Every single day I check the music news, and seriously every single fucking day, there’s something new about Metallica. We mocked Mission: Metallica and their overblown, over-hyped marketing bullshit, and I for one am pretty sick of hearing about them. But I have to admit, they’re getting it right for a change. They’re staying on the radar by serving substance, not just ads. They’re keeping it coming, giving it all away. They’re engaging the fans head-on.
The new album leaked, and Lars “King Douche” enemy of downloading Ulrich himself came out and said hey, that’s the way it goes, it’s 2008, we’re not tripping. Apparently having learned the hard way how stupid it is to fight your fans, they then started streaming the album, in its entirety, on their website, prior to the physical release.
Finally, someone in the Metallica camp grew a brain. The backlash from their battle with Napster has put a big shit-smear on their image for years- and has surely caused many an on-the-fence critic to go south- but I have to hand it to them; despite still being on a major label, they’re connecting. They’ve climbed down off of their pedestal. They’re giving us daily updates from the studio. They’re acting like we deserve it. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t, but you get the impression that they appreciate their fans. It’s a complete 180° from walking into court with a list of names of people who downloaded some MP3s, and it’s exactly what you need to do to win in this new music game.
On one side of the field, you have the fans. They only care about one thing: the Music. They have no bottom line to mind, they just want to hear good music, and it’s impossible to distract them from that hunt. As individuals, they generally understand that the artists deserve creative control, that they deserve compensation for their efforts, and that they have no real obligation to the fans. But as a whole, they don’t really care. If it’s out there, they’ll find it. They’ll pay for it if they can, but they’ll steal it if they can’t. And if it isn’t there, it doesn’t matter how big the billboard is, they’re going to move on as quickly as they came.
Are the fans busting into record label headquarters and stealing CDs? No. They’re not criminals for fuck’s sake. But when one Google search leads them to a ‘play’ button, you can’t expect them not to click it. When the prey is in their sights, when the tools are at their fingertips, you can’t expect them not to take advantage.
On the other end of the field, you have the record labels. They say they care about the music, and as individuals, maybe they do. But as a whole, they don’t give a shit about the music. As a whole, they only care about the money. The money they’re getting, the money they’re not getting, the money they could be getting. There are some exceptions in the indie world, but they’re few and far between.
And right smack dab in the middle, you have the artists. Without them, there is no game. The fans know this, and even the labels know this. The thing about artists though, is they’re much harder to pin down. Some understand the game they’re in. Some don’t. Some don’t give a shit about the fans, some do. Some don’t give a shit about the labels, some do. The artists always have the least to lose though. They can make music without the fans, and they can make money without the labels.
There are three (and only three) simple truths, beyond which things get complicated: Fans consume art ruthlessly. Corporations make money ruthlessly. Artists make art ruthlessly.
Everything beyond these three truths can be picked apart and debated as the game evolves. But anyone who forgets any of these three truths is a fool, and anyone who fights them is asking for a Darwinian lightning bolt to wipe their useless genes off the planet. Today’s Metallica news brought one such waste of DNA to my attention: Per Sundin, President of Universal Music Sweden.
Here’s the story: A Metallica fan named Hench liked the new Metallica album, but thought he could make it better by cutting out, and I quote, “some lame lyrics” here and there, and some “ploddy riffs that go nowhere for three minutes before turning into something cool.” His motivation, as a fan, of course, was just to have some better music. As he stated, he just wanted a new Metallica album that he “could listen to without getting irritated.” If you ask me, I say no harm, no foul. That’s better for Metallica than Hench not listening at all. But don’t ask me for my opinion. Just take this activity for granted, guaranteed by the first truth.
This alternate mix of Hench’s found a fan in Jonn Jeppsson, writing for Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan, who downloaded the mix, and talked about it- and apparently where it could be found- in a three-star review of Death Magnetic. He praised the leaner versions of the songs, calling them more than “glaringly precise and intense.” If the story ended right here, there’d be no story. Have you ever rearranged the track order of an artist’s album to make it more listenable? Remove tracks or parts of tracks altogether from mixtapes? Shit, have you ever downloaded an album?
Of course you have. If you’re a music fan, you’ve done all of those things. As surely as you’ve supported the same artists and countless others with an unfathomable number of financial investments. Technically, what you’ve done is illegal, and disrespectful to the artists’ right to creative control. But you don’t feel bad, do you? Maybe you’re just hardcore; a remorseless music addict, and you can’t control yourself. Or maybe it’s because you still feel the sting of that concert ticket, and you’d need at least two hands to count the number of friends and internet buddies you turned onto that artist- many of which forked over hard earned cash for product, all of which at least told all of their friends. You know you’ve done a lot more good than harm.
A savvy artist understands this. A genius artist embraces this and uses it to their advantage. Trent Reznor provides the multi-track source files for his songs and encourages fans to hack them apart. He sees the album purchase as the beginning of the relationship with the fan, rather than the end. He sees a fan remixing his album as the most ultimate show of devotion.
Only a fool wouldn’t.
When Universal Music Sweden caught wind of Jeppsson’s controversial review, supporting an illegal, fan-made perversion of their artist’s product, they canceled an interview the band had scheduled with Sydsvenskan. Throwing customer relations out the window, Per Sundin blasted everyone within screaming range:
“The reviewer is referring to a torrent where someone has altered the original songs. The reviewer explains exactly where one should go in order to download the file that is totally infringing copyright. It’s not only an illegal file, but an altered file. The reviewer also writes that this is how the album should have sounded… File-sharing of music is illegal. Period. There’s nothing to discuss. That fact that Sydsvenskan has a writer that has downloaded this music illegally and then makes mention of an illegal site in his review is totally unacceptable to us.”
What’s totally unacceptable to us, is any notion that would even vaguely suggest that how a fan listens to music could or should be controlled by anyone other than that fan. It’d be no less absurd than telling the record labels they don’t need the money, and no less absurd than telling artists how or when to make their music.
And what each artist needs to do is decide which team they’re playing for.