Over the last couple of years, Rory Ferreira, aka avant-garde hip-hop artist R.A.P. Ferreira, noticed that on Discogs, an online record marketplace that specializes in resales, the physical versions of his albums were trading for several times their original price.

So when planning the vinyl release of his latest album, “Purple Moonlight Pages,” he decided to charge accordingly.

“I’m not going to knock anyone’s hustle. I just need to make sure mine is calibrated accordingly, too,” he said in a phone interview last month.

In July, he offered the “Purple Moonlight Pages” vinyl for $77, an unusually high price, even for a double LP. Although the album had been available on streaming services for months, he sold all 1,500 copies available on his website. And on Instagram, he began replying to feedback about the cost, both positive and negative. To one exasperated fan, he wrote, “look we get it. you don’t value yourself or what you make. the rest of us not on that. kick rocks now.”

Charging $77 for an album might be a reach even in the best of times, but it’s especially ambitious in the current music business climate, where the album itself has become increasingly devalued. The growth of subscription streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music has, in under a decade, almost completely detached albums and songs from a specific dollar value.

So what, if anything, is an album truly worth in 2020? Depends on the business model.

“I do think music has value, but the value is not on the monetary side,” said Steve Carless, Nipsey Hussle’s business partner and co-manager. “Technology has deteriorated that.” Thanks to the abstraction of the artist from the music on streaming services, and the rise of social media and the intimacy it creates between stars and fans, physical music is no longer the primary way artists capture their followers’ attention and dollars.

“Music has now become the vehicle,” Carless added. “Before it was what was at the end of the equation. Now it’s at the beginning of the equation.”

In short: For the most popular artists, the album itself is just one small part of a multiplatform business, and nowhere near the most profitable one. While they still do a healthy business in physical sales, and sometimes find ways to squeeze additional profits from it — Taylor Swift recently offered eight different deluxe editions of her new album, “Folklore” — generally the album is the thing that sets the table for far more ambitious revenue streams: merchandise, touring, licensing and more.

That’s at one extreme. At the other are small artists or labels with devoted fan bases, for whom the album remains at the center of the financial conversation, and still a lucrative proposition on its own.

All of which is to say that it’s harder than ever to determine, in a pure sense, the value of an album. Unlike in the CD or LP eras, when the market prices for records were essentially consistent, now the album is valued on a sliding scale — for most people, using streaming services, access to an album is (or feels) free; the most dedicated, however, will put their money where their fandom is.

This has wreaked havoc on record label business models, and also on the Billboard charts. In order to encourage immediate sales, artists looking for an opening week No. 1 began bundling albums with other, higher-priced items. Nowadays, an artist’s album release can often look more like the opening of a clothing store.

Billboard’s latest attempt to rein in bundling goes into effect in October, with a mandate that music must be promoted as an explicit add-on purchase to tickets or merch, with the cost disclosed to the consumer.

It’s another adjustment meant to keep the album chart as purely about music as possible (even as the very idea of an “album” as a formally aggregated work of art is now in crisis, following the rise of playlisting and the increasingly prevalent drip-drip approach to releasing new music). But with the business of being a popular musician increasingly weighted toward non-album revenue streams, the chart’s entire meaning has become fuzzy.

As before, an album needs to cost at least $3.49 to count on the charts, a number arrived at in 2011, when digital album sales were more of a threat than album streaming. Compared to a T-shirt or hoodie that costs $50, or a concert ticket that might cost a few times that, that price of the album is incidental — the monetary value of the fandom is captured by something other than the music.

Wrapped up: Ferreira in his Nashville home individually packing up his albums to ship to fans. | ALYSSE GAFKJEN / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Wrapped up: Ferreira in his Nashville home individually packing up his albums to ship to fans. | ALYSSE GAFKJEN / THE NEW YORK TIMES

But this is a recent development. Before the streaming era, artists were attempting to extract maximum value from the album itself.

Perhaps the highest-profile example is the Wu-Tang Clan album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.” The group made one copy of it available, and it sold at auction in 2015 for $2 million to since-disgraced pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli, who surrendered it to federal authorities in 2018.

