Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Stunning News: Music Industry Acts Rationally

Here’s the music industry’s version of a man-bites-dog story: Big label signs big artist to a rational deal.

In this case, it’s Madonna’s new pact with Universal Music Group. The New York Post says she’ll get around $1 million an album for a three-album deal, and music industry folks say the paper has its numbers right.

This is a very reasonable contract. Madonna is long past her music-selling peak, and the music industry is a decade past its peak, too.

Still! Reasonable contracts — especially for superstars — are still very new things for the music business. Not too many years ago, Sony handed Bruce Springsteen a reported $100 million, and that was well into the post-Napster slide. So let’s just walk through what each side gets here:

  • Madonna gets the kind of money, upfront, that she would have laughed at in the past. A million bucks is what you used to give a hot “baby band” no one but a few hipsters had heard of. But the world’s biggest music company will buy her billboards, etc., and that’s still worth something. Plus, on the off chance that one of these albums does take off, the low advance means she could actually earn royalties on the sales.
  • Universal gets bragging rights and one of the music industry’s few living worldwide icons, for what amounts to walking-around money. And, again, who knows? She might still sell some records, perhaps on the back of her upcoming Super Bowl appearance.
  • Universal doesn’t get Madonna’s lucrative back catalog — Warner Music Group still has those songs, which it continues to sell, repackage, and sell some more. And Universal doesn’t get a piece of her lucrative touring business — concert giant Live Nation has that. (Remember when Live Nation was also going to be a big deal in the record business? What happened to that?)

But wait a minute. Why does Madonna need a record deal at all? Couldn’t she just sell her music on her own, like Prince and Radiohead and the Eagles and lots of folks?

Sure. But not everyone wants to be Louis C.K., who has just declared his direct-to-fan experiment a huge success. (To play devil’s advocate: Even though everyone who bought one of his concerts blogged about it (more than once, in some cases), he has still only reached 130,000 people — far less than would have seen him had he done an HBO deal or a Netflix deal. And those guys would almost certainly have paid him more, too. Though if you want to be a contra-contrarian, you can note that he could still do that. (Which I have!)

Some people, it turns out, are still happy to take money up front from Big Media companies and hope they can deliver the Big Reach, which the do-it-yourself Web can’t guarantee.

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