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Singled out (continued)

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Mercury Rev's official Web site

V2 agreed to put The Secret Migration out in Britain in January, making British fans happy, while holding the American release until the more advantageous spring months. The drawback to this approach was the danger it posed to US domestic sales. As V2 marketing director Dan Cohen puts it, "Iím a diehard Mercury Rev fan and Iím going to go buy the British import. How do we make sure I donít?"

Cohen and his colleagues decided the problem could be solved digitally, and the band seconded the idea. "Early on," Mercel recalls, "we were vocal about doing something with iTunes. The model of distribution is changing permanently and thereís no escaping that, so you might as well get involved."

The marketersí initial idea, to put the entire album on-line early, was shot down by V2ís sales department. No one is claiming exclusive credit for the three-EP concept, but it seems tailor-made for the completists who make up a big part of Mercury Revís fan base. V2 is trying to sweeten the deal for obsessive fans by releasing a limited two-disc edition of the album in May as the band hit the road (theyíll arrive at Avalon on May 18), e-mailing two exclusive MP3 tracks to customers whoíve bought the album in stores, and handing out, in lieu of promotional flyers, a series of CD slipcovers featuring the cover art and track listings for each of the three iTunes EPs. Stick a home-burned disc in there and youíve got an instant collectorís item.

"I think itís a smart idea," says Nathan Brackett, senior editor at Rolling Stone. "Itís good for the fans and itís a great promotional tool that doesnít cost the label very much. Thereís a danger that it could make the release of the album an anticlimax ó it might have worked better to just release a couple of tracks as a teaser. But itís another sign that record labels are taking a less antagonistic view of the Internet."

V2 is, of course, taking a risk by releasing The Secret Migration this way. But the latest industry numbers suggest that risk is warranted. In 2004, the number of digital music downloads in the United States went up some 400 percent ó and CD sales also went up, for the first time in several years. Granted, that uptick was modest, about two percent, but it counters the claim that digital downloading is killing the music business. Maybe the two can coexist, and maybe, just maybe, digital downloading can actually help the music business.

So far, according to Dan Cohen, the iTunes EPsí sales figures are "good but not astounding. My head of sales hates when I say this, but the greatest thing that could happen is that there are so many MP3s circulating on-line that weíre like, ĎOh God, this might hurt sales.í It hasnít happened yet."

One thing is sure: as the digital revolution continues to make the music industryís fault lines rumble, some cherished concepts will get broken. By now, youíve heard that the album as we know it is on the way out. Mercel doesnít quite believe it, but you can hear the regret in his voice when he says, "We grew up with 40-minute vinyl records, and we spend our time putting albums together so they can be enjoyed as albums in the classic sense. Maybe that notion is outdated. Now, because itís so easy to pick the song you want on-line, everythingís become single-oriented. But I think people will start longing for the bigger picture again."

Another candidate for obsolescence is the very thing that fueled my own U2 epiphany: the notion that an artistís new work gets released on a specific day. "I can remember the street dates for a lot of my favorite records," Cohen says, "but thereís no such thing as a street date anymore."

The passing of these cultural touchstones can make a person nostalgic. They can also fire enthusiasm for what may be on the horizon. Count Brackett among the optimists. "If I were collecting a beautiful series of actual Mercury Rev EPs in nice packages instead of downloading an album in chunks, yeah, Iíd definitely be more excited. But in the iTunes world, you can record a song and almost immediately get international marketing, promotion, and distribution. You couldnít do that with the old music-business model. Thatís whatís really exciting."

Mercury Rev headline Avalon, 15 Lansdowne Street in Boston, on Wednesday May 18; call (617) 228-6000.

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Issue Date: April 29 - May 5, 2005
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