What is the true value of a free album?
As I’m rounding the corner of the final lap in the recording process of my next album, I’ve been asking myself this question on a frequent basis. There has been a lot of talk within my circle about how this album will be released and if we should make it available for free download or not.
Looking back on my previous two albums, it made sense for us to release them as free downloads. The first album, Marvelous World of Color, was an experimentation. The second album, Pyramids In Stereo, was an exploration of the sound Rodney Hazard and I had created on the first one. This album, as we’re beginning to wrap it up, sounds more established and feels whole. The two efforts prior to this one felt sporadic and uneasy to me. In retrospect, some of the songs and interludes that made their way on to the final bodies of work were out of place and were obvious contrasts to the standard of quality we upheld on the rest of the album. This time around, there is no filler and no excuses made for songs intended to thicken up the album. This body is the one. This one is complete.
But the question remains, should we release this album for free?
When I look at the download numbers from DJBooth, Bandcamp, Soundcloud and Audiomack combined for Pyramids In Stereo all signs tell me no. Altogether, if those downloads had been sales, both Rodney and myself would have earned enough money to comfortably reinvest back into our music and produce at least three high quality albums with a nice sized budget left over for promotion. If our downloads were sales the restrictions that we had creating this album would have been nonexistent.
Now, the next question is, if the album wasn’t free would just as many people have purchased it?
Absolutely not. Going into that album nobody knew who we were and putting it out as a pay-only release would have been a death sentence. Thankfully, off of the strength of our first album, there were a fair amount of people who purchased the album through DJBooth and iTunes, but nowhere near as many as the number of people who downloaded it for free. To this day, people are still discovering Pyramids In Stereo and the only reason why that album has had an impact is because it was free. By no means are we where we want to be, but releasing our last album for free allowed us to take a huge step forward.
So when does it make sense to transition from free releases into pay only albums?
I don’t know. Part of me wants to believe that now is the time, but if I’m being completely honest with myself I know that we’re just not there yet.
I love the idea of free music. The act of giving your creation to the world without asking for anything back is as pure and freeing a feeling as I can think of. It’s this pursuit of true artistry that first drove me to do graffiti and what continues to motivate me musically. I get excited knowing that there are no artistic boundaries surrounding me when I’m in the studio. I don’t have to adhere to an industry that puts dollars and cents before the music itself. I’m able to push myself into new creative dimensions and run through undiscovered artistic realms at will. It’s beautiful.
But then there are days when I’m taking the long train ride home from my 9-5 job and all I can think about is how to monetize the music. I’m exhausted, my eyes are burning and I have so many songs floating around in my head that it feels like it’s going to cave in from all of the words pressing up against my skull. It’s in these moments that I question the validity of free albums. Do the listeners see an intrinsic value in the music or is it just another folder of songs stacked on top of a pile of folders gathering dust on their computer desktops? Would they appreciate the music more if they had to pay for it?
I don’t know the answer to that question. On one hand, I can see how paying $10 for an album would initiate a deeper connection with fans based solely on the exchange of their hard earned money for music. But on the other hand, the altruistic side of me believes that the value lies in the art itself and not in the exchange. For example, Run The Jewels surprised us all by tweeting out a free link to RTJ2 prior to the official release. In my opinion, sending the music for free to their listeners was a genius move. The album, as was expected, was an instant classic and they knew that their fans (myself included) were aware of how important it was to support the project upon its release on iTunes. The quality of the music was so high that whether the album was free or for sale made no difference. The value was in the art and not the exchange.
Above all things, what I took away from El-P and Killer Mike’s latest effort is that the concepts of art and product can coexist peacefully. When you create a body of work so undeniably great you can give it away for free and your audience will voluntarily pay for it. But what does that mean for the rest of us? As much as I’d like to believe the contrary, Jason James x Rodney Hazard are not Run The Jewels.
For most of us that means we have to make a choice between art and product and in most cases product is the route that we take. Even just a surface level analysis of Hip Hop proves this theory. Rappers often will openly admit that their albums are manufactured by their respective labels. They do a song for themselves and then a song for the club. A song for themselves and then a song for radio. A song for themselves and then a song for the ladies. Their albums are littered with features from the hot rappers of the moment. Young Thug, YG, Future, etc., all of the usual suspects lined up exactly how you would expect them to be over beats from the popular producers of the day. You could literally take a knife, cut away the predictable beats, feature verses and hooks, radio and club songs and carve out the tiny nucleus of who that artist actually is. Unfortunately, upon doing this we end up with about 10% art and 90% product in this scenario.
To me, this is representative of what Hip Hop has become. It’s a product. The music is manufactured, the videos are crammed with other products you don’t need and the rapper is a puppet for industry interests. There is nothing interesting or progressive about it. It’s just the same thing over and over again.
For those of us who choose the art route we face a much more dangerous path and are often considered by both the industry and fans as being below the status quo. I don’t know why this is or how this frame of thought became the standard, but it is. There is little respect for those of us who are pushing the bar and we are typically viewed as industry rejects until we conform to the trends and dip into the muddy waters of the mainstream. Independence is perceived as a mark of the musical outcast rather than the calling card of artistic freedom.
I don’t really see any resolution to this issue because it’s just the way the collective consciousness of Hip Hop thinks. The media and blogs focus on insignificant garbage like Instagram rap beefs, YouTube views and record sales with very little attention paid to the music- the very thing that we’re all here for. Naturally the listeners fall in line with this way of thinking or risk being washed up on underground island with the rest of Hip Hop’s undesirables. Run The Jewels is a rare anomaly and I can only hope that more like them will emerge in the near future to save the rest of us from artistic purgatory.
Will I release my next album for free? Yes, the album will be available for free. But all I ask is that you keep this article in mind when (or if) you hit that download button. I chose to stay true to myself and pour my heart and soul into my art. What matters to me is the integrity of the music I’m handing over to you and nothing else. I am not creating a product designed specifically to pull ten dollars out of your bank account. I want to give you something valuable and hopefully you find it worthy enough to open your wallet and reinvest in. If not, that’s cool too. Just do me a favor and pass the link on so that the album will travel.
[Jason James is an artist, freelance columnist and writer for DJBooth.net. You can read/download his free eBook, "This Is My Rifle" and listen/download his most recent album, "Pyramids in Stereo". You can also contact him here and here.]