The "Artist Formerly Available in Record Stores"

Some days the music business reminds us of that old Tom Lehrer quote: "Political satire became obsolete the day they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger." It also seems that you can't out-stupid the record industry.

Consider the case of Prince and The Mail on Sunday: On June 28, TMOS announced that it would offer Prince's 10-track Planet Earth CD (due to be released in the UK on July 24) as a free "covermount" on an "imminent" edition. In addition, Prince announced plans to give the CDs to everyone who bought tickets for his 21-night stand in London.

The Mail on Sunday normally sells two million copies weekly, but was reported to be ramping up production for its Prince tie-in issue. Prince's biggest hit, Purple Rain, sold over 11 million copies, and he has sold more than 80 million discs over his career. For Planet Earth, as with the artist's last album, Prince recorded the music at his own expense and owns the publishing rights to it, but is licensing worldwide distribution to Sony BMG. Reacting to news of TMOS's plans to give away copies of the disc, Sony BMG has decided not to release the CD in the UK.

"Given the sheer number of copies we are talking about here it seemed the right thing to do for retailers to become exempt from the deal in the UK," said a Sony BMG spokesperson.

"The Artist Formerly Known As Prince should know that with behaviour like this he will soon be the Artist Formerly Available in Record Stores," said Paul Quirk, co-chairman of the Entertainment Retailers Association.

Of course, a good question might be what record stores? On June 29, Fopp, one of the UK's largest record chains, announced that it was closing 50 outlets, including its flagship Tottenham Court Road location, and that the monthly pay packets due its employees on June 30 would not be forthcoming. Fopp had already ceased accepting credit-card payments or Internet orders. Tower, of course, is just as dead in the UK as it is in the US, and Virgin's Megastore franchise isn't looking all that healthy either, based on redundancies and cutbacks over the last year.

So does Prince's decision to think outside the existing distribution model "beggar belief," as Mr. Quirk would have it?

Add this to the puzzle: In an article datelined June 19 in Rolling Stone, Brian Hiatt and Evan Serpick revealed that in July 2000, the music industry's chief executives—UMG's Edgar Bronfman, Jr, Sony's Nobuyuki Idei, and BMG's Thomas Middelhof—conducted secret talks with Napster CEO Hank Barry concerning the possibility of "legitimizing" Napster's 38 million users. The concept was to convert those downloaders into subscribers, since a central location for music was obviously an appealing idea. Napster, Rolling Stone reports, brought $1 billion to the table, but no agreement was reached.

Napster was killed, but it took the record industry years to come up with an acceptable legal alternative, 2003's iTunes Music Store. Those three years were disastrous for the record industry, but they needn't have been. The consumers were ready for a change, were already changing, but the industry wouldn't innovate—as a result, it collapsed.

Who would we bet on? Prince, an 80 million–selling megastar who has taken control of his own destiny or the folks who have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory? Oh puh-leeze.