So there's this guy, Jay-Z, who mentored another guy, Kanye West. They both became fairly successful artists. One day, probably while getting drunk at a Parisian fashion show, they suddenly decide to do an album together. Get this, though: They are going to make it a digital exclusive for the first week. Go to your local Virgin Megastore (snort) and you won't see it there. Understandably, doing an iTunes and TopSpin exclusive for their Watch The Throne album annoyed a lot of people – well, officially about 75 independent music outlets. How do I know? They wrote a letter.
The real surprise was Jay-Z's response: Physical stores allow bootlegging. Not digital distribution. Physical distribution. Talk about throwing rocks at the throne.
This sounds fruitier than a box of Mike 'n' Ike's, but here's part of his explanation in a recent interview with radio personality Angie Martinez (Part 3, at 1:40):
I know there was a little problem with independent retailers… I feel bad, but… the real reason behind it was that we didn't want the music to leak… With the physical, once it leaves on the truck – that's the end of it.
Ouch. He elaborates a bit more, but the basic argument is that the chain is broken as soon as the CD ships. The album has to be sent to stores about two weeks before it is officially released – traditional policy – which means the truckers, the store managers, the salespeople, and everyone in between in the retail chain have the opportunity to unwrap it early and upload it to… your favorite torrent. And it only needs to be uploaded once.
I have to be honest: This idea totally wrecked my perception of bootlegging. For years the Record Industry Artists of America (RIAA) has blamed slumping music sales on the Internet. It's not only about the Internet, though: It's about how the antiquated physical distribution model is making bootlegging on the Internet easier. We're not talking about after the official release date, as that seems nearly impossible to prevent, but before the music is supposed to be available.
I absolutely love physical record stores, but what can they do? I'm not exactly sure, aside from dipping their toes into the cool digital waters, too. For every Blockbuster Video that moved too slow, there's a Netflix that was able to move their model smoothly from physical to digital. It's not impossible.
And this problem isn't going to go away. Remember Stephen King's digital-only book Riding the Bullet back in 2000? People called it a flop (well, a Stephen King flop) and said digital books hadn't yet arrived. A decade later, Amazon is selling more digital books than physical books. Good call on the future there.
I'm guessing this part of the story will end with Jay-Z and Kanye West having a number one album next week. I'm not sure what that means, but let's hope the salty indie stores find a moral of the parable.
And yes, I preordered weeks ago.