Singer-songwriter Fiona Apple's new CD ("Extraordinary Machine") arrives on shelves some time this month. Which is odd because "primitive" versions of 11 of its tracks appeared on music-sharing systems in 2004. Rumors abounded that Epic (her label) wasn't happy with it because it wasn't "commercial" enough. But critics and fans responded enthusiastically to the "premature" tracks, and Epic ultimately decided to release a finished version of the album.
Ms. Apple's experience suggests an approach that music publishers might take to test-marketing: Release a low-quality (say, 78 rpm--do you even recognize that reference? My kids have been making me feel old lately.) MP3 version of an album and see whether it gets any traction. If yes, launch the high-quality CD. (Of course, that won't do anything to stop people pirating the CD itself, but that's a different problem that I will resolve brilliantly in a future post.) A similar approach could be taken with books (release every other word), limericks ("A restive young man from South Bend / (You must pay if you read to the end) / ..."), single-panel cartoons (left half only) and movies (blurred, classical Greek soundtrack).
The point here is to get some benefit from the Internet's cheap, broad reach--benefit that usually accrues only to content pirates--by using it safely to "test the waters" for new material. (On reflection, this idea seems so obvious that it's probably already being done and I just haven't recognized it; if so, please don't burst my bubble--I'm off now to file a patent that will probably be judged both morally and legally indefensible.)