is critical – 50,000 MySpace friends are not the same as actual fans, reflected Nielsen, who then pointed out that Marillion’s present album was paid for by fans who stumped up £30 each, starting in October, “now the album ships next month”, he said.

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