A Brave New World?

Saul WilliamsAs the dust slowly settles after last year’s excitement, the success and viability of offering music on the internet with a choice to pay or not is now under close scrutiny. Radiohead’s effort with In Rainbows is, of course, the subject of great discussion. However, more interesting is the debate sparked over Saul Williams’ The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust, as the main voices in the debate are Williams himself and Trent Reznor, who produced the album.

At the beginning of January, Reznor posted the sales figures for the album on his blog, expressing disappointment that only 18.3% of those who downloaded it chose to pay for it. Although, he does point out that, while Saul’s previous record sold 33,897 copies, this one has already made its way into the collections of 154,449 people without proper promotion.

In an interview with CNET, Reznor wonders why so few people chose to pay the “insultingly low” price of $5. However, in a separate interview with the website, Williams is more optimistic. “The only thing that I really have kept in mind is that, one, we’re two months into a project. An album is not like a film, so that like, ‘Oh, we did it, two months and it’s done, now it’s going straight to DVD.’” He says.

He also talks about the freedom releasing an album like this has given him. “I had people at Sony take me into the office and tell me, ‘But that’s not hip-hop. Your album isn’t hip-hop.’ To me that’s what this is really about. By releasing it online and not dealing with the labels, it gave me an opportunity for once as an artist that I didn’t have to compromise in the face of people who have limited ideas and conceptions about what it is to be black and make music.”

That said, artists still need to eat. So, is this an economical way to sell music? The sales figures posted by Reznor equate to $141,610 (£71,963). For your average pair of unsigned musicians, this would be a pretty phenomenal amount of money, but Saul Williams and Trent Renzor are not an average pair. Both have already made a name for themselves through traditional music industry channels and Niggy Tardust wasn’t recorded in a bedroom using the sparse collection of free samples that came with some knocked-off software. It was recorded and mixed (by Alan Moulder) properly, and that doesn’t come cheap (Williams admits that the Public Enemy sample on Tr(n)igger alone cost around $10,000). Because of this, you could argue that Reznor and Williams have in fact forced themselves into the position of your average independent artist, struggling to cover costs and crossing their fingers that they might one day break even.

You could also argue that quibbling over the sales figures for an album is elementary, because now the money’s all in merchandise and concert ticket sales. But tell that to the bands sitting in the back of vans, travelling up and down the country, just about covering their petrol costs. If recorded music no longer has any perceived value, it cuts off a revenue stream for independent artists already low on income.

Until one of these artists makes a success of a self-released download album, there is no debate to be had on the viability of the pay-if-you-want sales model. Even if all the major bands leave their labels tomorrow and set up like this, they can still afford to record in luxury, pay a PR company to promote them and rely on enough secondary sales to cover their backs. And if they can’t? Well, there’ll always be someone willing to front the money, even if they don’t call themselves a record company (though it’s worth pointing out that both Radiohead and Saul Williams both signed traditional deals for the physical releases of their new albums).

So, as the music industry changes to catch up with the internet generation, the real question may not be whether or not the new business models will work, but if they will make it easer or more difficult for independent musicians to operate. Or are these changes only cosmetic? Will anything really change at all?

Listen to Sunday Bloody Sunday (from Niggy Tardust)
Buy Niggy Tardust
Buy other Saul Williams music

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