Probably the best-selling "concept album" ever recorded, Pink Floyd released "The Dark Side of the Moon" in 1973.

While most bands presumably want their songs available on iTunes, last April Pink Floyd took the unusual step of suing its own record label (EMI) to prevent the online sale of individual tracks stripped from its original albums.

Of course, consumers generally favor the “a la carte” model, which allows them to extract exactly what they want from an album (often just one or two songs)–and disregard the rest. Artists are less than enthusiastic about this paradigm, but few bands have seriously fought to maintain the integrity of their albums. (In 2008, for example, Radiohead capitulated after years of holding out.) Fewer still have actually succeeded in their boycott of iTunes. (The Beatles are a notable exception.)

Two reasons probably explain such feeble resistance: first, most bands presumably prefer selling one or two songs online if the alternative is selling no songs at all; second, few bands have the clout to negotiate more favorable terms with the record labels.

Pink Floyd is not one of those bands. (The Dark Side of the Moon, with some 45 million copies sold, remained on the Billboard 200 for an astonishing 15 years!) Renowned for recording “concept albums” around a unified theme, the band renegotiated its contract with EMI in 1999 to preserve control over the artistic integrity of its work. Despite the contract (written long before iTunes even existed), EMI sold individual songs to iTunes, apparently on the theory that its contractual commitment covered only physical media and did not extend to the Internet.

The band sued to enforce the contract and last week the British High Court agreed with Pink Floyd. In a preliminary ruling, Judge Andrew Morritt concluded: “There is nothing in the terms ‘album’ or ‘record’ to suggest they apply to the physical product only.” Pink Floyd Music Ltd v. EMI Records Ltd., 666/09, High Court of Justice, Chancery Division (London). Even so, EMI apparently does not plan to immediately halt online sales of Pink Floyd songs.

While some commentators have applauded what they perceive as a principled stand against the record companies, it remains to be seen whether this fight really turns on artistic control–or money. After all, Pink Floyd may yet agree to sell songs individually on iTunes–but with substantially more leverage to command higher royalty payments. Fans who want to believe otherwise ought to ponder why Pink Floyd songs have been playing on the radio–individually–for more than forty years now. As they say in the song . . .
Money, it’s a hit
Don’t give me that
Do goody good bull$$$$

Nathan McGregor

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