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Selling Scarcity: Souls of Mischief and the New Music Business

Souls of Mischief, in a record shop, recently. Photo courtesy of Vision PR

In the summer of 2008 I spent a very entertaining few days on the road in the UK with the great Public Enemy (for this piece in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine - signup required, and the online version sadly misses Kevin Cummins' superb photos), talking about what the future had in store for musicians who were neither new kids on the block, nor stadium-filling cash cows. The short answer: lots and lots of hard work to keep the cash coming in, and in PE's case, a diversification away from the purely musical, with band and crew members involved in everything from personal security work to college lecturing in order to keep the money flowing. One of the most interesting conversations I had was with the band's erstwhile producer, Hank Shocklee, who spoke of a counter-intuitive means of monetising the fan/artist connection - and it's one that, two years on, we're seeing more and more people adopt. Which will bring me, in a moment, to Souls of Mischief (above), who start their first UK tour in an aeon tonight.

The point Hank made was, like so much of the man's music, sharp and somewhat profound. While the focus of the past decade-plus has been on the decline of revenues from recorded music, and the implicit corollary that music fans no longer want to pay to get hold of the tunes they like, he argued that there were still people who craved unique objects - something the music business tends to have forgotten about delivering, as it lurched from unsuccessful attempts to use DRM to stem the flow of pirated MP3s and the disastrously counter-productive policy of dragging file-sharers through court. Instead, he argued, why not respond to the culture of Free by charging MORE for the music? 

"There's no interactivity when everything's spoonfed to you," he told me. "Whatever happened to under-exposure? Sometimes, bein' under-exposed has a nice cachet to it as well. Why not use pricing as a means to keeping your product kinda exclusive? For example, if a regular album is gonna be 16 pounds, why not charge 32 for it? You think nobody would buy it? I think some people would. And you know what's also cool? You then go out there and tell somebody else because you're proud o' that purchase and guess what? You're one of the only ones that have it, so that only makes it more special. I think that's going to be the future of music - the future is gonna be sell less at a higher price point. So that this way, you still maintain its specialness, but at the same time you get to recover some of the loss you're going to have in not having mass consumption. I think mass consumption is going to be a kiss of death."

So what's this got to do with Souls, the Bay Area rhymesmiths whose '93 Til Infinity debut remains one of the greatest of the plethora of late-golden-age classics (and the video for the title track of which was as important in showing hip hop could resonate beyond the canyons of New York or the drive-by suburbs of LA as De La Soul's 3 Feet High... had been in extending the music's boundaries five years earlier)? Well, on Monday at the Carhartt Store in London, they'll unveil a limited edition box set version of their new, and very fine, Montezuma's Revenge album. As well as the CD, there's a series of patches and stickers, and a Souls/Carhartt t-shirt exclusive to the package. It's a neat way of turning the usual cliches of tour sponsorship into something more organic - and will surely do more good to Carhartt than just writing a cheque to cover hotel bills in exchange for adding their logo to some flyers.

Obviously, this isn't unique, or even particularly new. Back before Hank outlined his theories, I'd bought the 40 quid box set of Radiohead's In Rainbows - a record everyone was invited to download for free by the band. The Wu-Tang Clan's contentious (within the band, that is) 8 Diagrams album was packaged for Europe in an edition cased in an elaborate tin box with a t-shirt and DVD. The whole iTunes LP concept involves charging more to fans but providing a higher quality, more interactive and immersive experience than just slinging out some audio will ever provide - the only surprise with the elaborate and extensively artworked digital version of the new Gorillaz album is that they're only charging £10.99 for it. (Oh, and let's hold the obituaries for this format for a while: there's only 20-odd albums in it, it's not been promoted particularly heavily, and as the Gorillaz package shows, creators are only just starting to get their heads around the possibilities.) But it's interesting that a group like Souls, on the comeback trail after years away and playing in Europe for the first time in a decade or more, would see the sense in adopting the "sell less at a higher price" model as part of their business strategy.

I hope it works, for them and for all the musicians I care about, because I want them to be able to retire and not have to tour themselves into an early grave just because the money from record sales won't provide the pension it always used to. And as a fan and a record collector and - yeah, guilty as charged - a bit of a sucker when it comes to the lavishly packaged limited edition, I love the thought of music being made available in covetable physical forms. We need to remember the care and the craft and the time and the effort that goes into the music we love - and anything that will remind us that it's not just about bits and bytes, about finding a way to defeat "the man", the better our chances of maintaining a culture we can all be proud of.

In case anyone's interested, here's those Souls tour dates:

11th March - The Mint Lounge [Manchester]
11th March – Carhartt store [Manchester] - instore
12th March – The Well [Leeds]
13th March – The Good Bits [Dublin]
13th March – Cru [Dublin] – instore
14th March – Jazz Cafe [London]
15th March – Carhartt store [Neal St – London] – signing
16th March – Banquet Records [Kingston] - signing
16th March – Peel [Kingston]
17th March – White Rabbit [Plymouth]
18th March – Po Na Na [Norwich]
19th March – Rainbow [Birmingham]
20th March – Club 2k [Penzance]
23rd March – Carhartt store [Amsterdam]
24th March – Carhartt store [Cologne]





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