About three weeks ago, Asthmatic Kitty, the small independent label that is home to Sufjan Stevens and an assortment of smaller acts, sent out a kind of tortured email. It was directed, in theory, at prospective buyers of Sufjan’s then-upcoming, now just-released Age of Adz, and laid out all the different options consumers would eventually have in terms of buying the record: everything from illegally downloading it to buying it more or less directly from Asthmatic Kitty to taking advantage of Amazon’s steep, $3.99 discount. It was an uncommonly blunt (if not entirely clear) portrait by a small label of the difficult economics of releasing a new record in 2010, and seemed worth following up on — so we did, writing Michael Kaufmann, A&R for Asthmatic Kitty Records. We asked Kaufmann to help guide us through all the tough decisions a label like Asthmatic Kitty must make in between receiving a new record from a guy like Sufjan Stevens and finally putting it on the market. He was kind of enough to oblige:
Walk me through, for lack of a better word, the decision tree a small label like Asthmatic Kitty faces when handed a new Sufjan Stevens record. What are your expectations to start with — charting in the Billboard top 10? Or are they more modest than that?
First it should be known we are a small tree, two full-time employees and five part-time employees. We do however have the benefit of having some great partners at SC Distribution who help guide us through the decision process of setting sales expectations and some marketing plans. This way we have a rough idea how many albums we should physically manufacture and where we should be sending those albums. We try not to think too much about the Billboard charts; while it is an honor to be included our primary goal is to provide fans and new customers a variety of points of sale.
OK, then Amazon comes along, and more or less tells you they’re going to be selling the record at a steep discount during its first week of release — undercutting you guys, among other people. On the one hand, you’ve been just offered the Arcade Fire-patented recipe for outsized indie success — Sufjan is probably now going to sell a bunch more records. On the other, they’re playing with your money, and the fundamental value of your product. How do you guys balance those two conflicting incentives?
Unfortunately we poorly communicated this point. As Sufjan sings, “words are futile devices.” When we first heard about the potential Amazon deal we were very excited to participate. For a small label like our own this was a great opportunity for essentially free marketing. It is a great program, Amazon is doing this as a loss leader, and therefore we still make the same amount of money we would have made at the regular sale price.
So I am sure many folks are thinking, “What in the world is our problem?” What gave us pause was that we were also offering the album at a higher price and we wanted to make sure our customers knew that it would be available for half that price on street date through Amazon. We wanted to be honest and transparent about the coming deal so that folks who preordered at a higher price didn’t feel like they have been misinformed, or had a lack of information to make an informed choice.
We never wanted to impose any sort of guilt on our consumers. To me this is in large part of what the record industry has been doing wrong: criminalizing music lovers. However, the message when taken away from the intended audience and often taken out of context read as if we were guilting people into buying direct from us. This was certainly not our intention, and if we had known this was how it was going to be perceived, we certainly would not have sent the email.
What we wanted to do was provide choices. And in the process we thought it would be an interesting opportunity to give food for thought on the perceived worth (or value) of an album. But that discussion should have taken place in a different context. The intent was certainly not to criticize of Amazon’s approach. Rather, we hoped to spark conversation and examination of our methods of doing business real time with our customers. We didn’t realize this spark was going to blow something up in our faces. Again, what we intended as a cursory thought of the email became the main focus of its criticism.
Were you surprised about all the blowback you got from fans after you sent that first email trying to explain your plight?
The funny thing is that the response from intended recipients was overwhelmingly positive. People appreciated that we were alerting them to the various available price points of the record. They expressed their gratitude for alerting them to the choices at hand.
What was surprising however, was how quickly that message was converted into something else for an entirely different and unintended audience. Not only were we surprised, but we were saddened that folks thought we were biting the hand that feeds us (music buyers, distributors, retailers). We were especially surprised that people assumed that Sufjan had written the message. Sufjan is a prolific individual, but preparing for a full US tour, doing press for the new album, and rehearsing a band doesn’t leave much time for writing marketing emails to our customers. While Sufjan is part owner of the label, he is not involved with the day-to-day decisions and operations of the label.
