Free Music: A Sign O’ The Times?

A Los Angeles Times columnist recently found himself in hot water with his bosses when he wrote a column suggesting the struggling newspaper consider giving away music on its Web site rather than resort to front-page advertising.

The Times could do a lot worse than give the idea some serious study – and it did.

Times editors killed Patrick Goldstein’s July 24th entertainment column, "The Big Picture." But a copy of it found its way online anyway, thanks to media blog L.A. Observed.

editors killed Patrick Goldstein’s July 24th entertainment column, "The Big Picture." But a copy of it found its way online anyway, thanks to media blog L.A. Observed.

The reporter’s spiked suggestion was based on Prince’s CD giveaway in the U.K.’s Mail on Sunday. Prince distributed 2.9 million copies of Planet Earth and the Mail On Sunday got a ton of free publicity and reportedly a big bump in advertising as well. From all accounts, the promotion was a win-win for both Prince and the newspaper.

Print media, Goldstein noted, is "in deep doo-doo." The same might be said for the recording industry, with deep drops in CD sales at the major labels this last year.

"So far we’ve made little headway developing imaginative strategies to bring back lost readers – or compete for younger readers who get their information from the Internet," Goldstein wrote in the column. "The record business has been just as slow to provide fans online with new, convenient ways to hear music – the only visionary idea, Steve Jobs’ iTunes store, came from outside the business.

"Unless you are a mainstream pop artist, it’s hard to see how the old-fashioned record company model benefits your career anymore," Goldstein continued. "If you’re a respected older performer – known in industry parlance as a heritage artist – your biggest challenge is finding a way to get your music heard."

Goldstein gave an example of how newspapers and record labels could join forces to get music heard: A free music series on a newspaper’s Web site, offering music via CD or download from respected artists and paid for by site advertising.

Everybody wins: The newspaper is associated with coolness as the labels avail themselves of the newspaper’s online readership.

In the Times’ case, according to Goldstein, that translates to roughly 1.1 million pairs of eyeballs on Sundays alone, and 65 million per month.

"Are you kidding – that’s a great idea," Jim Guerinot, manager of Nine Inch Nails, Gwen Stefani and Social Distortion, told Goldstein for the column the Times considered too hot to publish. "There are tons of these Hall-of-Fame quality heritage artists who don’t sell records anymore. It would be a real coup for them to reach their target demo through the newspaper and have the cachet of being an artist of the week or month.

"It could redefine the paper by making it a destination site for music fans," Guerinot continued. "On the net, the big challenge is always about providing a filter for people. It would make the Times, with its critical voice, into a gatekeeper. People are looking for someone to show them the way – why shouldn’t it be the L.A. Times?"

Industry attorney Fred Goldring agreed with Guerinot’s assessment, telling Goldstein, "What you’d be doing is turning the paper into a recommendation engine.

"Everywhere you look, from car ads to the NBA, music is a big part of everything that sells. You wouldn’t just be giving away music, you’d be doing something no one else does better: educating the consumer."

Not everyone Goldstein spoke to was as enamored of his brainstorm. Red Hot Chili Peppers manager Cliff Burnstein reminded him that there are cultural differences between what works in the U.K. and Stateside.

"Pop music is a national sport and the audience is a lot less fragmented [in England] than in the U.S.," Burnstein told Goldstein.

But Goldstein summed it up by paraphrasing what many in the music industry have been saying for years: "People want their music – and their news – in new ways.

"It’s time we embraced change instead of always worrying if some brash new idea – like giving away music – would tarnish our sober-minded image. When businesses are faced with radical change, they are usually forced to ask – is it a threat or an opportunity?

"Guess which choice is the right answer."