How art gets generated.

Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and David Bowie: Classic Rock Icons in the Digital Age

Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin

Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin

It’s been an extraordinary last couple of days for three icons of classic rock who this week faced a music industry they couldn’t have possibly imagined in their heydays. It’s interesting, though, to consider the unique and very different set of circumstances — music streaming services, reversion rights and releasing a global digital single — each faced.

Led Zeppelin are reportedly in the process of negotiating exclusive rights to their back catalog with a number of digital music subscription services. According to the New York Times, Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio and Deezer are among the services reportedly vying for the band’s classic albums.

For a band who has sold more than 100 million records in the U.S alone (according to the RIAA), and whose hard-nosed former manager Peter Grant helped negotiate the template for how bands would be “justly” compensated (and owned their own jet), figuring out pay-per-stream fractions must seem like something of a comedown. And this for a band who didn’t allow their songs on iTunes until 2008.

But Zeppelin even considering the move adds legitimacy to a music distribution platform that this year grew significantly. In a recent article by Billboard’s Glenn Peoples, he estimated 2012’s digital music subscription revenue to be well over $300 million dollars. The classic rock icons will be compensated generously because whomever lands Zeppelin will have both an exclusive trophy and a powerful marketing tool that will attract an older boomer demographic.

Another classic rock icon who has already benefitting from the digital realm is David Bowie. The global digital release of his new single  “Where Are We Now” in the wee-hours of Tuesday morning — 2:00 a.m. on the U.S. East Coast — was something of a clinic on how to drop music in 2013.

The well-coordinated campaign for the plaintive song, his first original recording in a decade produced by longtime collaborator Tony Visconti and accompanied by an evocative video directed by installation artist Tony Oursler, was released simultaneously across the entire planet — and out of nowhere as he hasn’t released an album in 10 years — via iTunes (and on Tuesday, his 66th birthday). It worked: news of his return lit up the Internet, appearing on every platform from the New York Times and Brooklyn Vegan to outlets in South AfricaIndiaNew Zealand and beyond while lighting up Twitter and other social media platfoms.

The song is already slated to appear on the U.S. Digital Rock Songs chart. Interesting to note that in the UK, because the iTunes single can be purchased as part of the album, the track’s charting eligibility is in dispute — though it hit number one on Apple’s tally.

No chances of chart tallying for Bob Dylan’s latest release. News broke this week that Sony’s European division quietly released a ludicrously limited-edition (100 copies across Germany, France, Sweden and Britain) 4-CD set just before Christmas in an attempt to circumvent European copyright law.

The album title itself made no secret of its raison d’etre: The 50th Anniversary Collection box set: The Copyright Extension Collection, Vol 1, was released for one reason: In Europe, the songs which were recorded between 1963 and 1964 are slated to become public domain in 2014; but thanks to a “use it or lose it” provision the term is extended from 50 to 70 years if the works had been published during the preceding half century. Hence, Sony put this on the market days before the tracks’ 50-year window was to expire.

Certainly, the label acted within the letter of the law, but in spirit… that’s another question entirely. These contentious and litigious reversion laws are not only a European issue. An article by Billboard’s Ed Christman late last year explained how 2013 is the year many master sound recordings’ copyright licenses will begin to expire here and rights may revert from labels to the artists — and no one is sure what exactly will happen.

And much like this week, it will be fascinating to see how it all plays out.

By Andy Gensler, New York.  January 11, 2013.


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