As we enter the thick of year-end list season, when critics and music writers compile their favorite albums of 2010, the inboxes belonging to those in the music are becoming littered with reminders from record labels with their contenders for the year. This is much appreciated.
A lot of albums came out in 2010. A lot of them are represented in jewel cases on shelves around the office. Even more we never saw, we just clicked on a link and listened, either on a web site or on iTunes. It would be easy to forget that Laura Veirs' July Flame came out in January 2010, not December 2009.
Seattle's Barsuk Records used the U.S. Postal Service, and sent coasters designed with the album art of each of their 2010 releases; from Blunt Mechanic's World Record to Rocky Votolato's True Devotion. The first thing SW's music intern did when he saw the stack was steal one.
These coasters are going to make their way into living rooms, they will hold drinks, and eventually somebody's going to ask, "What does Pearly Gate Music sound like?" Unless the album's playing, nobody's ever going to ask about an mp3.Music fans, whose listening habits are undoubtedly more diverse than the sum of a bunch of critics' year-end lists, could use a reminder, too. When you buy downloads, they get tucked into your iTunes along with everything else you've collected through the years. At a glance, there's nothing to differentiate tracks that came in this year or in 2008. There's no visual cue to remind the listener how they reacted to the record.
MP3s get about as much respect as an Enrique Iglesias. Nobody holds them precious. Nobody collects mp3s the way we do LPs or even CDs. And the disposability and intangibility of mp3s surely has contributed to the idea that the vessel and its contents have little or no value and can be taken for free.
One of the most interesting ideas we heard in 2010 regarding digital music distribution is the idea of selling merch items -- t-shirts, posters, etc. -- that come with music, rather than selling digital files by themselves. Not because the idea is likely to be a panacea, but because it pairs up something people are used to paying for with something so many people do not. It provides value to something that listeners have devalued to the point that the idea of supporting oneself as a musician gets harder and harder every year.
OK, so maybe Sub Pop and Barsuk aren't going to put coasters on the market anytime soon. And Flatstock-worthy poster art designed for every new record may not be the recording industry's life raft.
But coasters, the poster on the wall, and t-shirts are is likely to outlive--at least in one's consciousness--the mp3s. Why not try and see if you can get people to pick them up with a corresponding album?