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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Tarkan: Music Like Running Water

Editorial by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK
(with additional reporting by Kaya Turan from Rochester, UK)

Tarkan's current successes in Turkey are being pooh-poohed by rivals as a million dollar advertising coup, but his CD sales feat is a remarkable achievement - all the more impressive given that he is operating in a market that has roughly halved in size over the past decade."

Buying music in a physical format may now account for less than a quarter of the market, but it hasn't hurt Tarkan - the massive number of people who buy only one compact disc (CD) a year seem to include a lot of his fans. And the Turkish music industry is supportive, because he gives it hope.

With a loyal and talented #TeamTarkan built up over the years, they have been impressively consistent performers in most regards, particularly in the marketing department. Tarkan might not be a global star in the strict sense, but he is up there with Ed Sheeran and Adele as a masterful promoter of his brand.

The launch of his 10th album was straight out of Steve Jobs' handbook. Control everything, withhold information, build up anticipation, never break cover, keep the message simple, and treat your product's arrival as if it is a major event. Don't worry about feeding the wider media machine. It will gorge itself quite happily on scraps.

10's first video release makes news headlines

Sounds like the run-up to every album Tarkan has ever released since his sophomore years. The only visible difference in selling strategy was that flogging the album in its physical forms was clearly front of mind this year more than in previous years. With a two-pronged release, it was made clear that CDs were not to be treated as just for the die-hards and an internet stream for the rest.

In the first week of his 10th release, Tarkan did a Taylor Swift and Adele and withheld 10 from the likes of Sweden's Spotify and Apple Music. Digital downloads were limited to iTunes and Turkish sponsor fizy, while CDs were rolled out in their hundreds of thousands as if it were last century's nineties.

Physical sales of 10 have peaked at nearly 350,000, which shows the destitute state of the Turkish music industry in regards to physical sales and how Tarkan CDs are still regarded as archive-worthy at the same time. Pimp up a tally like that to half a million by adding digital (single and album) downloads to it, and you have a sales success, achieved in three weeks that no other Turkish artist has achieved in the past seven years.

10's record-breaking CD sales

Tarkan's current successes in Turkey are being pooh-poohed by rivals as a million dollar advertising coup, but his CD sales feat is a remarkable achievement - all the more impressive given that he is operating in a market that has roughly halved in size over the past decade. CD singles are looking to become wholly digital in Turkey, and CD albums are almost becoming limited editions like vinyl.

In such a climate, it shouldn't really be an issue if the figures have been pimped up by adding digital single and album sales together with CD sales; the fact that Tarkan can generate such figures in the first place to allow for manipulation is important.

Manipulation in the music industry is not new. Streaming has made it almost a marketing requirement. And what about this century's streaming services? David Bowie, whose death was one of the biggest events to shake the global music business last year, predicted back in 2002 that music was "going to become like running water or electricity". With even the Beatles now on board, that's a historical trend that any global artist stands little chance of slowing, let alone reversing.

For Tarkan to do this in Turkey would be more than a one-man job, and it's no wonder that in its second week, Tarkan's 10th album entered the streaming consciousness. As disposable as streaming is, not enough big names in the Turkish music industry are following in Tarkan's footsteps for streaming services to lose their allure.

Streaming is the future. It matters. Thanks to growth in Spotify and Apple Music, music streaming has passed the milestone of 100m paying subscribers worldwide, a feat few imagined possible a few years ago. The US music industry is on track to record a second consecutive year of growth - something that has not happened since 1999, the year Napster launched.

It has been hard to imagine how the music industry could ever match its pre-Napster performance in the 1990s, when CD sales ruled. But some analysts and executives are beginning to confidently predict a new golden age, hoping the disease to have been the cure.

Streaming is a high-margin business. The labels no longer face the costs of hauling truckloads of CDs to Walmart. Instead of ownership, they are selling access to a digital music fortress. After all, casual music listeners - those who don't care about owning a piece of their favourite artists - have embraced streaming with a vengeance.

No doubt streaming has saved the music industry in America for the time being. In a mom and pop industry like Turkey the opposite is true for its music companies, because, unlike CD sales, streaming takes the control away from record labels and puts the power in the hands of service providers and their technology. Spotify and Apple are making money for the big labels but technology is likely to change the equation again. Five years from now the space is going to look very different, possibly in ways we may not fathom now.

If there's one thing for certain, it's that the economics of the music industry have dramatically changed. Recordings used to make artists a bundle; now it's touring. Record labels used to control the industry; now it's largely technology platforms. New music used to first appear on the radio and quickly follow on television; now the digital debut rules.

But what kind of digital debut? The recorded music landscape in 2017 is complicated and no one really knows what will remain once the digital dust settles. Streaming exclusives, however, like Tarkan's with Apple and fizy, may already be a thing of the past.

Damming the Stream

For the American equivalent, music critic Andrew Nusca, writing for Fortune, considers whether rap mogul Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter's new album 4:44 will be the last streaming exclusive because, as Jay-Z discovered, owning the technology makes you more money than owning the music.

