Plugged:

I missed posting this item to .biz earlier in the week…but this deal between Beck and TouchTunes to preview his upcoming album “Modern Guilt” is pretty cool, if a bit limited in scope.

TouchTunes operates a fleet of around 10,000 fancy-pants Internet-connected jukeboxes that, per the name, are touch-screen based. Under the deal, Beck is making the entire album available to stream from any TouchTunes location a good two weeks before its July 8 street date. Only the lead single “Chemtrails” is available to stream on Beck’s website.

Normally this is something I’d rail against, because I think Beck could have gotten a lot more mileage out of streaming the whole thing on his site or his MySpace/Facebook/iLike profile or whatever. But then only existing Beck fans would bother doing so.

The TouchTunes promotion lets one Beck fan play the song, which then an entire bar/restaurant/whatever can hear—perhaps attracting new Beck fans. What’s more, there’s a cool feature that lets fans find the nearest TouchTunes location where they can sample the new album by texting the word “BECK” to a shortcode. This lets Beck collect fans’ mobile phone numbers for later SMS promotions.

This sort of cross-platform promotion, plus the blending of virtual and real life interaction with music, is an interesting approach. I’m not sure I fully support making the new album available exclusively to TouchTunes—there’s still much to be said for virtual album-listening parties—but the system certainly deserves a second look as a valuable promotional platform for new music.

UnPlugged:
NARM’s plea for parity between digital and physical album release dates is certainly understandable, but in reality it’s a fight they will ultimately lose.

Digital formats simply allow for too much flexibility and enable far too many creative implementations to treat it like any other format. For instance, in today’s Billboard, we are running a story about how artists like Lil’ Wayne and others are releasing multiple tracks from their albums well in advance of their street date to build demand and let fans sample the new songs. The kicker is that they then use iTunes’ “Complete My Album” feature to acquire the remainder of the album, at a perceived discount. You can’t do that with a physical CD.

There are plenty of other examples—digital pre-orders, early digital releases for fan club members, bundling of albums with concert tickets… the list goes on.

Why shouldn’t labels and artists experiment with release windows given this kind of unprecedented freedom? It works in both the videogame and movie industries after all.

Digital downloads are the new radio, whether it’s unauthorized P2P or iTunes. You can’t artificially funnel outlets for demand any longer. The “chaos in the marketplace” that NARM is trying to avoid already exists.

Now I completely understand where physical retailers are coming from. As a reporter, I wouldn’t like a source to give an online news blog first shot at a big story early in the week that I have to wait until Friday to print.

But I’d argue that those fans who are buying the digital album made available earlier than the physical one would likely have bought the digital album anyway. Fans who still want CDs are going to wait for the CD no matter what. Look at how Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” was still a chart-topping album months after the band virtually gave it away online.

CDs still have a certain edge over digital for some fans. With a few exceptions, digital albums don’t include lyrics or the CD-booklet liner notes. Songs on the CD will play anywhere, while iTunes files are still locked into Apple’s closed system.

Before making any demands, let’s take some time to see whether early digital releases may have some positive benefit to physical sales. Rather than admonishing labels for experimenting with windowing strategies, engage them to see how the physical release date could fit within the new approach.

When it comes to the momentum of digital music, face facts—you can’t beat ‘em. So start joining ‘em.