Many rap fans probably didn’t notice a couple weeks ago when Taylor Swift’s Speak Now debuted, selling over a million copies in its first week–the fastest sprint to that number since Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, in 2008. You know who definitely noticed though? Kanye West. There was a lot of speculation, earlier in the month, that West would look to do whatever he could to match or beat the woman with whom he’s spent the last year inextricably linked. And now–after the stellar reviews have come in, capped, we should note, by a perfect 10.0 on Pitchfork today–we know just how badly West wants it.
How badly? Today, you can cop West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for the low, low, low price of $3.99 on Amazon. They don’t do that without the label’s permission, and it’s not like plenty of people wouldn’t be more than happy to pay full price. But this has become the go-to strategy for making a sales splash in 2010. Letting Amazon sell their record for $3.99 took both the Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend to #1. It took Sufjan Stevens to #7 (after a lot of agonizing from his label, Asthmatic Kitty.) The fact that West–the most overdog artist out right now, bar none–is employing the same tactic that struggling indies have used this year to insert themselves into the conversation is indication of just how desperately he wants to sell a bunch of records this week. (It also helps that Taylor Swift did the same thing when her record came out at the end of October, as our comment section points out.)
Sure, that desire to go #1 was obvious before today. But if you had any doubts about how far he was willing to go, consider them laid to rest. It’s also an indication of how intently Amazon is trying to become a player in the world of music retail–while iTunes’s still dominant market share has stayed stagnant for most of the last year, Amazon’s has grown, and their willingness to take a loss on one of the biggest records of the year (generally, Amazon pays the same wholesale rate to the label, in this case Def Jam, then turns around and takes the loss themselves from consumers) shows how seriously they’re coming for a spot at the table.
Why is this news? Def Jam, Kanye, and Amazon all have a stake in making sure that records continue to be worth money. And yet the rush toward ever lower pricing, as Asthmatic Kitty pointed out when they went through this same dilemma, pushes the consumer cost of an album ever closer to that terrifying price point: free. Nobody in the industry wants that, let alone a guy poised to sell something in the neighborhood of a million records over the next week. And yet he and they are doing it anyway. Will Kanye’s unending pride and ambition save or ruin his industry? Tune in next week–and the next time West has an album out that he’s hoping to sell for money–to find out.