Global Release Day: Rail Disaster or Train Saver?
The recent announcement of "an aligned global release day" for records has been met with reactions ranging from vitriolic to enthusiastic. By summer 2015, new records will drop at 12:01AM Friday, no matter where you are in the world. If you live in the U.K. or the U.S., that means the longstanding tradition of heading into your local record store for new releases every Tuesday is about to end.
Why the change? You caught me in a talkative mood, so let's throw some wilted cabbage into the Mr. Fusion and set the controls for 1839. We land in a quaint little village, just in front of Mr. Posey's garden shop. Across the street stands the town's clock tower -- good news should our Mr. Fusion be out of service and we have knowledge of an impending lightning strike.
The clock reads noon, and the sun stands directly overhead. Things appear fairly normal.
Now let's go back to the future for a moment, but not all the way to the present. Our DeLorean lands in 1995 in what appears to be the same village, now a bustling London suburb, right in front of Jack the Lad Record Store. Inside, a scruffy dude wearing a Posies tee is tearing into clean brown boxes like it's Christmas morning. Tuesdays are new release days, one of his two busiest for foot traffic.
Tuesday isn't new release day everywhere, mind you. While that may be the magic day in the world's two biggest music markets, the U.S. and the U.K., it's not necessarily new release day in Greece, for example. We don't actually know when the new PJ Harvey hits the shelves in Athens, and it doesn't really matter to Mr. Posies Tee. His concern is solely for his local customers.
Back we go, but thanks to a typo on the Delorean's keypad we land in 1840. Mr. Posey from the garden shop stands at the foot of the clock tower, yelling at a tweed-suited fellow who is adjusting the clock.
"But it isn't 12:30. The sun's directly overhead," he screams.
"It is in London, mate," Mr. Tweed says.
"But we aren't in London, and it isn't 12:30 here. You leave that clock be."
"New rules, mate. The railroads," Mr. Tweed shouts. "Besides, this is what the people want."
"It isn't what I want," Mr. Posey says, and he steps back into his garden store.
Before the railroads, time was a local phenomenon. Whatever hour the town's bell tower rang was good enough, and if one was too far outside of town to hear the clang then the position of the sun would do. But a new technology, trains, transformed the very nature of time.
When things happen was essential to the railroads for a couple of very good reasons. Carriers couldn't build a reliable schedule of arrival and departure times if every town along the route defined its own time. More importantly, if Track A is scheduled to be busy with a northbound train at 7:00 and a southbound train at 7:20, 30 minutes of slop in the schedule could mean a collision.
Precision was the key to preventing accidents. Whether that change impacted Mr. Posey's garden shop wasn't a consideration.
We jump ahead to another Tuesday in 1995. Right outside Jack the Lad Records stands Mr. Tweed's great-great-great grandson, waist deep in a trench that earlier that morning was a sidewalk.
"What's all this, mate?" Our Posies-shirted friend asks the latest Mr. Tweed.
"Fiber optic cable."
"For computers, like? Nobody cares about them. It's Tuesday. New record releases. You're killing my foot traffic."
"Sorry, mate. Orders to cable the whole town. Besides, people want it."
"Well, I don't want it," Mr. Posies Tee says, but it doesn't matter. The latest Mr. Tweed has a job to do, and if it cuts into Mr. Posies Tee's business, that's too bad.
The internet -- the digital railroad connecting the entire globe. Just as those iron tracks exerted pressure on local time, in 1995 the internet began exerting pressure on global time. It's around this period that the term "spoiler alert" entered common usage -- a warning that if you're not in the same time zone as me, stop reading if you don't want to know what happens to Ross and Rachel on tonight's episode.
Let's jump once more into the future, or in this case, the present. We're still waiting on our promised hoverboards, but holograms are a thing. Teleporters don't exist but fully functioning laser weapons do. We haven't cured hunger, but we've mastered 3D food printing technology.
The latest in a long line of Mr. Tweeds skateboards along the sidewalk in front of Jack the Lad. Beneath the concrete rests the hunk of fiber cable his father ran 20 years ago, streaming songs and social media arguments by the millions. It may as well be a sewer pipe or a power line now -- internet access is that ubiquitous.
"Train crashes" are once again commonplace, though now the trains bear names like Beyonce and Bjork, and "leak" has replaced "crash" in the headlines. The lack of a global timetable that ensures that new music reaches its destination on schedule has become problematic for the recording industry. Releasing the new Lil Wayne in Greece a week prior to the rest of the globe is tantamount to selling it in that country for seven days while the rest of the world downloads or streams it illegally for free.
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which I hope is pronounced "The Iffy," announces a timetable guaranteed to rescue fair-haired waifs like Taylor Swift from the sinister clutches of digital pirates. "By the summer of  new releases will be issued at 00:01 on Fridays," states IFPI head Frances Moore, and then like the long line of Mr. Tweeds that came before her, she delivers the traditional punchline:
Why is global release day such a smart idea for today's music business? First, because it's what our consumers want.
"It's not what I want," says the guy behind the counter at Jack the Lad, his skin peeking from beneath his Posies tee. "I've been in this shop -- right across from the old clock tower -- for 30 years. My store's traffic depends on new release Tuesdays. Everything about how I run this place revolves around Tuesdays. This might put me out of business," he says.
Old Man Posies Tee isn't alone. A growing number of independent record sellers and their advocates are voicing their displeasure. Chris Brown of Bull Moose in Maine -- and a leading advocate for independent record stores -- reacted to the news by telling Diffuser:
Indie music stores are naturally resistant to stupid music industry decisions. This won’t keep us from being the best places to buy music. I just want all the music fans and indie labels who are concerned to know we have their backs. We got this.
Personally, I'm on the fence. I understand the need to prevent the new Lil Wayne album from leaking, but at the same time I don't understand the need for a new Lil Wayne album. Even if I did, I wouldn't download or stream it -- I'd visit my local record store and buy a copy. While the move to Fridays solves the "train wreck" problem of leaks, if it runs my local store out of business ... is it really worth it?
Over on Digital Music News, Nina Ulloa quotes Beggars Group chairman Martin Mills:
Whilst I acknowledge the needs of a digital world for coordination, it seems to me to be crazy to throw away one of the trading week’s two peaks, and the ability to re-stock and rectify errors before the week’s second peak.
The author also quotes a spokesperson for the American Association of Independent Music, or A2IM:
A2IM supports the concept of a Global Street Date but for a variety of business reasons as spelled out in our previous comments there are a number of business hurdles that make Fridays less than an optimal date for the United States marketplace and Independents in particular. That said of course as part of the Worldwide music community A2IM will endeavor to make the Global Street Date transition as smooth as possible for our members and our commerce partners and a success for our artist’s fans.
And so, inevitably, Mr. Posie Tee will be forced to adapt to the new technology's impact on the nature of time, just as Mr. Posey's garden shop did years before him. How he deals with change will determine what we see the next time we park our DeLorean on this pretty English street sometime in the future. Hopefully we'll still see Jack the Lad Records.
How he adapts is important, but if we want to see what happens in the future we must also actually support his store -- and assume that I can keep this finicky Mr. Fusion in good working order.