Who Do AC/DC Think They Are?
by Steve Mainprize
Recently, I saw “Percy Jackson and the Lighting Thief”. (I have kids. That’s how I roll.) Actually, it’s OK, as shameless Harry Potter rip-offs go, and I’ve seen a lot worse movies in the company of my little ones, but I couldn’t help noticing how brutally literal the soundtrack songs were. “Poker Face” plays as the heroes are having fun in a Vegas casino. When they are brainwashed into wasting time at an endless party, we hear Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)”. And when they embark on their journey to confront Hades and rescue Percy’s mother, it’s – of course! – “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC.
To be fair, “Highway To Hell” is used ironically; the characters are travelling by bus. So there’s a mock-heroic undertone that rescues the scene from cliché… or does it?
Previous uses of the song in film include “Final Destination 2”, “Little Nicky”, and “Wild Hogs”, and in each case it’s been used ironically. In fact, the ironic use of “Highway To Hell” is the cliché – the song seems to have gone straight to irony, without passing through any intermediate stage where we’re expected to take it seriously.
To which you might well respond: “Well, duh. It’s AC flippin’ DC.” Yep, I know. I know how the world perceives the band and their records. Big stupid (in a good way) riffs, lyrics about rock and roll, life on the road and single entendres, designed to appeal to the adolescent in everyone.
That’s not how AC/DC, sees it, apparently. Here’s guitarist Angus Young in a New York Times article from October 2008:
“You get very close to the albums,” said Angus, relaxing on a couch while sipping a cup of tea…“It’s like an artist who does a painting,” he added. “If he thinks it’s a great piece of work, he protects it. It’s the same thing: this is our work.” The band has said it does not want to break up its albums to sell individual songs as iTunes usually requires.
Yep, you won’t find AC/DC on iTunes, or on any other legal download service, as I found out when Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief triggered my base and carnal urges, and I came home wanting to listen to “Highway To Hell” in full. And maybe “You Shook Me All Night Long” too.
Because I’m the kind of spendthrift who doesn’t mind recklessly throwing 79p about, I was quite happy to buy it, so I went to iTunes and searched for it. It wasn’t there. In fact, there was no AC/DC there at all. I shrugged and went to Amazon’s download store. They weren’t there either.
“This is strange,” I thought. Well, OK, maybe I don’t need to buy it, maybe it’s one of those songs where I’ll hear it once and it won’t be as good as I remembered it and I’ll be able to put it behind me and move on. So I launched Spotify and looked for it there.
Nope. A whole bunch of AC/DC tribute bands, sound-a-likes and cover versions, but not so much as a note from the real thing.
Ah-hah! I thought, what about the band’s own web site? So I found it – acdc.com – and, yes, they have an online store, but no, it’s all t-shirts and badges and beanie hats. Not a download to be seen.
Well, already I’d already spent more time on this than I’d intended, but my interest was piqued. I started Googling, and quickly found this at billboard.com:
AC/DC is finally selling its music digitally. But not on iTunes. Verizon Wireless has snagged the exclusive rights to sell the band’s entire back catalog through March 2008, becoming the first and only digital music store to offer the Australian combo’s content.
Huh? Guys, I’m sitting here trying to give you my money. Come on.
OK, whatever, I supposed I could get it from Verizon. So I spent ten minutes on the Verizon Wireless website, and I found out how to buy the whole album (rather than the one track I want), as long as I don’t mind finding a Windows machine (I’m on a Mac – not making a big deal out of it, I just am) and installing some drivers and a media manager program (which is going to take up a third of a gigabyte), and I think I needed a phone as well but it wasn’t entirely clear and in the end I just gave up and listened to it on YouTube.
Their tracks aren’t even available on the soundtrack albums for the movies mentioned above, or for most of the other films in which they feature: at least 5 major studio releases in the past 10 years have incorporated the song “Back In Black”, and none of them have it on their soundtrack albums.
Basically, if you want to buy “Highway To Hell”, or “Back In Black”, or “It’s A Long Way To The Top”, you need to buy a full AC/DC album. There are also no AC/DC compilation albums (at least not yet, but more of this in a minute), so you can’t even satisfy all your AC/DC needs with a single CD purchase.
To all of which I say: who do AC/DC think they are?
It’s one thing if you’re the Beatles, who also, famously, haven’t done a deal with any of the online MP3 retailers. Certainly, it’s irritating sometimes the way the Beatles’ songs are treated as pop’s holy relics, and you get the feeling that it’s only grudgingly that they even allow their CDs to be sold in the same shops as everyone else’s. It’s like they’d only be happy if there were special shops that only sold Beatles albums. But then the Beatles did set most of the parameters of modern pop, so if anyone should be allowed to make their own rules, it’s them.
But AC/DC aren’t, by a long shot, the Beatles. To the extent that you might be surprised to learn that the band’s “Back In Black” album is the second highest selling (physical) album in the history of the world. However, but this particular game is skewed in the band’s favour for the following three reasons.
