The National, Recording, Arts, and Sciences

I went to the record store this week to buy Boxer, the radiant and brooding new album from Brooklyn-based band The National. While I might've been happy to take home a CD of the record, I found myself enticed by a sticker on the LP version indicating that inside the shrinkwrap was a unique code entitling me to a free download of the same album, in high-bitrate MP3 format. Sold.

Pretty cool, I thought. I've seen this a few times before. Among other indie bands, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists and Lavender Diamond are offering similar buy-and-download plans with their newest LPs. I recall the Oranges Band selling me a seven-inch record a few years ago that had a CD of the same songs tucked into the packaging. And the double LP of Wilco's Sky Blue Sky comes with a CD of the entire album enclosed. Drop the needle, fire up the laser, or spin that little hard drive -- you choose. These are my kind of bands.

More intriguing was a note among the downloading instructions for the digital Boxer. "Only three downloads per each coupon allowed," says the little slip of paper, "so if you share this with a friend and they beat you to it, then you lose out." Hmmm. I didn't know I was going to get "only three" downloads. Now that you mention it, why don't I share this with a friend or two after I make my own copy for the car?

All this hemming and hawing about illegal downloads and burned discs, and now this: The National and their label, Beggars Banquet, are actively sponsoring duplication of Boxer, to the tune of four total copies floating around for each LP that they've sold. They surely know that the eventual number of duplicates could be more like 10 or 15, or more. (Why would my friends fail to burn more copies, after getting the record for free in the first place?)

As my fellow blogger Tony Sachs pointed out in his thoughtful essay "Burnout" a couple of weeks ago, home taping really is killing the record business after all. File-sharing seemed like a much bigger scare in 2000, but it's turned out that extensive replication of legitimately acquired music via CD burners is the real industry killer. A burner costs less today than a tape deck did in 1982 -- hell, a 52x burner today costs about the same as a brick of 10 high-bias blank tapes! -- making duplication faster, easier and cheaper than ever before.

And yet, The National and their label are more or less encouraging me to spread Boxer around. They're just being realistic, you might say, because I'm likely to share it anyway. Or maybe they've singled me out as a certain type of consumer because I'm buying an LP in this day and age, taking it for granted that I'm one of Malcolm Gladwell's mavens. Either way, they've entrusted me with extra copies, to spread around at my own discretion. This is new.

They didn't have to do this. They could've decided that each weirdo who buys an LP record is one fewer person who can duplicate Boxer easily, and left it at that. (I might've bought a CD instead!) They could've given me just one download, so I'd have it in both analog and digital versions; I still could have shared it, but not so quickly and easily. Even more simply, they could've asked me not to spread it around -- a strategy that, believe it or not, has worked before.

But by offering me three additional copies, they are practically begging me to give Boxer as a gift. It's as if they'd thrown in a couple of blank tapes, back in the early 1980s. "Being stingy isn't the answer," Sachs wrote of record labels in search of a solution to their woes, and Beggars Banquet knows this. I gave the extras away.

Does this strategy help The National? Yes, and let me stamp your right hand as I say that. If I'd been smart enough to buy tickets early, I would've paid $16 and brought a friend to see the band play last Wednesday night in San Francisco. (Some people paid $50 or more via Craigslist, as demand far outpaced supply.) The National turned away customers at the door that night, and yet surely drove away with a few thousand dollars in the till. I would guess that they make more money on the road -- particularly if they're selling out rooms every night -- than from record sales. Throw in some merch sales, and they could've made back everything they gave away to my friends.

As The Deal's Matt Miller pointed out in his cover story last week, that'd be normal. "We're seeing CDs turn into promotional tools for the live tours," rather than the other way around, Festival Network head Chris Shields told Miller. [Full disclosure: The Deal is my full-time employer.] So if The National gives away three copies of its record for every one sold, it's really just making more people show up at their gigs, where they'll make most of their money. More fans means more income for The National, as long as they're a touring outfit.

Strangely enough, giving away freebies may benefit Beggars Banquet in the end too. People walked out of The National's show with CDs in their hands -- sales that didn't require a cut for the record store. If I send the all-digital Boxer to my friend in New York, she might shell out for their previous album Alligator. Once the label has sold an LP to me, it costs them virtually nothing to send out a couple of free downloads to my friends. They'll talk up Boxer, and heighten the buzz. For the label, the hardware was the hard part.

I paid $11.98 for Boxer. Beggars Banquet is acknowledging that at least three people will own a copy as a result, essentially pricing the album at about $4. We're still waiting for CD prices to fall, as consumers were promised 20 years ago, but maybe this is a sign of things to come. It's probably easier for independent labels to get away with this sort of thing, given that their customers tend to view record-buying as conscious support of developing artists, but I have to wonder if the majors couldn't take a lesson from this too. Why not drive down the price of music, if it's going to result in increased popularity? How much could you just give away, and still make money?