Bruce Springsteen will be debuting his album in full via CBS.com. The crazy thing is you have to go to the portal for the show The Good Wife to find out. The album debut is apparently not important enough to make the first page of the CBS.com website. How has it come to this?
The problem is not uniquely Bruce’s. There are very ways to release a new album these days and have people hear it in its entirety. It has just evolved out of our culture. At a time that does not seem so long ago, radio stations used to fight over the chance to play the new release from a superstar artist before any other radio station in their market. The battles between labels and radio stations and radio station vs radio station were legendary in the music business. One station supposedly gets a copy from “the manufacturing plant” and plays the album. The rival local radio station gets angry and removes all the offending labels music from their playlist. The label then “goes out of business” with the station that leaked the record and the station that was wronged bans the label from communicating with them for a while.
Childish…absolutely! Clandestine…without a doubt. But it definitely built excitement for a release when one station would play an album dozens of times over a weekend and announce that they had it exclusively. Oh, I left that part out. These “leaks” would always occur at around 9pm Eastern time on a Friday night. That would assure that non one from the record label was available to contact the offending radio station and serve them what was known as a “cease and desist letter”. This letter would supposedly bar the leaking radio station from playing the yet to be released record, any more. Miraculously, by Monday morning the record came off the air until everyone else in the market or country was serviced with the album and was free to play it. The advent of the cellphone and the ability to get in touch with someone virtually anytime you want, made the whole leaking process more challenging.
This practice went on for decades. The truth is the record labels did all the leaking. It was a way to stir up excitement. We would give a record to one station in the marketplace early and then hide for the weekend. On Monday we would act angry and repair the damage done. There were times when things actually leaked by other means. The labels would be caught off guard. We were pissed off, because this unexpected leak threw a wrench into our plan and we were not prepared to handle to collateral damage. Also as technology improved if the label gave an album to a station in Chicago, invariably its sister station in New York or Philadelphia or sister stations all over the country would end up with the record in minutes. This made things more uncomfortable for the label. But somehow we survived.
Much of this was done without the knowledge of the people who ran the record labels…or thought they ran the labels. Al Teller, who was President of Columbia Records back in the early 80’s got furious when records leaked. For whatever reason he was not aware that we were doing the leaking. He got very angry when WNEW in New York leaked an album. I can’t even remember which one it was. He insisted that we go out of business with WNEW. Which was awkward, since we gave the PD at the time, Charlie Kendall the album. So, literally for months we had to pretend to be angry with Kendall and the station. We had to meet in dark restaurants, because my partner, Paul Rappaport and I were convinced (we were probably right) that we would be fired if our boss found out we had done this. It was all very funny. It did however cement our relationship with one of the most important stations in the nation and deepen a friendship with Charlie that still exists, thirty years later.
There used to be nationally syndicated programs that featured the act talking about their new album. Usually most or all the tracks got played during this broadcast. Sometimes there were live performances as well. We once aired an album premier show of Pink Floyd’s “Division Bell” that was heard by over 40 million people on the night of the album release and the first date of a sold out US Tour. That simply could not happen today.
High Hopes Gilmour peforming solo one of the singles from “Division Bell”.
Many of these leaking incidents involved Bruce Springsteen albums. A new Bruce album was always an event. Usually there was a couple of years between releases so the audience was anxious to hear new music. Now there are very few ways to cause real excitement about the release of a a new project. Why? Because people simply don’t care that much. New music has taken a back seat to many other priorities in their lives and there are many more ways that people choose to spend their free time, other than sitting in a room listening to an album beginning to end.
Bruce worked especially hard to maintain his credibility. He and his management were always quite careful about every step they took. Bruce’s image was very strong and a wrong step could be very costly. As a result, Bruce usually did one or two huge press or TV interviews surrounding a new release and that would have to suffice. Radio and word of mouth would take care of the rest. But that formula no longer works for Bruce or anyone else.
A few years back, Bruce played the Super Bowl surrounding the release of his new album (Magic?). I am sure this was a decision that Bruce and Jon Landau (his manager) agonized over. It was so out of character for Bruce, yet there were no viable options. The excitement lasted until the last note of the performance. It was clear then that finding ways to make a big event out of the release of any album was going to be difficult. The Super Bowl has more eyes on it than any other show of the year. Yet, it had very little impact on the long term or even short term success of Bruce’s new album. The fans who were going to buy the album anyway, went out and bought it. Everyone else passed.
Beyonce, or should I say Columbia tried something different a couple of weeks ago when she supposedly “self-released” her new album in the form of 17 videos. It got publicity for a week and the album sold over 800,000 copies the first week. The truth is it was just a marketing ploy by the label. It was aimed at restoring some damage that had been done to Beyonce’s image lately. She was beginning to look like a rich Diva instead of the sweet caring, normal, but incredibly beautiful woman that her public imaged her to be. So she took it on herself to speak to her fans directly. In reality, she would have sold just as many albums with or without this stunt. Now, the buzz has clearly worn off and the album is in trouble. Now that all the songs have been released and are out there for everyone to hear, how can Columbia pull a single from the album and go about business as usual. I think this was a huge mistake for Columbia. At the end of the day it proved one thing. That someone like Beyonce or any real superstar artist no longer needs a record label.
Bruce’s album was “leaked” on Amazon a few weeks back. Fingers were pointed at Bruce’s camp. In reality I am sure it was just another attempt by Columbia to do something different. This leak came and went without generating more than a peep. You can’t blame someone for trying.
Artists are for the most part extremely creatively people. They rely on marketers to deliver a critical mass of people in order for them to be successful and get their art across to the public. People like Columbia and their marketing team are among the best in the business. So, the arguably one of the greatest artists of our era, combined with the savviest marketing people in the industry can’t get the needle to move. To me that means the system is irreparably damaged.
That is what has brought us to the point of premiering Bruce’s music on The Good Wife and the CBS website. There quite simply is nothing left. This is not a bad idea, just a sad look at reality. This is strictly commerce and something that will not make much of a difference at all. CBS is happy because a hundred thousand people that would not ever view their website will now check it out. But, there is really very little in it for Bruce.
Dream Baby Dream-Cover song on new Springsteen album due out January 14
In short, we have managed to eat our young. Music, especially rock music, has been a national treasure. One thing, that if not uniquely American, surely has been one of our biggest exports. As an industry and as a culture we have managed to make music almost meaningless and worthless. Don McLean said that Buddy Holly’s death was the “day the music died”. That was not true. But it seems to be dying a little bit everyday now.