Rapper Jay Rock’s sophomore album 90059 was released last Friday, but it may have come out next month. Or next year. It depended how many fans were going to pay $13 for the pre-order on iTunes. The rapper and his label, Top Dawg Entertainment, unveiled a novel approach for releasing an album in 2015: Wait until enough pre-orders were filled before deciding demand was strong enough to warrant a release.
“It’s always been fans first for me since day one,” Anthony Tiffith, chief executive of Top Dawg Entertainment, label home for Rock and Kendrick Lamar, declared August 27th on Instagram. “You guys are really in charge of this new Jay Rock release.”
The we’ll-put-it-out-once-we-get-the-cash approach is novel for the music business, although author Stephen King once tried a similar idea, selling online chapters of his serial novel The Plant based on fans’ payments. And it’s similar to Kickstarter album campaigns, like R&B group TLC’s pledge earlier this year to release its final album sometime this fall upon raising $150,000. (The group raised $450,000 overall, but has yet to announce a date.)
“You have to look at the broad concepts of release dates and albums as evolving right now, as the industry changes,” says Alex Luke, a venture capitalist and former executive for iTunes and major label EMI. “It makes a lot of sense to set up the project with something like this.”
Not every fan is supportive of Top Dawg’s approach, though, which included advance streaming of “Gumbo” and “Money Trees Deuce” via Spotify and other services and selling three tracks for $1.29 each via iTunes. “In this day and age, artists work so hard and then watch their work get snatched up for free. But that doesn’t make getting dicked around by TDE any nicer,” one commenter wrote on the album’s iTunes pre-order page, echoing one strain of fan sentiment. “It’s driving me crazy waiting for a simple update on the release date. Poopin on the fans, man.” (A Top Dawg rep did not return emails and phone calls for this story.)
“It’s interesting when you start with ‘it’s always been fans first’ — not to bag on him, but it’s sort of like ‘Jay first,'” says Cory Llewellyn, a former Sony and Universal digital-music executive who runs online-marketing company Transmission Media. “‘If you don’t give me the money for the record, I’m not going to put it out.’ Saying it’s in control of the fans — to me, that doesn’t sound right.”
Llewellyn prefers the opposite approach, in which artists give away music for free, then sell a concert ticket, vinyl LP, artwork, or, in the case of Wilco, a chance to win handwritten lyrics or an undeveloped disposable camera. But if Top Dawg’s 90059 pre-order campaign turns into big sales, will it set a template for other labels to follow? “I don’t see this as being the norm,” Llewellyn says. “You want to feel like it’s easy and effortless and generous.”