2020-08-30 00:49:33 UTC
By Jon Caramanica
Over the last couple of years, Rory Ferreira, a.k.a. the avant-garde
hip-hop artist R.A.P. Ferreira, noticed that on Discogs, an online
record marketplace that specializes in resales, the physical
versions of his albums were trading for several times their original
So when planning the vinyl release of his latest album, "Purple
Moonlight Pages," he decided to charge accordingly.
"I'm not going to knock anyone's hustle. I just need to make sure
mine is calibrated accordingly, too," he said in a phone interview
In July, he offered the "Purple Moonlight Pages" vinyl for $77, an
unusually high price, even for a double LP. Although the album had
been available on streaming services for months, he sold all 1,500
copies available on his website. And on Instagram, he began replying
to feedback about the cost, both positive and negative. To one
exasperated fan, he wrote, "look we get it. you don't value yourself
or what you make. the rest of us not on that. kick rocks now."
Charging $77 for an album might be a reach even in the best of
times, but it's especially ambitious in the current music business
climate, where the album itself has become increasingly devalued.
The growth of subscription streaming services like Spotify and Apple
Music has, in under a decade, almost completely detached albums and
songs from a specific dollar value.
So what, if anything, is an album truly worth in 2020? Depends on
the business model.
"I do think music has value, but the value is not on the monetary
side," said Steve Carless, Nipsey Hussle's business partner and
co-manager. "Technology has deteriorated that." Thanks to the
abstraction of the artist from the music on streaming services, and
the rise of social media and the intimacy it creates between stars
and fans, physical music is no longer the primary way artists
capture their followers' attention and dollars.
"Music has now become the vehicle," Carless added. "Before it was
what was at the end of the equation. Now it's at the beginning of
In short: For the most popular artists, the album itself is just one
small part of a multiplatform business, and nowhere near the most
profitable one. While they still do a healthy business in physical
sales, and sometimes find ways to squeeze additional profits from it
-- Taylor Swift recently offered eight different deluxe editions of
her new album, "Folklore" -- generally the album is the thing that
sets the table for far more ambitious revenue streams: merchandise,
touring, licensing and more.
That's at one extreme. At the other are small artists or labels with
devoted fan bases, for whom the album remains at the center of the
financial conversation, and still a lucrative proposition on its
All of which is to say that it's harder than ever to determine, in a
pure sense, the value of an album. Unlike in the CD or LP eras, when
the market prices for records were essentially consistent, now the
album is valued on a sliding scale -- for most people, using
streaming services, access to an album is (or feels) free; the most
dedicated, however, will put their money where their fandom is.
This has wreaked havoc on record label business models, and also on
the Billboard charts. In order to encourage immediate sales, artists
looking for an opening week No. 1 began bundling albums with other,
higher-priced items. Nowadays, an artist's album release can often
look more like the opening of a clothing store.
Billboard's latest attempt to rein in bundling goes into effect in
October, with a mandate that music must be promoted as an explicit
add-on purchase to tickets or merch, with the cost disclosed to the
It's another adjustment meant to keep the album chart as purely
about music as possible (even as the very idea of an "album" as a
formally aggregated work of art is now in crisis, following the rise
of playlisting and the increasingly prevalent drip-drip approach to
releasing new music). But with the business of being a popular
musician increasingly weighted toward non-album revenue streams, the
chart's entire meaning has become fuzzy.
As before, an album needs to cost at least $3.49 to count on the
charts, a number arrived at in 2011, when digital album sales were
more of a threat than album streaming. Compared to a T-shirt or
hoodie that costs $50, or a concert ticket that might cost a few
times that, that price of the album is incidental -- the monetary
value of the fandom is captured by something other than the music.
But this is a recent development. Before the streaming era, artists
were attempting to extract maximum value from the album itself.
Perhaps the highest-profile example is the Wu-Tang Clan album "Once
Upon a Time in Shaolin." The group made one copy of it available,
and it sold at auction in 2015 for $2 million to the since-disgraced
pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli, who surrendered it to
federal authorities in 2018.