Firstly, other bands have tracks that can be downloaded, whether as an album or individually. You can’t pick and choose with AC/DC: it’s a full album or nothing. So sales of their physical albums aren’t diluted by sales of downloadable tracks. On the other hand, their total sales from downloadable tracks is nil.
Secondly, all the good AC/DC albums are pretty much the same. (The bad ones are also the same, except worse.) This means that the casual record buyer only needs one AC/DC record.
Thirdly, AC/DC have never released a true compilation album, claiming that they are making a principled stand in that their artistic integrity (oh, good grief) only lends itself to a full LP presented as a coherent statement of the band’s yada yada yada. Given the absence of a greatest hits package, it’s probably going to be “Back In Black”, because that’s got more well-known songs than any of the others. Hence “Back In Black” being the second-best seller of all time, and the rest of the band’s back catalogue is nowhere.
But wait, what’s this? Now there’s a compilation available as a spin-off from the ‘Iron Man 2’ movie, so pffft to artistic integrity. And although it’s being marketed as a greatest hits, there’s plenty missing. No sign of “You Shook Me All Night Long” or “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, for example, both of which are on “Back In Black”, and no “Whole Lotta Rosie” or “It’s A Long Way To The Top” or “High Voltage” either. So it’s unlikely to take many sales away from the band’s other CDs, and it will probably tempt a good number of people who previously didn’t feel the need to go beyond “Back In Black”, as well as people who weren’t tempted enough by any previous AC/DC albums.
But, surely there’s a decent market for people to buy one-off songs on a whim? If I want to pay to download tracks, I can’t be the only one. And furthermore, what’s the average potential customer going to be tempted do when they find that they can’t download “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” legally? Are they going to drop a tenner on an entire CD? Some might, but plenty are going to be off to Hype Machine or Limewire to download an illegal copy. Alternatively, iTunes does offer one option: there are half a dozen AC/DC sound-a-like groups on there, hawking carbon-copy cover versions of the more popular AC/DC songs, so presumably those acts are picking up at least some of the money that AC/DC themselves don’t seem to want.
My first instinct was that this was all a particularly stupid strategy on the part of the band, their management and the record company. Leaving money on the table is supposed to be a cardinal sin in business. But then I started wondering if it was really that simple. After all, I’d given it a few minutes thought, after which it looked a bit daft, but there’s presumably a ton of money in selling AC/DC music, and responsibility for that sort of thing tends not to rest with daft people, or if it does, it don’t rest there for too long.
So assuming that there is a good reason for leaving the download money on the table, what is it?
The record industry, still begrudging the fact that they’re expected to deliver their products in a form that suits their customers rather than themselves, fancied a little bit of an experiment. I don’t know for definite that this is what’s going on, but I do know that if I was in charge, I’d probably be interested in trying out a little test – for instance, what would happen if we didn’t licence tracks for download?
The industry has had a couple of goes at this experiment. As you might expect, the pop chart singles market, being driven by short-term trends, behaves in a very different way from the heritage rock market that AC/DC inhabit. In 2008, Atlantic Records removed Estelle’s single “American Boy” from iTunes because they were worried that everyone was downloading the track and no-one was buying her CD “Shine”, on which it featured. What happened next is that sales of “Shine” fell even further, and, hilariously, a cash-in cover by a “band” called Studio All-Stars climbed right up the iTunes chart. (Studio All-Stars, incidentally, have nearly six THOUSAND songs on iTunes, including a bunch of the previously-mentioned AC/DC covers. Now there’s a band with an interesting business model.) That experiment was cancelled pretty quickly, and Estelle returned to the iTunes store.
At the time, there was a lot of crowing about Atlantic’s climb-down, but I don’t suppose they’d be particularly upset. They lost a couple of weeks’ sales of a hit record, but they must have got some valuable, good quality, hard data about what happens if you turn your back on downloadable tracks.
The fact that AC/DC’s refusal to go digital continues is probably the other side of this coin. If there were similar effects to that of the Estelle situation, you can bet that the experiment would have ended the same way. However, their market apparently, and perhaps not surprisingly, behaves differently. On finding that the AC/DC back catalogue – and the back-catalogue is AC/DC, it’s not about new tracks – still makes its money without downloads, the experiment was allowed to continue, only now being tweaked a tad with the Iron Man 2 soundtrack.
It’s a bit like trying out a new paint colour in the living room. First of all you try it out on a slightly grotty area that you’re dimly aware is there but you seldom pay attention to, and it doesn’t matter too much if you screw up.
In the living room, it’s the bit behind the sofa. In the music industry, it’s AC/DC.
Oomska’s AC/DC Spotify Playlist (does not include any actual AC/DC): http://open.spotify.com/user/mainy/playlist/6qWzmxOqT5gyQiYpukRbYc