In case you haven't heard, the formerly unsinkable airship of cash known as the music industry is currently crashing down from the heavens in a ball of flames, hurtling toward the Earth at supersonic speeds. In fact, at this point it's only a matter of time before it smashes into terra firma with the impact of 10,000 atomic bombs, blowing a hole clear through North America, causing the seas to boil and sending clouds of black soot skyward, blotting out the sun and eventually ending life as we know it.
At least that's how the members of Stars see it.
"It's a strange thing to examine on any real level: How do people buy records? I mean, who gives a damn?" frontman Torquil Campbell laughed. "It just goes to show you how dead the music industry really is. Everything is so overanalyzed now. How do people get through the day? Now that's a question to spend some time thinking about."
Given logic like that, it should come as no surprise that Stars — the Canadian quintet that found a sizable audience (and much critical love) with its booming, swooning 2005 effort, Set Yourself on Fire (see "Stars Wear Hearts And Politics On The Sleeves Of Fire") — decided to try something different when it came time to release Fire's follow-up, the icy In Our Bedroom After the War.
And by "something different," we mean turning the industry concepts of release date and album promotion on their ears.
Because while Bedroom won't hit shelves until September 25, the band and its label, Arts & Crafts, made the rather unique decision to make it available for legal download July 10, just four days after receiving the final, mastered copy of the record. It was a move that flew in the face of traditional industry thinking, which has labels sending advance copies of a record out to so-called "long lead" publications (most magazines operate on a three-months-ahead editorial schedule, meaning that right now, several pubs are putting the wraps on their October issues) in order to secure coverage. In theory, that coverage should lead to more sales. The only problem is that those advance copies usually end up leaking all over the Internet, negating many of those potential sales.
"I think it's unfair to ask people to wait an artificial length of time for a piece of art to come out in this day and age. It just doesn't make sense," Campbell said. "The technology has caught up to the media, and if magazines didn't need three months, then there wouldn't be a problem: We could just release the record the week after it was pressed, just the way it [was done] in 1965.
"But the media has grown to such a degree that it's now this machine that moves so slowly, it's almost like it's eating itself. So we're trying to skip underneath that and get to people who just want to pay for a good record and listen to it," he continued. "I stole my friend Leslie Feist's album off the Internet because I was too lazy to go down to the office and pick it up. It's that easy to steal music off the Internet. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but I also think there are people who love the band and genuinely want to support the band and have 10 bucks to spare. If you don't give people the option at least to buy a record, then you can't blame them for stealing it."
So far, Stars' plan has worked pretty well: Bedroom sits at #62 on the iTunes Music Store's most-downloaded albums list, ahead of discs from Kelly Clarkson, KT Tunstall and Velvet Revolver. As far as Stars are concerned, they've figured out a way to make some cash off what is essentially nothing more than an album advance. And both band and label have no idea what will happen when the album hits stores in September.
Other bands in vaguely similar situations as Stars — acts like the Shins — found that the early leaking didn't hamper sales. In fact, some might say it helped; the Shins' Wincing the Night Away bowed at #2 back in January, selling more than 118,000 copies (see "Pretty Ricky Thwart Shins' Quest For Billboard Glory"). But will Stars' smaller fanbase show up to buy physical copies of the album, or will the gamble backfire?
"The music business is alive and well. The record business is having some troubles, for sure, but the release of new music from an artist will always be the point upon which we'll begin the celebration," Arts & Crafts co-owner Jeff Remedios said. "All we're trying to do is give fans choices. I think that if I were a 15-year-old Stars fan, I might buy some songs now, but I'd wait for the beautiful double-vinyl package that I know is coming, and I'd support my local independent retailer and go get that."
Not everyone is as optimistic. A July 18 essay on industry blog Coolfer pointed out the overall lack of media attention surrounding Bedroom's early release as an example of why the industry-standard release plan should remain the industry standard — but it wouldn't be that big of a stretch to say that Stars find themselves standing on the precipice of a whole new way of doing business in an industry frantically searching for just that.
And even if their grand strategy fails, at least it's better than the alternative.
"I would encourage people to steal [the album] as well," Campbell said. "Go to the store and steal it if you don't have the money. If you have the guts. I believe people should defile and steal art and use it like it's theirs. Because it is theirs."