Now, two weeks before the release, the record leaks — how does that change the calculus? Were you guys crushed?
Not in the least. We expected it to leak much sooner in fact. And our concern with it leaking was not that it would minimize sales, but that it would no longer enable us to build anticipation for the album. It was fun being the ones to tease out more information and more music. Now, I anticipate a lot of people calling bullshit on that statement, but I say that with complete honesty. I have always believed that people buy records not to hear them but to own them. It is very easy to hear a record anytime you want. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact we have decided to embrace this as evident by our choosing to stream the album through NPR, MBVMusic, and utilizing Bandcamp in the same capacity. We are convinced that streaming an album does not hurt overall sales and that it is fair to a consumer to test drive an album before they make a decision about whether or not to purchase.
Was the decision to then stream the record at NPR a method of combating/controlling the leak? Or was that in place before? What are the pros and cons for a label like Asthmatic Kitty of doing this kind of partnership with a place like NPR?
The stream with NPR was a very conscious decision. It is unfortunate so many music publications have had to call it quits, but it is also exciting to see music journalism begin to take a crowdsourced form via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. I hope this dynamic reaches an equilibrium. I feel there is value in the filters of music journalists who have spent a lot of time and energy building their craft to help their readers make decisions about what to explore in the massive and overwhelming sea of music releases. NPR is one of these respected filters. Working with NPR also helps us reach an audience that isn’t scouring the blogs for music news. It’s an effective point of contact for a large portion of our fan base.
And now, looking forward: as you guys predicted in the original email you sent out, your potential customers are faced with a cornucopia of consumption options: illegal downloads, Bandcamp, Amazon, Other Music, etc. What do you hope they do? Is there anything you guys can do as a label to steer them/us in that preferred direction?
We want them to have the opportunity to hear our releases. We want them to have the opportunity to listen. We want them to take active part in deciding what it is worth to them to own our music by deciding how they purchase. The last thing we want to do is dictate price or guilt someone into a particular point of sale. That is pretentious for us to think we even can. It is a complex mechanism that involves supply, demand and all the other facets that make a market economy. We have our opinion, but that isn’t meant to be an authoritative statement.
We do want to encourage folks to support us, and they are supporting us whether they buy it from Amazon, iTunes, eMusic, Bandcamp or from their local record store. So ultimately their decision of where they buy and how much they pay is trivial, because they chose to support us in an age where it is so easy to just download for free.
And why do we want them to support us, why do we want them to buy the new Sufjan album? So we can continue to put out albums by other musicians who use the financial support to continue to focus on their craft, as well as support our employees. We are committed to our artists for the long term whether they are turning a profit or not. And in many cases on our label they are not turning a significant profit to sustain their career. We use the profits from Sufjan’s albums, in large part, to maintain and develop these artists. While we would love to see all of our artists get to a point where they are self-sustaining, we realize this isn’t always a realistic expectation, but we are going to continue to release and promote them regardless because they are part of our community and we believe they are making important music. This is the challenging balance between running a business and believing in an operating ideology. We have never dropped an artist for financial reasons and we do not have any intention of doing so in the future.
Finally, situate Asthmatic Kitty in a larger universe for me. What makes you different from a major, or from Matador Records, for that matter? What are your prospects for the future compared to theirs and in general, in a world where, in the words of your label, “the internet swirls with bittorrents and rapidshares and full-album-mp3-blogs and heavily discounted pricing”?
I can’t speak for the majors or Matador, but I can say there is hope for good music regardless of the perceived value of an album or if the concept of an album even exists in the future. We remain very optimistic. We started off as a philanthropic effort to support our musical friends. If the bottom drops out, we’ll figure out a way continue supporting our family of artists. The support might be limited financially, but hopefully overflowing with passionate encouragement to our artists to make the records they want to make.