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The new musical expressway

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The U.K. has always been a place for musical revolutions. In 1963 the U.K. music paper New Musical Express announced the arrival of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Marketing music to the public then was pretty simple: advertise on TV, radio or in print; crank up the PR engine; and make sure the handful of retailers have enough of your product to secure your chart position.

That model has been smashed by the digital revolution. Bands are sneaking up in the fast lane, blindsiding the labels, appearing from nowhere, or-more precisely-appearing from the digital-music communities.

Babyshambles and the Arctic Monkeys, two recent hot rock acts, built fan bases rapidly by posting their music on their websites and allowing people to swap MP3s, record performances and share. The music spread like wildfire through MySpace and other social networks.

Sway, a U.K. hip-hop act, recently beat out 50 Cent to win the title of best U.K. hip-hop act, and he did so without releasing any albums or having a record deal. Sway produced his own mixes, which were released on the web, on the streets and after gigs.

So what are the major artists doing to stop these sales-stealing upstarts?

All Saints just launched a new album on a 3G mobile platform. Robbie Williams has pre-installed new unreleased tracks on Sony's new Walkman phone. And Keane just released a single on a memory stick.

All good experiments, but where are the big ideas?

At a White Stripes gig in London last year, all 10,000 attendees were presented a blank CD enclosed in a sleeve that labeled it a live recording of an unreleased single played at the concert that night. All concertgoers needed to do was log on and download the song onto the disc the following morning.

But for an example of a band really leaping into the digital experience, look no further than the Gorillaz (Damon Albarn's animated virtual band). The group recently completed a tour through various sites in Habbo Hotel, a cartoon virtual world. An animated virtual band touring in an animated virtual world. Perfect.

jon wilkins ...is a partner at Naked Communications, London, a communications-strategy shop with offices in six countries.
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