Jay-Z's 4:44 was made available exclusively to subscribers of the Tidal music streaming service and to customers of mobile company Sprint. The album was certified platinum less than a week after it was released - reflecting sales of one million copies in the US. On the face of it, this is hugely impressive. In the space of just five days, Jay-Z landed the sixth biggest-selling album of the year. The feat looks even more impressive because it's only available on Tidal, the streaming service Jay-Z owns.

The nineties: When there were popstars in Turkey

But it turns out that Jay-Z had done a deal with Sprint (a major shareholder in Tidal), who gave away copies of the album to their subscribers. Crucially, Sprint paid for each of those copies, making every "free" album eligible for a platinum award; it's almost certain that these downloads are what spurred Jay-Z's album to platinum status.

To do it on streaming alone, the album's tracks would have had to be streamed 1.5 billion times, since 1,500 streams of a song count as one "sale" under current chart rules. Given that Tidal has, at best, 3 million subscribers, each of them would have needed to listen to the album 500 times to push sales over the one million mark - an impossibility in just five days.

Jay-Z bought Tidal in 2014, but even with the rapid growth worldwide in streaming, Tidal has struggled and remains a small player in a market dominated by Spotify. So, why go through this rigmarole? Well, the benefit to Jay-Z, in marketing terms, is huge. Music executives believe that gold and platinum awards have a bandwagon effect, leading to even-bigger sales.

To use a streaming service you own to market your album and boost the service at the same time is good business, but the music still needs to be good. The only thing that controls the direction of the stream is the flow. Therefore, as Nusca suggests, Jay-Z's 4:44 may be the last music debut to limit itself to a single service or company. Drake's Views and Kanye West's The Life of Pablo and Beyoncé's Lemonade achieved some level of recent success with the tactic, too, but once-aligned economic incentives are beginning to separate.

In the Turkish music market, Tarkan mashed different forms of digital debut - exclusive streaming and the trend-bucking strategy of Adele's 25, which shunned streaming services (and singles) for physical album sales to lift an entire category. It worked, but felt like a death rattle rather than a roar back to life. Adele is a category deviant. Even if exclusives are not dead, Jay-Z is not going to put them back in good health. The same goes for Tarkan.

Albums always end up on other services - or simply for sale as digital downloads - and most people eventually settle on their streaming platform of choice. It is in the artist's best interest to spread his or her work as far and wide as possible; an exclusive is a calculated risk to temporarily limit that for future gain. It's in the streaming company's interest to attract listeners to its service; short of Taylor Swift and a select few megastars, a given artist is unlikely to move the new subscriber needle relative to the price paid for exclusivity. Where the money flows, so goes the record label.

For example, with record companies unable to sell physical copies of their releases in the same quantities that they used to, they have sought other sources of revenue, and sync licensing is now one of the key ones. The 21st Century has seen the rise of music supervisors who decide which tunes you will be hearing in that latest hit TV show, the essential liaison between the creative types who make the programme and the business people who control ownership of the music. With the industry of Turkish television dramas booming, artists have been given another avenue to make money off their back catalogues and newest hits.

It seems quaint to recall that bands used to be accused of "selling out" if a TV programme or commercial used their music. Nowadays, rock and pop artists of all kinds have become reconciled to that particular way of doing what the Clash used to call "turning rebellion into money". So, when a music label has a brand like Tarkan, spending millions on album promotion goes without saying.

The criticism should be that, because even large labels in Turkey are still acting like independents, they are not promoting heavily enough. Turkish pop has generated a whole gallery of stars who are caged in by the stranglehold and limited reach of mom and pop record labels.

In the instance of Tarkan's current label DMC, it feels as though they are only interested in using Tarkan for physical CD sales to keep D&R stores afloat - the retail investment of Doğan Holding, the parent company of DMC. It is a record label that has snapped up Turkish pop's highest selling stars almost as if to use them to boost their store inventory, and benefit any other holdings they have in Turkey.

If anything, DMC should be criticised for not promoting Tarkan enough. With a fizy sponsorship, Tarkan could have done a Jay-Z exclusive. Or his music label could have heavily promoted his album in countries where he had hit the iTunes Top 100 to help sales. But DMC execs are stuck in their own boundaries (i.e., DMC is not Sony Music with global reach) to just watch and tweet developments from their personal accounts.

No surprise, then, that DMC's Samsun Demir only found out about Tarkan's Billboard entry by a follower's tweet. Had Tarkan been signed to Sony Music Turkey, or any equivalent, once Tarkan had made it to the World Billboard Charts on his own, the label would have made sure he stayed there for more than a week. Not only because they would have had the reach to focus on it, but they would have keyed in Tarkan's previous entry with his 2016 tribute album and devised a strategy to repeat (if not beat) the marketing success.

So, any success of Tarkan's feel wholly attributable to his star quality, and criticising his music label for spending money on promotion is just as ridiculous as attributing his success to it. Tarkan has used US-style marketing since the early 2000s, and it has become even more necessary, and more inventive as Jay-Z has shown.

Moreover, because of his domestic megastar status, when Tarkan makes money, the industry wins. It is in everyone's interests. Other artists see a rise in sales; it spurs music companies to invest more in unsigned and upcoming artists, looking to catch (or snare) the next lightning bug in a bottle.

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