There have been a few raised eyebrows about two aspects of our promotional campaign for The Difference Machine - the low pre-release price of the CD and the availability of 30 minutes of music from the album for free download.
There has been quite a bit of debate in the band about this, and I don't think any of us are sure that it's the right thing to do. Should we give music away free of charge? Is it right to price our CD's at the lowest end of the range of prices for new releases?
Aside from the arguments about paying a proper price for creative work, it also costs money to run this band (gear, studio time, production costs etc.) Are we selling ourselves short? With Gathering Speed, we just about broke even; before that release, we'd lost money.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about how the band operates as a minor player in what is (in sales terms) increasingly a minority genre. A number of different factors have led me to the conclusion that the free downloads / cut-price CD's idea has to be worth pursuing. I'll come to these factors in a minute.
Firstly, about the minority genre issue. Whilst prog is no longer the music that dare not speak its name, there is no doubt that the glory days of progressive rock are long since gone. Bands with a prog influence may become very successful (Radiohead are a good example), but no out-and-out prog band is going to have the influence and success that Genesis and Yes did in the 1970's.
There used to be a well trodden path for progressive bands which started with them making music within the prog genre and ended with a more commercial approach. Most of the 70's bands did it (probably because of the influence of punk and new wave and the resultant pressure from the record labels) and many of the 80's bands (eg Marillion, IQ) followed a similar route (I remember Twelfth Night becoming glam-rockers almost overnight. They became shit almost overnight as well.)
Now, there is a kind of reverse trend. For the most part, the 90's and Noughties bands are falling over their Mellotrons to show how prog they are. This can lead to retro-style music (IQ's Dark Matter, bits of our own Gathering Speed) or music with a more contemporary approach (eg Frost). But either way, the trend is towards longer songs, concept albums and tricky time signatures (these recent comments from The Flower Kings' Roine Stolt are an example of the current mind-set: Flower Kings Forum)
I think this is all happening because the bands know the game is up. They're not going to make much money out of progressive music, they suck at writing commercial material and any attempt to satisfy the dedicated fan base whilst simultaneously attracting a newer audience with poppier material is doomed. Therefore, they may as well go back to the music they are most comfortable with and preach to the converted.
Actually, Jem Godfrey from Frost, currently the best music blogger around, put all this much better here: The New Cube (scroll down to the Cake or Death post.)
In the same post, Jem also talked about the impact of downloading on musicians. And this is where I come back to the issue of the Big Big Train offer of free downloads and cut-price CD's which is where I started (nifty link, huh?)
I happened to be in Barbados when I read Jem's blog post on downloading and prog rock. Nice place, Barbados. There are a some very rich people there and many more relatively poor ones. Despite these extremes, people get along together pretty well. There are great schools which instill in the children a work ethic and a pride in the island.
I know about the schools because I got to know a very amiable taxi-driver called Adrian who was passionate about Barbados, who had heard of Phil Collins but not Genesis, and who was into science fiction and fantasy (some proghead tendencies then.) Anyway, Adrian had invested a huge amount of money in buying his taxi and had, I guess, very little disposable income. He can't afford to travel much or to buy many DVD's or CD's, but he does have access to a computer and torrenting software. And he had amassed quite a collection of pirated tv shows.
I've done a bit of torrenting myself, just for bootlegs of Genesis stuff, but the extent of downloading that Adrian and his friends were doing was an eye-opener.
I read another post whilst I was in Barbados, this one from Nick Barrett on the Pendragon forum which took the opposite viewpoint from Jem Godfrey's. Nick feels that downloading is really hurting the band and may put them out of business. And this from Martin Orford: scroll down to find the post. Martin would rather have one fan who purchased a CD than two million who download the album.
If there is a weakness in Nick and Martin's argument it is that the majority of those downloaders probably wouldn't buy an album in the first place. The direct cause and effect is difficult to judge. Some people download and don't expect to pay a bean, others download and then go on to buy because they like what they hear and I guess there is a whole spectrum of people in between.
A few years back I did go through a stage of buying a lot of CD's from other new prog bands to check them out, often guided by some ecstatic reviews. The CD's were expensive (a tenner or more) and often extremely disappointing, and that made me far less likely to try music without hearing it first. And there is a lot of music out there. There are many more prog bands releasing albums into a much smaller marketplace than there were in the 70's when the prog bands were kings. And as well as music, there is so much more for people to spend their money on than in the 70's, and the internet has brought wider choice into everyone's homes.
So, why should I expect anybody to spend their money on Big Big Train? And how can I stop illegal downloading of our albums? (a full version of Gathering Speed was online for illegal download within two days of release.)
I had a chat with Malcolm Parker of GFT / Cyclops the other day. GFT are the major UK independent prog rock store and Malcolm has kept his operation going for many years, so he know his market well. Malcolm believes that CD price is the main driver of sales these days. It pisses him off, because he thinks that many very good albums are being ignored for cheaper and weaker products. But it's something he's having to deal with and, where possible, his prices have fallen dramatically in recent years (there are some wide variations in price on his site - between £7 and £12 for new CD's and these variations are, I assume, all dictated by the price he can buy the CD's in for.)
It is easy to be critical of those that are buying cheaper rather than best, but we all make decisions about purchasing items every day and price is always a factor. I like wine and I prefer good wine (and mostly I think I can tell the difference) but I still find myself drawn to the half-price offers in the supermarkets, even though I know some of the prices were artificially inflated in the first place to make the wine seem like a bargain.
To conclude, we are in a highly competitive market competing against other products and, to some extent, other bands. Pirating via downloading has added another element. Some downloaders may go on to buy CD's, most won't. I can't change that.
Our goal is to try to bring those downloaders of our music who don't normally pay, into the market place, and to try to get people who don't know much about our music to at least give it a listen. So, we offer up about half of the album for free and take the price of the CD down as low as we can get it.
First results are promising. I'll let you know how we get on in the longer term.