Part of the inspiration for the Wu-Tang auction was the release of
Hussle's 2013 mixtape, "Crenshaw." Hussle, perhaps the first artist
in the modern era to propose a premium pricing model for a dying
medium, offered physical copies of "Crenshaw," for $100, using the
slogan "Proud2Pay." (The mixtape was available for free online.) He
sold out 1,000 copies. To demonstrate that the "Crenshaw" release
wasn't a fluke, he upped the ante with his next release, "Mailbox
Money," offering 100 copies at $1,000; all of them sold out too.
Hussle understood that the physical album was no longer a music
delivery system, but a proxy for fan enthusiasm, a merch totem of
its own. This was an especially key development in an era when
physical sales were in decline and streaming services with their own
economic interests were on the verge of inserting themselves as
crucial middlemen between artists and fans.
Carless described Hussle's intent as "Let's stop looking at the
majority, focus on the minority" -- courting those listeners who
were passionate and resourced enough to pay. The CD itself, numbered
and signed, became "an important keepsake," Carless said, and it
came with certain fan privileges -- a phone number they could use to
reach Hussle, a private concert. (Hussle released "Crenshaw" the
same year Patreon, which proposed a similar tiered model of
financial relationship between artist and fan, opened for business.)
Perhaps more crucially, Hussle's unconventional pricing model was
also profitable at the album level. Generally speaking, a tiny
sliver of top streaming pop stars can earn back the expenses of
making an album purely on stream revenue. For the vast majority of
artists, that's an out-of-reach goal.
One group that still makes money off its music? The rap duo Run the
Jewels. "I definitely know artists at both ends of the spectrum who
look at it as a loss leader, but Run the Jewels just doesn't happen
to look at it that way," said Amaechi Uzoigwe, the group's manager,
who added that each of the duo's albums has been profitable -- via
streaming and physical sales -- even though they give away downloads
What this underscores is something Hussle knew, and something
Radiohead figured out more than a decade ago: There are tiers of
fans. Some -- most, actually -- will pay nothing for music. But the
few who are willing to pay can more than offset them. In 2007,
Radiohead released its seventh album, "In Rainbows," via a
pay-what-you-wish download, and in various physical formats; three
million people paid for a copy.
On the online record marketplace Bandcamp, around 80,000 albums are
sold per day. Half of them are digital: the average price for those
albums -- many of which are pay-what-you-wish -- is $9, though
according to Joshua Kim, chief operating officer of Bandcamp, some
fans will voluntarily pay several times that; in one case, a fan
paid $1,000 for an album.
Kim said that the fastest growing part of Bandcamp's business is
physical sales, particularly vinyl. "We view Bandcamp as a place
where music is valued as art," he said. "Physical formats are
probably the most concrete expression of that." He likened consumers
willing to pay a premium for music they can otherwise get for free
to those who shop for organic food or ethically sourced clothing,
finding value in "compensating artists fairly."
That perspective is consistent with what Ferreira has seen in his
fan base. He noticed at shows that some fans bought copies of albums
they already owned -- "talismans," he called them -- as a show of
financial and creative support: "I'm a poor guy from poor people
from a poor place," he said. "Thinking that somebody might own
several copies of one project just because they wanted you to keep
going was totally foreign to me."
In the living room of his home in Nashville last month, Ferreira
laid out hundreds of record mailers and all the copies of "Purple
Moonlight Pages," and planned for several days of work -- he is a
business of one.
Despite the pushback he received from some fans, Ferreira doesn't
view his $77 vinyl as a premium product. He said that he values
these newest songs, which were more expensive for him to make and
reflect greater maturity as an artist, more highly than his older
songs, and felt that should be reflected in the price. "The music is
the premium product," he said. "It's just that there are some people
who are at a place in their life where it's kind of nice to be able
to style out and buy something nice that you believe in."
For those people, he was excited about the process of individually
packing up his albums and shipping them out. It was a way to keep
his focus on the music, and its true value. "I don't want to sell a
lot of T-shirts," he said. "I did not start rapping because I like