The Sheffield-born, London-based electronic music label Warp Records (home to Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, et al) has recently, after much anticipation, launched its Bleep.com music download service. Essentially, the label has provided virtually its entire back catalogue — over 10 years worth of music — as high-quality mp3 files for download at a reasonable price: �1.35 per track, or �9.99 per album. Even considering the loss of a tangible object (jewel case, cover art, liner notes, etc.) that’s pretty good value.
But what marks Bleep.com as different from the majority of music downloading services on the web is not just the sheer breadth of the content available, but the fact that it is available without restrictions: when you download the music, you can burn it onto as many CDs as you like; store it on multiple computers and portable devices; whatever takes your fancy. As the label states itself: “We believe that most people like to be treated as customers and not potential criminals.”
And it works. This morning I gave the new service a test drive, downloading Boards Of Canada‘s brilliant debut album Music Has The Right to Children. The site is fast, instructions are clear, payment was simple (I paid via Paypal, but the site also accepts major credit cards and even, for those dwelling in the UK, the option to pay by SMS from your mobile phone) and downloading was a painless process (at least on broadband – the large file size of a full album download would pose problems for those still on a dial-up connection). Less than half an hour after logging onto the site, I had my computer’s music player fired up with the sweet sounds of BOC. (No, not _that_ BOC!) A few minutes later, a burned CD version was spinning on my hi-fi. Very impressive, I must say. Not that it’s going to change my music-buying habits, mind you — despite the cost and convenience factors, I like my music with artwork and packaging, thank you very much — but it’s bloody amazing, really.
While we Europeans await the arrival of Apple‘s runaway success story, the iTunes Music Store, this is the most comprehensive and sincere dedication to the medium of digital music that we’ve witnessed to date. It may not be the first, but it is the first to execute the idea on such a scale. Take for instance AudioLunchbox.com: launched in April 2003, this American site has a pricing structure akin to that of Bleep.com, is similarly free of technical and copyright restrictions and hosts music from a pleasingly wide variety of US independent labels, yet unlike Warp’s service the choice therein is confined to more recent recordings. Surely the web is the perfect medium for making available older material that isn’t so easily available, without the costs and hassle involved in keeping it in print? Warp can’t have been the first to realise this, but seem to be the first to have actually implemented it.
Much has been made, it seems, of this action on Warp’s part as some giant leap forward in the way the music industry deals with the Internet, that somehow Bleep.com is proof that record labels are finally coming to terms with the habits of young computer users and the �rip/mix/burn� culture. But that’s not going to happen, at least not just yet. Remember, this is Warp Records we’re talking about here; a perfectly-formed yet small — in the scheme of things, very, very small — independent label with an inarguably niche audience. Its artists, predominantly of the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) variety, use computers to make their music, and presumably also to promote and/or disseminate it — it follows, surely, that they would be more savvy than most musicians when it comes to conceiving of the issues surrounding music file sharing on the web, and all that entails.
And even more importantly, Warp has done without a second thought what previous music download schemes have consistently failed to do: they have given the public what they want. They didn�t cherry-pick from their back catalogue to give a few bits and pieces like the end of the Christmas sale at HMV — they�ve given us the whole lot. Eschewing the duplicity of the major labels and the lack of commitment of the indies when it comes to this issue, Warp have refused to patronise their customers. This might not even be an issue for the guys in the Warp office, but it seems too distantly out of reach for other companies to grasp.
So the model at present seems appears to be working for Warp. The next question is, will it work for other similarly-sized labels dealing with potentially more profitable genres? Just imagine if Sub Pop provided its entire catalogue for download – I could finally get my hands on those Tad albums they deleted years ago! Electronic music is one thing, but rock music where the bread’n’butter is, and that will be the real test.
But all the same, this is still an unbelievably generous gesture on the part of Warp Records which should bring some, even if only a little, clout to the medium of digital music, and should with hope provoke serious discussion amonsgt the big-wigs in major label land. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what happens.