Topping the Singles Chart With Online-only Releases

Lynne Kiesling

A coda (pun intended) to our music week features comes from this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, which had an article (subscription required) about U.S. hip-hop band Gnarls Barkley. Their single “Crazy” entered the U.K. singles charts at number 1, making this the first song to do so that has only been released on the Internet:

The oddly named hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley made history in the U.K. with the song “Crazy,” which debuted at No. 1 despite being available only as a digital download. It was the first time a song had reached the top spot without being available on CD, tape or record.

It’s the latest case of digital music rewriting the rules of marketing. Though the song hit the U.K.’s iTunes in March, it and other tracks from the group’s first album, “St. Elsewhere,” were leaked to the Internet months ago, and began generating buzz. They were then picked up on the radio by a few influential British DJs. Internet-only songs recently became eligible for the pop singles chart, making it possible for “Crazy” to hit No. 1. The album hit U.K. stores this week.

This excerpt contains some telling details about the economics of music sales, telling because it indicates how wrong RIAA is to think of Internet downloads and CD sales as substitutes instead of complements. The pre-release leaks of some songs from the album have led to U.K. airplay, which led to the chart success, which should have translated into higher sales when the CD was released in the U.K. last week. Instead of a top-down force-feed, buzz is now a bottom-up emergence. These guys (and their label) have figured that out; now it’s time for the rest of RIAA to get a clue.

Another interesting feature of Gnarls Barkley is that they are a duo from other segments of the music industry; Danger Mouse is a producer and Cee-Lo Green is a songwriter.

5 thoughts on “Topping the Singles Chart With Online-only Releases

  1. Perhaps Gnarls Barkley sounds odd to UK media, but isn’t it clearly a play-on-names? Charles Barkley?

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