The one-to-one relationship between the two parties has in the past few years been nonexistent, at best, and downright ugly at its worst, thanks to reams of file-sharing lawsuits and clumsy digital-rights-management technology.
But this week Sony BMG is going directly to consumers with an internet TV play it has created through Brightcove. The service, called Musicbox Video, distributes music videos from Sony BMG artists -- from Shakira to the Dixie Chicks to Nick Lachey -- across its fan sites and even down to the MySpace pages of music-obsessed fans.
"They're using syndication services to make it possible for fans to take players and put them into blogs or MySpace pages," said Adam Berrey, VP-marketing and strategy at Brightcove, which creates, distributes and sells advertising in internet TV channels for media companies and marketers.
The flash-based video player features several "channels" -- top 20, rock, pop and R&B -- and can be found at the artists' websites. Fans can e-mail a video link to a friend or copy the HTML code to post the video in blogs or on their MySpace pages.
Pre-roll advertising will run before the music videos launch and another ad will load between every other video. The ads, sold by Brightcove under a revenue-sharing agreement, will be another way for the music industry to pick up some of the dollars it has lost to peer-to-peer file sharing. Hewlett Packard has already signed on as an advertiser.
Mr. Berry said future advertising applications might include deeper sponsorships within the player, a sponsorship that takes over the player or some other kind of sponsorship integrated into the lineup of videos.
"It turns the video play into a revenue stream," he said.
Simon Renshaw, principal at Strategic Artist Management and manager of the Dixie Chicks, has been an outspoken advocate of a more direct-to-consumer approach in the music industry and said the increase in broadband penetration is driving the potential of such one-to-one relationships between artists and fans. The Dixie Chicks, for example, struck a deal with MSN to stream their first concert in two years -- a June 15 show at Shepherds Bush Empire in London.
'Trying to stay relevant'
"SonyBMG should be commended for at least trying to do something in the space," said Mr. Renshaw. "Right now labels are trying to find out what works and what gets traction -- they're trying to stay relevant."
That said, it might already be too late for the labels. Mr. Renshaw thinks broadband may eventually empower artists to the point where they'll be able to leave traditional record-label relationships behind in favor of their own distribution pacts.
"Physical distribution is going to become less and less important and that makes it easier for all creative people to have direct relationships with consumers," he predicted. At that point, "artists will ask, who's my better partner? Warner Bros. Records or MySpace? MTV or YouTube?"
Clearly, Sony BMG's latest step represents a hope that they can all work together.