Thursday, December 27, 2007

It must be nice to be T-Pain

A few weeks ago, I posted in the comments section about an interesting piece I’d heard on NPR about how T-Pain was selling more ringtones than actual song downloads or CD sales, but it got lost amongst childish sniping on said comments section.

The music industry is, in a word, bizarre. It’s an age where Radiohead can sell a non-label-backed album for whatever price the consumer chooses, yet still be among the top illegally downloaded (ie free) albums. Even Jay-Z pulled his latest album, American Gangster, off iTunes because iTunes wanted to sell his concept album as individual singles.

But this T-Pain story just kills me. In short, the guy who has done “Buy U a Drink (Shawty Snappin’),” “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper)” and “Bartender” has now become the model of a music industry once-anomaly by being more successful in ringtones than he is in actual music sales. Sales have shown that consumers are four and five times more likely to download a 15-second clip of one of his songs at $2.99 and up than they are to download the entire song on iTunes for $0.99. Ringtone sales make up to 40% of record labels’ revenue today.

Stumped, but envious, of his success, those in the music industry found that his robotic, effect-laden voice actually sounded better on crappy cellphone speakers than it did over better speakers. To capitalize on a certain song’s success and to extend its shelf life, the record companies introduced special “ringtone remixes.” Therefore, buying a 15-second clip was, in addition to making a statement about yourself, actually a better bang for your buck. T-Pain’s guest appearances on far more commercially successful artists’ – Kanye and Chris Brown, to name two – were almost certainly done to help generate more ringtone sales, since the two mentioned artists are having no trouble selling their singles and albums on iTunes. In effect, T-Pain has become the first “Ringtone Artist.” Mos Def said the industry was “a better-built cell-block.” For T-Pain, it’s a better-built luxury cruise liner.

His sales and this story are both staggering, but before we anoint T-Pain as a revolutionary, it must be said that he’s capitalizing on a fairly new idea. If ringtones were around in the 60s, then you’d have to believe his numbers couldn’t be compared to The Beatles’.

Another good/fine (no, not that fine) example of this would be Mariah Carey’s (non-Christmas) top selling songs on iTunes – they are all from her most recent album. It’s not, say, Hero or Dreamlover, two songs that helped her become the biggest-selling artist of the 1990s. Just because a song is downloaded a lot today doesn’t mean it’s any more popular; rather, it’s just more readily available. The beauty of iTunes is that I don’t have to even put on pants and, bang, the new Lupe Fiasco album is on my computer. But people who love Mariah Carey already have all her CDs and don’t need to download them again on iTunes – even though iTunes and record execs would love you to. The Emancipation of Mimi sold ‘only’ 10 million copies thanks to a depressed CD-buying market, but had the benefit of extra digital sources to buy from that Mariah didn’t have the advantage of back then.

Still, to believe iTunes, you’d think her latest was the greatest – and be denying a significant period of non-digital history ever happened.

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