This weekend, my colleague Otis Hart pointed out an intriguing new innovation that Walmart has made in the field of digital music. In a banner advertisement pointing to a performance by Big Boi for the retail giant's Soundcheck video series, listeners were offered an "exclusive free mp3."
But check out that asterisk after "free mp3."
"While Supplies Last?" Perhaps this is just poor word choice? No chance that Walmart, which has been in the digital music game since 2004, doesn't understand that mp3s have traditionally been an ephemeral format that doesn't take up shelf space. That's been the appeal, right?
Could it be that Walmart has found a way to fuse small, highly compressed samples of rhythmically repetitive audio to trinkets that they'll ship to the first 5000 listeners who click through? (Sign me up for a commemorative Sir Lucious Left Foot coin!) Maybe the key word is "exclusive," and the asterisk is Walmart's way of coolly acknowledging the inevitability that digital music will break free from its source and become a universally distributed commodity that gains value from its ubiquity rather than a market price. If Walmart decides to return my request for comment, I'll give you a definitive answer.
Also curious: when you link through to the performance (and you should, just for the opportunity to see Big Boi's horn section get the close-up it deserves during "Daddy Fat Sax"), you can buy the digital download for $11.98, or the CD for $10.00. Fair warning, consumers: as ever with the big W, both CD and mp3 options are the "edited version" of the album.
Update: Shocking twist! NPR Music's own Amy Schriefer says we do this too. According to Amy, "When we offer a free sampler via iTunes, they can only negotiate a limited number of gratis licenses from labels for giveaways so they can compensate/account for publishing."
I guess it's a good reminder that even when a download is "free," somebody's paying for it.