Part of the inspiration for the Wu-Tang auction was the release of Hussle’s 2013 mixtape, “Crenshaw.” Hussle, perhaps the first artist in the modern era to propose a premium pricing model for a dying medium, offered physical copies of “Crenshaw,” for $100, using the slogan “Proud2Pay.” (The mixtape was available for free online.) He sold out 1,000 copies. To demonstrate that the “Crenshaw” release wasn’t a fluke, he upped the ante with his next release, “Mailbox Money,” offering 100 copies at $1,000; all of them sold out too.

Hussle understood that the physical album was no longer a music delivery system, but a proxy for fan enthusiasm, a merch totem of its own. This was an especially key development in an era when physical sales were in decline and streaming services with their own economic interests were on the verge of inserting themselves as crucial middlemen between artists and fans.

Carless described Hussle’s intent as “Let’s stop looking at the majority, focus on the minority” — courting those listeners who were passionate and resourced enough to pay. The CD itself, numbered and signed, became “an important keepsake,” Carless said, and it came with certain fan privileges — a phone number they could use to reach Hussle, a private concert. (Hussle released “Crenshaw” the same year Patreon, which proposed a similar tiered model of financial relationship between artist and fan, opened for business.)

Perhaps more crucially, Hussle’s unconventional pricing model was also profitable at the album level. Generally speaking, a tiny sliver of top streaming pop stars can earn back the expenses of making an album purely on stream revenue. For the vast majority of artists, that’s an out-of-reach goal.

One group that still makes money off its music is rap duo Run the Jewels. “I definitely know artists at both ends of the spectrum who look at it as a loss leader, but Run the Jewels just doesn’t happen to look at it that way,” said Amaechi Uzoigwe, the group’s manager, who added that each of the duo’s albums has been profitable — via streaming and physical sales — even though they give away downloads for free.

What this underscores is something Hussle knew, and something Radiohead figured out more than a decade ago: There are tiers of fans. Some — most, actually — will pay nothing for music. But the few who are willing to pay can more than offset them. In 2007, Radiohead released its seventh album, “In Rainbows,” via a pay-what-you-wish download, and in various physical formats; 3 million people paid for a copy.

On the online record marketplace Bandcamp, around 80,000 albums are sold per day. Half of them are digital: the average price for those albums — many of which are pay-what-you-wish — is $9, though according to Joshua Kim, chief operating officer of Bandcamp, some fans will voluntarily pay several times that; in one case, a fan paid $1,000 for an album.

Kim said that the fastest growing part of Bandcamp’s business is physical sales, particularly vinyl. “We view Bandcamp as a place where music is valued as art,” he said. “Physical formats are probably the most concrete expression of that.” He likened consumers willing to pay a premium for music they can otherwise get for free to those who shop for organic food or ethically sourced clothing, finding value in “compensating artists fairly.”

That perspective is consistent with what Ferreira has seen in his fan base. He noticed at shows that some fans bought copies of albums they already owned — “talismans,” he called them — as a show of financial and creative support: “I’m a poor guy from poor people from a poor place,” he said. “Thinking that somebody might own several copies of one project just because they wanted you to keep going was totally foreign to me.”

In the living room of his home in Nashville, Tennessee, last month, Ferreira laid out hundreds of record mailers and all the copies of “Purple Moonlight Pages,” and planned for several days of work — he is a business of one.

Despite the pushback he received from some fans, Ferreira doesn’t view his $77 vinyl as a premium product. He said that he values these newest songs, which were more expensive for him to make and reflect greater maturity as an artist, more highly than his older songs, and felt that should be reflected in the price.

“The music is the premium product,” he said. “It’s just that there are some people who are at a place in their life where it’s kind of nice to be able to style out and buy something nice that you believe in.”

For those people, he was excited about the process of individually packing up his albums and shipping them out. It was a way to keep his focus on the music, and its true value.

“I don’t want to sell a lot of T-shirts,” he said. “I did not start rapping because I like folding T-shirts.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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