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Ways of selling (and buying) music: the Uhrlaut case

On January 21st, 2008, a Danish record label, called then Urlyd, opened its catalogue with the album Small arm of sea, by Danish singer and electronic music producer Tone. It seemed just like another release into the internet's sea of data.

However Urlyd, that would change its name to Uhrlaut Records in 2011, was making a risky bet and opening a new path in how music is distributed, in a moment when uncertainty was the predominant tone among the industry, traditional physical formats were in crisis and new opportunities seemed more like threats than what they were: opportunities.

Today, six years later, uncertainty has not been cleared up, physical formats are still in crisis and new opportunities still look like threats. However, it is also true that Uhrlaut Records is still publishing albums and keeps the business model that started with Small arm of sea. But, what was it? What did Uhrlaut that no one had done before?

Christian Villum and Sune Petersen, founders of the company, were the first to apply Creative Commons licenses to actual, physical albums, while still supported by a collecting society: Koda.

At the beginning of 2008, Koda officially announced that musician members would be allowed to chose the Creative Commons option to publish their works. Thereby, benefits from commercial uses would be managed by Koda, while musicians would be allowed to share freely their music for non-commercial uses.

When Uhrlaut released Small arm of sea, they did it using two channels which, until then, had seemed totally exclusive: the album could be bought on shops, in cd+dvd or lp+dvd format, and, at the same time, could be downloaded for free and legally in MP3 format from Tone and Uhrlaut Records websites. In addition, since the music was registered with a Creative Commons license, the album buyer was allowed (and even encouraged) to copy and share the music.

"If people enjoy what I do, they can support me by buying the record in the stores. This will give them the video part as well. But otherwise I hope they will download the music for free just to check out what I do". Sofie Nielsen, Tone.

Uhrlaut's unexpected business movement had a wide media coverage in Denmark and many other countries. Before the change of paradigm adopted by Koda, if a musician opted to distribute their creations under a CC license, they refused to receive any compensation for any commercial use of their work. With the new model, for the first time an artist could still operate within the conventional channels of distribution, keeping the benefits from royalties, and at the same time they could take advantage of internet and social networks to promote and spread their music.

On their side, digital contents consumers could enjoy a double option: they could download the music for free, easily and legally, or they could, at the same time, buy a traditional format album. Uhrlaut Records' bet worked because of the added value: each album published is a limited edition which includes a musical and a visual (in a dvd) aspect and a carefully designed presentation, transforming each work in a valuable piece for itself. Their most recent release, 40 by Periskop, is presented in vinyl and USB key.

Uhrlaut Records' model deprives musical piracy from its reason, competing in equal terms and improving the offer to consumers, while it maintains artists' rights intact. It assumes that technology is not the enemy and that trying to fight against technical progress with a forbidding mentality is sentencing the affected industries to slow, but still unavoidable, death.

Popularization of audio streaming services, and their co-existence with the come back of formats that seemed forgotten, like vinyl, confirm that the channel synergy foreseen by Villum and Petersen in 2007 was the way. A way that is still to be walked.