The Web’s First Rock n’ Roll Success?

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by Michael Calore

“Well, not exactly nowhere, but a year ago, the impossibly young indie rock quartet were playing small clubs in their native Sheffield, UK. Now they have a best-selling album. They are currently playing a few shows in the major North American cities (all of which sold out in minutes), and afterwards, they will set out on a thirty-plus date tour of Japan and Europe before doing the obligatory festival circuit this summer.

None of this is really remarkable in a music industry that sees two or three overnight successes come and go every year. What makes Arctic Monkeys remarkable is that they are an indie band on an independent label, and that they achieved their sudden success almost entirely through grassroots promotion on the web.

The foursome got together in 2002. They started playing shows around Sheffield and passing out free CDs at gigs. They encouraged their fans to trade the tunes online and to post them to websites and P2P networks. Yes, they encouraged file trading. Eventually, more and more people found them on MySpace or on their website via word-of-mouth, and their reach started to widen. Fans started booking them in venues farther and farther away from their hometown. Wherever they played, everyone in the crowd knew the words to the songs. This is all before they even signed to a record label.

Then, when they finally signed to Domino Records (a UK indie) and released their debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” it hit number one on the UK charts, selling 360,000 copies in the first week. Nobody anticipated those kinds of numbers. In fact, those kinds of numbers made “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” the fastest-selling independent debut in UK history.

Their story is remarkable because of one fact: grassroots communication channels like MySpace and P2P file trading networks worked better than the major-label hype machine. The Arctic Monkeys became hugely popular because they wrote good songs, made them available to their fans for free, and encouraged them to share the MP3s with their friends.

Going by the current record company logic, that’s a huge no-no. If a band gives away all of its songs for free, then puts out a record filled with the same songs (even re-recorded versions), so the old philosophy goes, nobody’s going to buy the record. They already have the songs. It turns out that this scenario is decidedly not the case.

The final version of “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” was leaked onto P2P networks a few weeks before its official release. And it didn’t seem to have hurt the sales numbers when the record hit the retail shelves.

Many of us on this side of the music business (the consumer side) have been saying that the old logic is a myth, and that trading songs via P2P actually encourages people to buy more music. They are exposed to more bands and a wider variety of music. They get a chance to get excited about new music in a much more direct and natural way. They aren’t told about it by an advertisement or a video. They find it on their own or a friend tells them about it. They check it out, they like it, then they go to the store and buy the CD. And they probably buy more than just that one CD while they’re there.

Of course, it’s irresponsible to say that piracy isn’t hurting the record business in some way. It certainly isn’t healthy to your bottom line and your longevity to allow people to take your product without paying. And downloading without permission is stealing. But it’s also true that downloading a record and realizing that it’s a load of garbage is not going to get you excited about spending $17 on the real thing. Good music will always sell, either on CD or in the iTunes Music Store. But if you put out good music and allow people to hear it any way they want, it will sell, and it will sell well.

By the way, the Arctic Monkeys were the top sellers in the iTMS for ten days when their record was released stateside. They only sold one tenth of the amount of records here as they sold in the UK in the first week, but the sales were still rather impressive for a foreign indie act with minimal mainstream exposure.

Another point proven by the Arctic Monkey’s success is that the major labels are misguided about promotion and marketing. Pure word of mouth and an open trading policy actually work better than big-budget videos and full-page magazine spreads.

Or maybe the AMs just have a better view of what works and what doesn’t when you’re promoting a band on the internet. It’s probably because they are young — the four members range in age somewhere between 19 and 21 — and they have a sort of hipster radar that suits at the record companies usually lack. They mention ringtones and email in their lyrics. They know their audience.

In the end, the Arctic Monkeys are a really good band, plain and simple. They have good songs with strong lyrics, and they are well-produced. Thousands of bands know that giving away their music for free is the best way to get heard and the best way to reach new fans. They also understand that the fans you find on the Internet are far more loyal — and forgiving — than the fans you find through MTV or corporate radio. So why aren’t those other bands succeeding? Maybe they are afraid to give it all away for free, maybe they aren’t playing enough shows. Or maybe they just aren’t that good.

All it took was one band from this new subculture to hit it big — really big — in order to signal that a change is needed. The major labels are still scratching their heads wondering why the kids aren’t buying records they way they used to. And meanwhile, the Arctic Monkeys are selling hundreds of thousands of records and enjoying the success they made for themselves.”


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