Alan McGee, the musical impresario behind Oasis, has hatched an audacious plan to make new singles and albums available to download free, a move that threatens to throw the music industry into confusion.
This month, the Charlatans, the Britpop band that McGee manages, will offer their forthcoming single "You Cross My Path" free to anyone who wishes to download it from the website of the indie music station Xfm. The Charlatans, who have had British number one albums with Some Friendly, The Charlatans and Tellin' Stories, will give away a second single and then their forthcoming album, as yet unnamed, in the same fashion. McGee and the band believe that the business model for selling music is moribund and that future income will largely come from ticket sales for live shows and merchandising.
Speaking from Los Angeles, McGee said he decided to give the Charlatans' music away after they were offered a deal he considered less than satisfactory by their record company, Sanctuary. "I thought, 'well nobody buys CDs anyway'. If you talk to a 19-year-old kid, they don't buy CDs. In eastern Europe, nobody buys a CD – everything is digitally downloaded from the internet for nothing. I came to the conclusion, 'Why don't we just give it away for nothing'."
But the development has rung alarm bells in the music retail industry. Kim Bayley, the director general of the Entertainment Retailers Association, which represents shops and online outlets that sell music, warned that the idea risked "narrowing the spectrum" of British music by denying new bands, who are unable to attract large live audiences, the chance to make money from selling their music. "Music will become regarded as a throwaway item," she said. "This model is fine if you are a band that has already made it but our worry as an association would be whether it takes away that ability of new bands to get their foot on the first rung of the ladder."
The radical approach of the Charlatans follows the decision by Prince to distribute an estimated three million copies of his latest album with The Mail on Sunday, driving ticket sales for his record-breaking series of concerts at London's O2 Arena. The Charlatans have opted for a more ground-breaking approach – to put it on a radio station website, where it can be downloaded for free at any time.
McGee said the band "could not lose" from the revolutionary approach. "We looked at the deal we were being offered by Sanctuary and said, 'Let's just do it ourselves'. We increase our fan base, we sell more merchandise, more fans talk about the band and we get more advertising and more films (soundtracks). More people will get into the the Charlatans and will probably pay the money to see the show. I presume it will double the gig traffic, maybe even treble it." He put the suggestion to the band's singer, Tim Burgess, who immediately agreed, and the rest of the band were subsequently persuaded to go along with the plan. Burgess said: "CD sales are on the decline and for any one copy sold there are nine copied from that. The future is in playing live." The Charlatans have a November tour lined up to coincide with the release.
Mike Walsh, the head of music at Xfm, said the download service, which starts on 22 October, would remain active "for as long as there's demand". He said: "We thought it was an irresistible opportunity to do something that had not been done before. We could provide listeners with exciting and unique music and embrace something that we feel will inevitably become more common in the future."
Walsh said he understood the logic of the band's stance. "For a certain type of artist, such as the Charlatans, who have an incredibly strong live following, it makes sense for them to ensure that their new music is distributed as widely as possible and hopefully feed interest in their live shows."