Home Music Labels at Their Worst: Sony’s Whitney Houston PR Gaffe

Music Labels at Their Worst: Sony’s Whitney Houston PR Gaffe

As news spread on Saturday that famed singer Whitney Houston had died, millions of fans around the world did what is now customary. Well, first they tweeted about it. Then they went to one of the many sources of online music to reminisce. Whether by streaming songs from YouTube or Spotify or by buying tracks from iTunes, fans paid tribute to Houston on Saturday by listening to her music.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the depths of Sony Music’s UK headquarters, the decision was made to bump up the price on those digital downloads. The reaction was swift and unequivocally critical. How could Sony capitalize on somebody’s death? After initially staying silent, Sony apologized and changed the prices back, chalking it up to an error. A mistake indeed, but the notion that it was unintentional is hard for many to swallow.

The trend is now quite familiar. When pop stars die young, fans buy up their music in droves. This was true when Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain died, but it seems to be even more true today. Music purchases are now a few clicks or taps away and can be made without leaving one’s home, or better yet, from the devices we all carry in our pockets.

When Michael Jackson died in 2009, sales of his music increased eightyfold and he topped charts around the world. Though her career was much shorter than Jackson’s, singer Amy Winehouse had her album sales spike after her death last year as well.

The people who profit the most from the sale of recorded music know how this works. A popular artists dies, sales go up. In the past, record stores could increase inventory in the days following a singer’s death. Today, inventory is infinite, so these posthumous sales spikes are even more dramatic. You’d think that would be enough for music executives.

From a business standpoint, increasing the price of Whitney Houston’s records makes sense. If demand goes through the roof, why not capitalize on that? But that’s a strictly profit-focused viewpoint. It ignores the fact that a human being has died, and that the people getting ready to shell out money for the work they created are, at least to some extent, in mourning.

The perception easily follows that the record company is trying to profit from both the deceased and the bereaved. Whether it’s a wise business choice or not, the fact that nobody foresaw the PR backlash it would cause is pretty unbelievable.

These are the same people that, via the RIAA, sue music fans for illegally downloading music and desperately want draconian laws like SOPA and PIPA to be passed. Raising prices on a dead singer’s music is a move that is bound to infuriate many and encourage others to seek out the material elsewhere, whether that be through less legal means or from streaming services that, no matter how you slice it, don’t generate as much revenue as digital downloads.

The gaffe may or may not result in a perceptible impact on sales of Houston’s music, the demand for which is very high right now. But given the sometimes chilly relationship between labels and fans in the digital age, it’s amazing that they were willing to take the risk.

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