Sufjan Stevens and Asthmatic Kitty Take on Amazon, Bootleggers, And You, Maybe


Perhaps you’ve heard that Brooklyn troubadour Sufjan Stevens has a new album. It comes out October 12th, and has a poetically appropriate name, The Age of Adz, though for some reason he wants to you pronounce that last word as “odds.” You can preorder it now, on CD, LP, or MP3, and get a digital download of the record two weeks before it’s officially released. Those two weeks will surely be a happy time, filled with much internet delight and Twitter glee. And then the second week of October will come around, and Asthmatic Kitty, Stevens’s label–and by extension you, the consumer–will find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. That dilemma, in the words of a beseeching email recently sent out to a list of Stevens’s fans:

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.

Asthmatic Kitty goes on to suggest some options: the aforementioned preorders, which can be made via the indie music digital retailer Bandcamp; moseying on down to your local independent record store; Amazon, iTunes, et al; and, finally, illegally downloading the record once it’s out, though they’d prefer that you didn’t. Why bothering explaining all of this to us?

Because the label is clearly ambivalent about its own options, and they’re passing on that confusion to you. Here, though they decline to come right out and say it, is why they’re allowing Amazon to sell Stevens’s record at a price far below what they’d like to get for it: because the Arcade Fire did the same thing, and ended up with a #1 record out of the deal. The Suburbs went #1 in large part because of similar discount sales on Amazon–62 percent of the album’s first week sales were came in the form of digital downloads–and Asthmatic Kitty clearly have their eye on that same prize, though in Sufjan’s case, their goals are probably a bit more modest.

So why aren’t Asthmatic Kitty excited at the news that Amazon seems prepared to roll out the same discount red carpet for them? It’s not the money, exactly: back in August, Ben Sisario did a little digging and found that the arrangement typically involves Amazon selling at a loss, and then turning around and paying the label its regular wholesale price. Often, as in the case of The Suburbs, at a greatly increased volume. (Amazon does this to steal market-share from iTunes, a strategy that is apparently working). What’s the problem then?

Asthmatic Kitty is being pretty coy here, so it’s hard to say for sure. But there are some clues here. Consider, for instance, the email’s introduction of Bandcamp, the label’s digital vending partner:

We are very much like Bandcamp. We are similarly sized companies (under 10 employees!). Both of us are dwarfed by companies doing the same thing but with seemingly limitless amounts of resources. Our dealings with Bandcamp have been honest and that’s a rare find. And like us, they believe artists and musicians should get what’s due them. Like us, they believe in the shiny ideal that someone can still possibly maybe perhaps surely make a decent living singing and writing and playing their best. We think that they also think that good music is worth something. This all while the internet swirls with bittorrents and rapidshares and full-album-mp3-blogs and heavily discounted pricing. So this is us, both out here on the raggedy edge.

And honestly, we like it here.

In fact, there are lots of us out there, doing what we do because we love to do it and hoping somebody pays us long enough to keep doing it a little while longer.

All bolds ours, of course, but there’s your story, right there: the label is trying to balance short-term gain (more sales of the new Sufjan) with the sneaking suspicion that, in the long-run, relatively small indies like Asthmatic Kitty will be crushed by gigantic retailers like Amazon and iTunes, who might one day wake up and decline to continue paying wholesale rates to labels for $3.99 digital downloads.

And of course, there’s a more general concern, too: not for nothing do we hear about “bittorrents and rapidshares and full-album-mp3-blogs and heavily discounted pricing.” If you condition your target consumer base to expect things for free, or at a steep discount, you will quickly end up with very few people willing to pay actual money for your product. Sufjan doesn’t work cheap, necessarily. And marketing, promotion, manufacturing, and recording still cost money. It’s got to come from somewhere. What you’re seeing here is a label trying desperately to figure out where that place might be. Chillingly, they seem to have no idea.

“We hope you’ll be that somebody that keeps paying us a little while longer, in whatever way you think most appropriate,” the label signs off. Translation? They’d tell you if they knew.