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Fiona Apple saga shows Sony's core dilemma

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Comment You think that record companies are all geared up for the 21st century, and that the fact that online downloads will count towards the Official Chart Countdown means that they're au fait with the online future - right? That they realise that you can make a profit by continually selling a small number of digital copies of songs, because there's no cost of replication, compared to CDs - right?

As I discovered while half-listening to an internet radio station the other day, wrong.

What grabbed my attention was a voice I hadn't heard for some years: Fiona Apple, American chanteuse best known for her 1996 debut album "Tidal" and its 59-word-titled followup "When The Pawn..." (we'll save you the rest). Noted the title of the song being played, thinking to listen to it again, as both her ripped albums lurk in my MP3 collection. But the track ("Red Red Red") wasn't there.

Odd: it can't be off her third album, because Ms Apple hasn't released one. But Google the song title, and a much more interesting story emerges. It turns out she has done a third album, titled "Extraordinary Machine", which was completed in May 2003. Recorded, produced, done, dusted. All it needed was the nod from the people at Sony for the CD presses to roll.

They didn't. The album "was quickly shelved by the sad corporate drones over at Sony because they didn't 'hear a single' and because it doesn't sound exactly like Norah Jones and because they're, well, corporate drones," wrote Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle. Sony wanted something more like her earlier stuff. But she wasn't writing that stuff any more. Impasse.

Which has left Ms Apple in artistic limbo, her contract half-fulfilled and her music unheard, for 18 months. The site set up for her by Sony, at http://www.fiona-apple.com, gathers virtual dust, untouched since the launch of her second album in 1999.

Enter a group of fans of Ms Apple. First there was fionaapple.org, set up in 2002. Then, enter BitTorrent, and somehow the tracks from Extraordinary Machine began showing up here and there on the Net. Somehow again the whole CD (or the tracks off it) reached a Seattle DJ, Andrew Harms, who began playing it on his show. And then a CD-quality version appeared on BitTorrent which, according to its BitTorrent page, has been downloaded (as I write) more than 18,500 times.

OK, 18,500 sales barely registers for Sony, which wants sales in the hundreds of thousands to feel warm about an album. But that's the old thinking - that you have to sell tons of physical copies of something to make a profit.

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