Sufjan Stevens Kibitzes w/




Songwriter’s label
attempts to strike a blow for small labels and indie record stores alike.


By Fred Mills


Those of you who track new releases and related ephemera (or
even those of you have spotted several tweets BLURT has put out on our Twitter
feed in the recent past) already know of the recent trend involving bands
having their albums offered at rock-bottom prices by upon their
initial release. Arcade Fire’s The
could be bought at Amazon for the amazingly low price of just $7.99
(“operators standing by to take your call!”) during its first week onsale at
the e-retailer, and more recently the Swans’ My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, issued this week (and
reviewed today at BLURT), could be nabbed for 24 hours for a mere $2.99.


Certainly, this practice has been in place at big box
retailers for a number of years, with Target, Best Buy and the now-defunct
Circuit City having first-week prices hovering around $9.99 for hot new
releases and even dipping down to as low as $7.99 for certain titles. However,
to take advantage of those prices you have to live in a city with one of those
stores, whereas in the case of Amazon, being online and selling via mail order
is what we can charitably term “ubiquitous.”


Now, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if Little
Johnny can in fact get his new music fix at $7.99 and below and he decides that’s
a frugal way to plan out his personal budget, if Little Johnny has also been a
regular shopper at the local mom ‘n’ pop or cool indie record store, well… somebody’s
gonna take it on the chin, and it’s not Little Johnny or Amazon. An indie store
simply can’t compete with those prices, although for a long time that
particular bullet was dodged due to the fact that bands like Arcade Fire and
Swans weren’t the usual stuff of first-week discounting. Instead, you’d see the
new Kanye West, Miley Cyrus or Avenged Sevenfold album in the Sunday newspaper
advertising flyers. Clearly, though, that situation has been gradually changing
to where more and more non-mainstream acts have been getting discounted, and
the Amazon deal is the latest manifestation of that shift.


Factor in the long-term effect, in which consumers
eventually decide that a new record should be priced at $7.99, and you can also
see where artists and small labels also may suffer. A label that can only
afford to press up, say, 5000 copies of a new release is going to pay more on a
per-copy basis compared to a bigger company that is having 100,000 – 500,000
copies of new releases made, which means that the smaller label’s already thin profit
margin gets eroded further by heavy discounting. (This isn’t a debate about
what the “right” price for an album should or should not be, by the way. What
you, the consumer, will or will not pay for any material goods is an entirely
private calculation.)



So into the debate steps Sufjan Stevens and his label
Asthmatic Kitty. (Thanks to Pitchfork for bringing this to our attention.)
Stevens has a new album due out Oct. 12 titled The Age of Adz, and apparently the label learned that Amazon was
going to go the low-initial price route – and isn’t totally sold on the idea.
Here’s a portion of an email the label sent out to people who had purchased
Stevens’ previous EP via Bandcamp:



“We have it on good
authority that Amazon will be selling
The Age of Adz for a very low price on release date, not unlike they did with Arcade
Fire’s recent (and really terrific)
The Suburbs. We’re not 100% sure Amazon will do this, but mostly sure.

“We have mixed feelings about discounted pricing. Like we said, we love getting
good music into the hands of good people, and when a price is low, more people
buy. A low price will introduce a lot of people to Sufjan’s music and to this
wonderful album. For that, we’re grateful.

“But we also feel like the work that our artists produce is worth more than a
cost of a latte. We value the skill, love, and time they’ve put into making
their records. And we feel that our work too, in promotion and distribution, is
also valuable and worthwhile.

“That’s why we personally feel that physical products like EPs should sell for
around $7 and full-length CDs for around $10-12 We think digital EPs should
sell for around $5 and full-length digital albums for something like $8.


“So you might wonder
why we’d “allow” Amazon to sell it for lower than that.

“There are several reasons why, but mostly? It’s because we believe in you. We
trust you and in your ability to make your own choice. Here are some you might
make if you decide to obtain the album:


*You can preorder the physical CD and LP. We
are currently taking preorders on both.

*You can preorder the digital album via
Bandcamp, starting right now.

*You can mosey on down to your local
independent record store and preorder or buy it there. 

*You can wait for whatever pricing may or
may not occur on the big broad Internet on release day. 

*Finally, you could just download the album
after it leaks without paying a dime from any number of sources on the
internet. (We’d rather you not.)”


The email goes on to outline the label’s arrangement for
pre-ordering and a bit about how their company operates, as well as Asthmatic
Kitty’s alliance with Bandcamp. It’s a pretty fascinating dialogue providing
much food for thought. You can read the entire email here.


What’s left unsaid are details on business deals that Amazon
strike with labels; one would presume that when a title is sold at the low
prices cited above, labels (small indies, big majors or otherwise) inform their
artists about it, so there is a certain degree of complicity that can’t be
overlooked. In that regard, this is also food for thought for the labels and artists,
and they’d be right to ask themselves: is there a subtle, hidden cost – a social
or psychological tariff – that accompanies those sweet Amazon first-week (or
first-day) deals? Based on all of the above, it sounds like Asthmatic Kitty and
Amazon have reached some sort of arrangement, but it’s definitely to the label’s
credit that it took these preemptive steps (call it “benevolent spin”?) to get people
thinking about the matter.




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