My column this week is on the strange recent phenomenon of big-name artists–Kid Rock, excellent new R & B singer Estelle–keeping their popular singles off iTunes and then finding themselves outperformed on the charts by anonymous studio hacks pimping copycat versions through the service. It’s a story I might’ve missed if it weren’t for Chris Molanphy‘s regular fine-toothed combing of the Billboard charts on Idolator.

He and I recently had a little IM chat about it.

Hey dude. How’s it going?

Not bad–a little foggy, getting over a cold . . .

Bummer. So let’s talk copycat acts.

Sure thing–will do my best.

So you and I are some of the only people who’ve listened to the Hit Masters version of “All Summer Long” on purpose. What’s your opinion on their rendition?

Basically, I found it credible . . . The vocalist “covering” Kid Rock did a passable bar-band job at imitating the vocal.

I think the vocalist actually gives a better performance than Kid Rock.

By “better,” do you mean more on-key? That I could believe.

A little fuller sounding.

Kid’s not known for his great vocals. Witness the VMA performance.

But credible showing or not, people who’ve bought it on iTunes are pissed.

Yeah, the comments have been nasty, haven’t they . . . In general, people feel misled, I assume?

A lot of people blame Kid Rock for them wasting 99 cents on a cover version.

In a cosmic sense, I can see their point. It’s a somewhat naive accusation, sure . . . But I can see how in a larger sense, it’s his fault for “making” them buy an inferior version for less than the price of his album. I mean, you’d think people would blame the cover artists or the no-name label obviously capitalizing on Kid’s success with the cover. But instead–in a web-fueled era of “give me what I want”–they (the consumers) blame the guy who didn’t allow them to have their 99-cent download.They [the cover artists and labels] are just filling a niche. I’m making them sound selfish/entitled, and to some extent they are . . . but I also feel their anger is somewhat justified in that Kid’s behavior defies what is now a well-established norm. ITunes is five years old, after all, and the consumer has (rightfully) come to assume any big radio hit can be purchased there for a buck.

And boycotting it just doesn’t work.

Right–boycotting doesn’t work, as the Estelle example shows better than the Kid’s.

I had to reread the part about the cover song being five spots ahead of the original a couple of times before it sank in.

Freaky, eh? Well, and don’t forget . . . That has less to do with consumer preference than it does with the way the modern Hot 100 is skewed toward sales over airplay. Estelle’s original is charting entirely on airplay now (or at least until next week, when her iTunes sales return). The cover is charting entirely on sales. The cover’s sales trump her (substantial) airplay.

But I’m sure she and Atlantic don’t feel too good about being trounced on the Hot 100 by the Studio All Stars.

Maybe. It helps that both songs are outside the Top 40, so less likely to be noticed by the rank-and-file pop fan. However . . . This song-removal has now been so well publicized that numerous media outlets are reporting her performance more closely than they were before. So it’s embarrassing for them no matter what–at least a little. But the larger truth for them–and, I suspect, what fueled the reversal–is the album numbers. The sales of ‘Shine’ *are* up–but they’re still pretty anemic. Moving from 4,000-plus per week to 5,000-plus per week is nice (about a 15-20 percent boost), but it’s not the result they were hoping for, I think. After all, Kid Rock’s album is now moving upwards of 50-100K per week.

Someone big like Kid Rock or Jay-Z can almost afford to avoid iTunes. They seem to make it into a personal battle.

Yeah. A smaller, less popular artist like Estelle seems more vulnerable. Especially since most people only know the one single, and iTunes is perfect for delivering that. Basically, as I said in my special column two weeks ago, Atlantic is trying to repeat various versions of the no-singles policies the labels adopted in the ’90s. They tried the “established rock act releases no single” model. Now they’re trying the “developing act/potential one-hit-wonder” model–and the consumer isn’t taking the bait.

You think it’s a failed gambit?

Ultimately, yes. I mean, (a) they’ve already reversed themselves, but (b), for the reason you’ve just cited, it’s not a tactic well-suited to a developing act.

Are labels and dudes like Kid Rock going to have to suck it up and admit that they have to work with iTunes?

Dunno about Kid Rock . . . I think he’s heading into Eagles-AC/DC territory–a loyal following by a rock-loving, album-buying crowd. But the labels? Yeah, probably. iTunes commands literally 20 percent of the *entire* U.S. music-buying economy–that’s everything, physical, digital, etc. You can’t afford to cut that off entirely.

It’s become a behemoth.

Totally. Y’know, ten years ago, when the U.S. economy was booming and the CD had no competition, the labels could push the idea that the album was the smallest, or only, unit of measure for music purchasing. Even for acts with a single hit, like Lou Bega or Eiffel 65. But for the Estelles of this world, ten years later–and I like “American Boy,” and I hope it’s not her last hit, but still–there’s a competing medium, and it’s too big to ignore. For the labels, there’s no way to cut out iTunes.

Yeah, Estelle’s good. I hope her label doesn’t fuck it up for her.

Me neither! I don’t know how powerful her management is, what kind of pull they have at Atlantic . . . but put it this way: Mathew Knowles would never tolerate his daughter’s music getting pulled from iTunes, unless Beyonce’s label made a damn good case that she could see a Kid Rock-like boost in album sales as a result–AND not antagonize her fans. Maybe Estelle’s management told Atlantic, “Enough!”

This is the type of situation that makes managers explode with rage.

Yup! Becuase the fan complaints filter back to them. And the artists hate looking anti-fan.