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Hits From the Web

Exclusive music downloads score big

green day 2004 billie joe mike dirntgreen day 2004 billie joe mike dirnt

Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt of Green Day perform in Universal City, California.

Chris Polk/FilmMagic

In the old days, Green Day‘s version of “I Fought the Law” might have been a forgotten bonus track on a CD, or a B side cherished by die-hard fans. But in the age of Apple’s iTunes Music Store, it’s not only a hit — its success may point the way for artists and labels to finally make profits online.

“I Fought the Law,” the backing track for an iTunes/Pepsi commercial during this year’s Super Bowl, went up on Apple’s online store as an “exclusive” — not available in any other store, online or otherwise. According to Nielsen SoundScan, it sold 27,000 downloads in its first three weeks (and 38,600 to date); Beyoncé‘s “Star-Spangled Banner,” released a day after she sang it at the Super Bowl, sold 3,100 during the same time period (3,700to date). Other big names have followed: Eric Clapton exclusively previewed four songs from Me and Mr. Johnson, four weeks before the album’s release date, via the service in early March.

As iTunes, Musicmatch, Rhapsody, Napster and others struggle to distinguish themselves in a crowded digital-music market — with Sony, Microsoft and possibly Yahoo! expected to unveil their own services later this year — some experts say exclusive content is the key to their survival. Chris Bell, iTunes’ director of product marketing, acknowledges that exclusives are “very important to our strategy.”

Artists and labels have been enthusiastic about offering exclusive tracks as part of their standard deals with the services. Jeff Price, owner of SpinArt Records, which recently sold exclusive live tracks from Richard Thompson and Frank Black to iTunes, says Apple’s service has been generous in promoting and advertising the artists. Since the end of last year, Warner Bros. Records has made new albums by Barenaked Ladies and the Von Bondies available online weeks before their release dates. Ryan Adams has released an EP, Moroccan Role, on iTunes that was previously available only outside the U.S. “The demand to have it available was high,” says Andy Nelson, VP of marketing for Lost Highway, Adams’ label. “iTunes gave us the best opportunity to release it quickly.”

Not all exclusives are on the “I Fought the Law” level. Many of Napster’s exclusives are simply live tracks; and Walmart.com’s eighty-eight-cent exclusives are lukewarm, such as Shania Twain‘s live “It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing,” lifted from her 2003 DVD.

Still, it’s worth scouring the services for gems. Thompson’s iTunes songs include a superb live rendition of “Two Left Feet”; Sigur Rós have a cool EP, Ba Ba TiKiDiDo, on iTunes; and Rhapsody’s live tracks, recorded in a RealNetworks studio, include songs by buzzed-about new artists such as Mindy Smith.

“It’s a very, very cool way to get a bootleg concert you wouldn’t have gotten [before] in an official capacity,” says Pádraic McMahon of the Thrills, which recently made five live songs available on iTunes for $4.95. “With the piracy and all the peer-to-peer stuff that’s going on, you can take a defensive stance, or you can go with it and actually exploit it for your own good.”

This story is from the April 29th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.


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