Leading article: The sound of a revolution

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The Independent Online

A revolution has been taking place in the commercial music industry. For several years, online music file swapping has been hitting CD sales and diminishing the profits of the major record companies. The runaway success of high-memory digital music players and online music stores (iPods and iTunes in particular) has accelerated this process.

This week, the revolution entered a new stage. The Charlatans have announced that they will make their new album available to anyone who logs on to a radio station's website. And Radiohead are asking their fans to pay as little or as much for their latest album online as they see fit. The era of free recorded music would appear to be dawning.

This is another major blow to the record companies, which thought they had finally begun to arrest their profit slump by agreeing to sell their artists' products through online music stores at knock-down prices. If other bands follow the lead of Radiohead, the record companies will not even receive the 79p it costs to download a single song from iTunes.

But could this latest development also be damaging to popular music in general? A case can be made that it is a dangerous thing. It is all very well for established bands to give up their revenue from CD sales and rely solely on merchandise sales and income from live shows. But smaller, up and coming bands tend to rely on CD revenue for a much greater proportion of their income. They could never afford to follow suit. And if the superstars encourage the public to believe that recorded music ought to be free, will people not be less inclined to pay for the product of smaller bands?

That is a risk. But there are compensating aspects of the musical revolution as far as smaller artists are concerned. They can promote themselves and connect with their fan base much more effectively through the web. Smaller bands are also benefiting from falling CD production costs. Artists can produce their CDs themselves and keep all of what they sell, bypassing the old record companies entirely.

As for the record companies, the smart ones have already realised that targeting niche audiences through intelligent marketing and advertising is the future. The days when they could simply sign the hottest bands and then wait for the cash to flow in from record sales are over. They will have to work considerably harder for their revenue in the new musical marketplace. Some will thrive. Others will go to the wall. But one thing is for sure, the revolution is too advanced to be turned back now.