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Fiona Apple saga shows Sony's core dilemma

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As Chris Anderson of Wired has demonstrated with his Long Tail©™® concept, that's not true online. Amazon and iTunes sell loads of tracks which make them money even though they'd never get onto a physical store's shelves. The music business has heard of this too: Rob Wells, Universal Music's head of new media, quoted the "long tail" concept at me late last year: the iTunes Music Store, he noted, has 1.2m tracks, "and every one of them has been downloaded at least once."

So let's ask: why hasn't Sony gone for a digital-only release on Ms Apple's new album? It would save all that tedious CD pressing. Every track would get downloaded at least once. After all, the intersection of people who are mad keen Fiona Apple fans with those who are on the internet and who understand BitTorrent can't be that huge; yet it's already got 18,500 members. The intersection of people who are mad keen Fiona Apple fans and are online and have access to the iTunes Music Store or Napster or whatever must be a lot bigger. Surely there's a big profit waiting there for Sony, which might even recoup that whacking advance. Perhaps restart her multi-platinum career, who knows.

But my contacts in the music industry listened to this suggestion and pursed their lips. "Well," said our mole - who sadly we can't name; but he's been around, trust us. "It's like this. OK, so there's now no retailer standing in the way between the owner of the repertoire, which is still the record company - though that could change - and the consumer. There's no retailer acting as a middleman. If Sony owns the rights to the album, they could just put it out on the Web."

Uh-huh. So why don't they? "Because you have to ask whose interest it serves. It doesn't do much for the artist or the record company. When you release an album, there has to be a story that you tell about it for the release to make sense." You thought it was about making a profit? No, it's about what Joni Mitchell called "the star-making machinery".

And the trouble with Ms Apple's difficult third album is that it won't do what Sony wants. "They've got to be thinking that even if they do put it out only in virtual form, they're not going to sell many more of the first two albums. And taking it one stage further, when it comes to marketing repertoire online, all four major labels are much more interested in getting their huge back catalogue there that hasn't been available for years and years. Just look at what Sony and BMG have - Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, how many albums are there of theirs? It's all about real deep catalogue."

So a picture starts to form. Ms Apple's problem isn't that Sony wouldn't everwant to put her stuff online. It's just that she should join the queue in an orderly fashion - somewhere behind all the more famous artists who recorded something in the 20th century.

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