'Mylo Xyloto' breaks iTunes records; Who guitarist slams service

It’s been a busy week in the digital music sphere, and as usual for the arena, recent developments have lead some to vastly different conclusions.

Paramount among news is Coldplay’s record-setting week, in which the Brit band topped the album chart with 447,000 sales of its latest, “Mylo Xyloto,” beating the one-week iTunes sales record that the band itself had set with “Viva La Vida.” The band raised eyebrows by declining to allow its music to be streamed on any of the on-demand sites, like Spotify and MOG, that have seen huge growth since Facebook’s Open Graph platform integrated music streaming so indelibly into its site. By leaving digital customers only one option, some have reckoned, the band reaped the benefits.

In contrast to Coldplay’s open-arms welcome of the Apple music store, the Who’s Pete Townshend has launched a broadside against it. Speaking at a tribute for late British broadcast legend John Peel, the guitarist called out iTunes for profiting from the music industry without doing enough to support it.

“Is there really any good reason why, just because iTunes exists in the wild west Internet land of Facebook and Twitter, it can’t provide some aspect of these services to the artists whose work it bleeds like a digital vampire, like a digital Northern Rock, for its enormous commission?” Townshend said, asking why the music store couldn’t hire talent scouts and services to assist artists in the manner of a record company.

The complaint was not a new one, but it brought into relief a contentious argument over the pitfalls inherent in relying on iTunes — or streaming services — as a primary outlet for recorded music revenue.

Incidentally, one company that has been instrumental in opening up digital distribution to unsigned bands, TuneCore, doubled down its presence in the digital sphere on Monday, launching its own publishing division.

Active since 2006, the company founded by Jeff Price has quickly become the most voluminous distributor of digital music to iTunes, Spotify and others. Launching its new service, dubbed Songwriter Publishing Administration Service and headed by former Bug Music exec Jamie Purpora, the company will now offer publishing services for its customers, helping to oversee licensing agreements and payments.

TuneCore’s distribution service is unusual in that it claims no rights to the music it distributes — artists simply pay the company a per-song or per-album fee, then receive all royalties and retain all their own rights. The company’s publishing venture is somewhat different, as TuneCore charges a one-time $50 fee upfront then takes a 10% cut from future publishing revenues. But that may well be a small price to pay for the largely small, independent artists who use TuneCore for distribution, for whom having access to these licensing opportunities could be a potential goldmine.

As Price put it: “Once artists look under the hood and see how much more money we can get them in a shorter period of time … we think the service will take off as quickly as our digital distribution service did.”

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is the first big-name artist to sign up for the service, having distributed his music through the company for some time.

Yet the central issue with TuneCore is one that Townshend might well appreciate: While empowering musicians to get their songs onto the highest-profile digital platforms, and now coordinating publishing, the company still leaves the rest of the work — such as marketing, management, touring and recording costs — in the hands of the artist. Entrepreneurial musicians have found ways to cope, coordinating sponsorship and cross-promotional opportunities with interested brands, or taking advantage of such ventures as Converse’s Rubber Tracks studio, which opened in Brooklyn last summer and provides free studio time to bands. But it still leaves artists with a greater-than-ever level of uncertainty over how to manage their business.

Whether a band is a major-label megaseller like Coldplay, or an indie who’s chosen to go it alone, the opportunities to forge a unique path through the digital music wilderness are many and increasing, as are the questions.

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