Morrissey once sang, “at the record company meeting/On their hands, a dead star/And oh, the plans they weave/And oh, the sickening greed”. In the aftermath of another death of a huge global icon, the uneasy balance between commerce and respect has been in the spotlight again.
On Saturday afternoon local time – only hours after the tragic death in a Los Angeles hotel room of Whitney Houston, aged just 48 – Sony Music raised the wholesale price of two of her greatest hits compilations. This resulted in a jump in the iTunes retail price from £4.99 to £7.99 on one; and £7.99 to £9.99 on the other. The music giant has since come out and issued an apology, claiming that the products were “mistakenly mispriced” for a few hours.
Both albums have now returned to their original prices.
Meanwhile, there have been fears that TV station Bravo would attempt to cash in on the death of the star by re-releasing the notorious reality show Being Bobby Brown, filmed in 2005. The series focussed on the turbulent relationship between the eponymous Brown and his then-wife Houston, when she was in the midst of many of her well-documented troubles. A spokesperson for Bravo has insisted that they will not be exploiting the tapes; the series achieved high ratings, but a DVD was never released after Houston refused to grant permission.
It’s Not Right But It’s Okay?
However, in these days of seriously reduced record sales, should the music industry be condemned for attempting to maximise impact from the death of one of its artists? While Sony claim that the change in pricing was a mistake, can they really be criticised for responding to the basic tenet of economics – consumer demand – and changing price accordingly? The enormous jump in sales of catalogue for Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse have shown that interest in artists’ music is hugely reignited upon their death, as people re-evaluate their contribution to the world.
After all, the fact remains that those labels were the firms responsible for signing the artists, nurturing them, and funding the original recordings. In the same way, no-one at Bravo forced Brown or Houston to take part in their show; the participants knew the risks and, more than that, almost certainly signed up to appear in order to boost their public profiles. They weren’t doing it for the good of Bravo, so why should Bravo be concerned about the good of Houston’s post-death image and legacy?
Other areas of the economy that are far less moral escape such negative PR, such as short-selling in a market crash. Any criticism received is merely explained away as simply reacting to the needs of capitalism; “we were simply responding to the market”.
On the contrary, one could argue that, in the world of music and perhaps beyond, this is a poor position to adopt. While the global recession has shown that the market cannot be allowed simply to act for its own interests, and that safeguards should be in place to prevent greed and excessive self-interest, the same should apply in the music business.
Firstly, of course, there is the human tragedy of this event: a young woman has died in tragic circumstances, and her 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina, was hospitalised in the aftermath with a breakdown, while the rest of her friends and family – let alone her army of fans across the world – have lost someone who they cared about. There has to be a certain level of respect shown for these simple facts.
In addition, as the music industry has suffered one PR disaster after another, people hardly need to be given another reason to condemn it. By providing this easy ammunition, the industry can stand accused of being greedy, manipulative and unethical – and thus any public sympathy for its continued troubles and battles against online piracy while be reduced. People’s respect for the value of recorded music will be eroded even further than it already is by stunts such as these, and the industry simply has to be more careful about managing its image in order to maintain or increase any public support for its woes.
Finally – as the likes of The Beatles and Queen fully understand – a well-maintained legacy can pay dividends for years to come, and quick attempts to cash in merely smack of poor, short-term thinking. The industry may also do well to consider that if it had looked after Houston in her vulnerable years, it would have had more music to release and many more sales and world tours before the end of her career, instead of – as Morrissey put it – the “Reissue! Repackage! Repackage!” of the old material.
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