Become the Vendor: How Artists Take Control of Album Releases

Make fans proud to listen, but also make them proud to pay.
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“Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?” —Walt Whitman, “Passage to India”

Chaos and disorder riddled the dawn of Napster. Here was a peer-to-peer program that gave pirates a treasure map to get songs and albums without the purchase expense. Music executives were facing a new-world-order on the internet, one that arrived without a knock. 

Steve Jobs, during a 2003 Apple Music Event, highlighted Napster as the application that best showed why the Internet was ideal for music delivery. The late innovator sought to tame the lawless space using iTunes as an honest middleman between catalogs and consumers.

In a recent New York Times eulogy to commemorate 18 years of the forward-thinking music store, tech columnist Kevin Roose explained the company's post-Napster vision: “Apple was betting that people would pay for music if it was made legal, cheap and easy.”

Two years preceding iTunes' launch as music’s safest online retailer, Prince and webmaster Sam Jennings created NPGMusicClub, a subscription-based website that, for a fee, granted access to exclusive music and content every month. 

By 2004, the exchange of dough for downloads expanded, with Musicology Download Store, a section on the site where fans could directly purchase albums—excluding the Warner Records-owned Sign 'O' the Times, Purple Rain, and 1999—by Prince. Just like Jobs, the immortal rockstar believed people would pay for music online if safe, reliable options were provided.

Understanding the internet as a tool of independent distribution is how Prince, without the support of a middleman, became a vendor. 

“This direct connection between the fans and an artist on Prince’s level didn’t exist before the NPG Music Club. There was no Twitter, Facebook or even YouTube. He saw direct Internet distribution as a model for all artists. He would tell me, if you could build your own music club, why would you need to pay anyone else a share and give away all your fans’ information?” —Sam Jennings, "How Prince revolutionized the Internet — according to the webmaster who helped him do it"

This same vendor philosophy existed in the mind of the late Nipsey Hussle, who, in 2013, sold 1,000 copies of his eighth mixtape, Crenshaw, for $100. Branded as #Proud2Pay, the campaign rewarded the most loyal Nipsey Hussle fans with special perks (concert tickets, access, new music early). “Always by choice, never by force,” the business-minded entrepreneur and activist told DJ Skee, a mantra that was always present throughout his short yet glorious career. 

In his 2013 interview with Forbes, Hussle expanded on the value of music in a free download economy. “We shouldn’t force people to buy it, what we should do is create different methods to monetize the association,” he said. 

Nip was right. To sell albums, an artist requires a thoughtful release strategy. By creating direct connections and unique experiences that don’t depreciate once the music ends, artists can fulfill Prince’s idea of creating a personal music club that requires no outside distribution. Control returns to the creators. It’s this mentality that drove Vic Spencer, a veteran independent emcee from Chicago, to consider alternative methods for selling his music.

“Instead of a site or service, what if they had to get my album from me directly?” Spencer said over the phone, describing the motivation behind making both 2018's A Smile Killed My Demons and his latest album, Things Change, I Don’t, available for purchase via PayPal or Cash App for $20.

The directness of Spencer's creator-to-customer plan isn't groundbreaking—it's selling CDs out the trunk of a car, just without the vehicle—but it is smart. So smart, in fact, that prodigious New Jersey rapper Mach-Hommy made headlines for selling mixtapes on Instagram ranging between $300 and $1,000. 

When asked to explain the aim of this exclusive and expensive approach, Hommy told music journalist Sweeney Kovar, in 2017: “I am the vendor.” Being the vendor means setting the price, controlling access, and keeping the lion's share of the profit. Being the vendor is independence. 

For Spencer, being the vendor also means securing the all-important customer connection. Fans who supported last year’s A Smile Killed My Demons have become returning patrons. “This method is bringing me closer to them, as opposed to me being on stage, or on tour,” he revealed. “Each time I get a notification, I stop what I’m doing and send the link. The lines of communication are open.” 

Fans in London and Hong Kong receive the same direct, immediate access to Spencer as fans in Chicago or Los Angeles. As with any business, delivering a winning product in a smooth and personal manner goes a long way toward helping secure repeat customers. Spencer's fans are engaged. Want more razor-blade talk and soul loops? He’s the sole supplier.

Besides buying music directly from the artist, Spencer also offers fans the option to critique his music. This creates a unique dialogue between consumer and creator. “Our conversations after they listen allows the maximum experience, the maximum interaction,” Spencer said.

Recently, Boston-born rapper, producer, and songwriter Latrell James held an intimate performance in his hometown. Instead of using the show to introduce his next project, James performed, in its entirety, The Sky Might Fall, an unreleased, 11-track album.

Although the project took two-and-a-half years to complete, rather than liberating the music for public consumption, the thoughtful creative is moving on. The Sky Might Fall has served its purpose without an official release, making the performance even more special for those in attendance. Unheard music soundtracked a night to remember. 

“There are no rules at all,” James said via text when asked how it feels to control what does and doesn't enter the world and how it reaches the people's ears. “The full advantage of being indie is we can work smaller. The lack of crazy budgets forces us to be creative. It’s a gift and a curse.”

Being signed to a record label means resources and visibility—far more than what they grant to most independent artists. But the opportunity to be the vendor is where an artist can win if they're interested and willing to cultivate unique experiences and build genuine connections. 

Release albums on Wednesday instead of Friday; upload songs to Black Planet instead of YouTube; go wherever you need to in order to reach listeners who want to be a part of your journey. 

Make fans proud to listen, but also make them proud to pay. 

By Yoh aka Things Change, Yoh Don't aka Yoh31

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