Please can I just buy the record?

You've read all the interviews, seen the video, been fed the corporate hype. The song is past its sell-by date but you can't even buy it yet. Whatever happened to good old market forces?
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The Independent Culture

Oasis have a new album out. It's called Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. You know that already of course, and may quite possibly have an opinion about it. It's unavoidable. Noel and Liam have been everywhere for months, apologising for the last record, getting wistful over their kiddies, seeking expiation. We've seen interviews and some frankly tepid reviews in the big papers, plugs in the tabloids and regular news on the Internet. Even the Royal Mint seems to have a tie-in, with its limited edition two-pound coin, though they seem to have spelt the title incorrectly.

Oasis have a new album out. It's called Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. You know that already of course, and may quite possibly have an opinion about it. It's unavoidable. Noel and Liam have been everywhere for months, apologising for the last record, getting wistful over their kiddies, seeking expiation. We've seen interviews and some frankly tepid reviews in the big papers, plugs in the tabloids and regular news on the Internet. Even the Royal Mint seems to have a tie-in, with its limited edition two-pound coin, though they seem to have spelt the title incorrectly.

Except, of course, Oasis don't have a new album out. Though the On The Buses-style video for the new single, with Liam in the Bob Grant role, has been played MTV for weeks, "Go Let It Out" was only released on Monday, and the album isn't in the shops until 28 February.

Then there's Kelis, the Wu Tang-connected New York diva. The promotional clip for her rather wonderful "Caught Out There" (aka "I hate you so much right now!") has appeared on television so many times that only her spouse could have had more opportunities to see her in the bathtub. But the public can't buy it until the 21st. (Sadly Valentine's Day was presumably deemed inappropriate.) Even this piece of minimalist genius wears thin after the 100th hearing. Yet the burning question is unanswered: does Kelis rhymes with Cerys or Denise?

Forget the usual indignities piled upon the punter, such as "formatting" (putting out a single on a number of CDs each with different, and therefore collectable, additional tracks), and putting b(r)and awareness ahead of the music. Today's consumer now has the opportunity to become thoroughly sick of even good records long before they're released. Half the songs heard on radio are prefaced with an apologetic "and that'll be out next month".

And it's not just the sure-fire hits already mentioned. The records of the week featured on Mark and Lard's Radio 1 afternoon show may show poorly in chart terms perhaps because they're quirky personal favourites, but increasing the gaps between their relatively low-profile playlisting and eventual release can't help their chances.

The crucial change in broadcast policy at the Nation's Favourite came with a sincere attempt to give new acts exposure as the old guard of Smashie, Nicey and DLT moved aside in the early Nineties. Notably, the station ran with Britpop from the outset, making Oasis the biggest band in the country at a time when their records weren't getting played on commercial radio. But nowadays singles are submitted to a playlist meeting at least four to six weeks before release, often earlier, and anything out within a fortnight is already dead in the water, affecting vital pre-sales to retailers.

At least one record plugger believes that an airplay embargo of up to two weeks before release might bring some stability to the charts and a longer shelf-life for new offerings. Only a decade ago radio promotion often consisted of sending out 10 records, mainly to John Peel, as he represented the best chance of a play. Now, 500 copies might reach the various stations across the country.

Press coverage has similarly mushroomed. In 1967, according to a forthcoming biography of rock's great gonzo chronicler Lester Bangs, no more than a dozen copies of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band were distributed to the entire US press. No wonder it's remembered so fondly. All those misty-eyed flower children had to pay for their copies, and they made damn sure they got their money's worth. (In all probability, no more than a dozen publications won't get a copy of the new Oasis album.)

In its wake, when conservative record companies knew something was going on, but didn't know what it was, any young blade claiming to possess a line into the "scene" might find themselves swamped with freebies. Employment opportunities followed for useful new trades such as radio pluggers, rock critics, independent PR firms, courier services...

A major release could now involve as many 500 review copies sent out to various publications between two and eight weeks prior to release. Such saturation is a far cry from the situation 20 years ago, when the "inkies" were bought by kids desperate to read Julie Burchill's latest ravings.

Crucially, the very inertia of a system which has to take into account factors such as airplay, press, videos and tour schedules mitigates against surprise. In February 1970 John Lennon wrote, recorded and released "Instant Karma" in a week. These days it would be hard to get a record out in less than six. European markets, with less hysterical media, require twice the time.

Inevitably, hip-hop does things differently. Anything exposed before the official release date is likely to be swiftly circulated within a tightly knit musical community. Suge Knight, former CEO of the notorious gangsta rap label Death Row, once offered an employee a choice of resigning or receiving a beating after he inadvertently gave a persistent DJ a Snoop Doggy Dogg exclusive. (He cleared his desk.) Rap pre-release copies now routinely include spoilers, such as label idents repeated at intervals or, surreally, in the case of Prince Paul's last album, a random set of animal noises. Get that cow outta here!

The entire issue could soon become academic. Certain MP3 sites skirt the edges of legality by providing a portal enabling sound files to be downloaded from other, often personal, sources without actually holding them themselves. They work on the principle that the service provider cannot be legally held responsible for the transference of contentious materials, a crucial point in the ongoing battle between censors and the Internet.

As a result, the very concept of the release date could soon become redundant. And it doesn't take much browsing to find not-quite-released Oasis material out there. The band who named their new label Big Brother and clamped down on unofficial, if friendly fan sites, can't police every PC on the planet. Of course, no one will get rich except the phone companies, but with the singles market supposedly a promotional loss leader for albums anyway, we might get our charts back.

Kelis, the queen of bathtub blues, right

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