DJ Cro supporting Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings in Birmingham

One of the problems of recorded music is the issue of price. With mp3s being an essentially infinite and perfectly replicable resource, the market price is a theoretical (and quite often practical) zero. But one strategy to set a price has been to turn this on its head, and introduce scarcity through physical collectibility.

Radiohead did this, you’ll remember, by letting the market decide what the price of the mp3s should be, but setting a premium for the physical box set. This was, I remarked at the time, a pretty good understanding of the difference between the digital and the physical media.

A friend of mine demonstrated this principle pretty well recently, by working with something that was pretty much completely unavailable, but highly sought after – and making it a little bit available in a short run at a premium price and with a great bit of packaging and additional merchandise.

Demo Sessions

Cro explains:

“When I heard Amalgam Digital were re-releasing Kurious‘s debut (and so far only album) ‘A Constipated Monkey’ on double vinyl I was excited as it’s a personal favourite, then I found out they were also making six demos available for the first time I got really excited. I asked if they had any plans to press vinyl for the demos, they said they just wanted to give them away with the digital downloads of the album.

“They agreed to licence them for a one off limited vinyl release (200 copies) but warned me there was ‘tape damage’ and the masters no longer existed, but I was welcome to have a go at re-editing and cleaning up the tracks.”

Those six demos were, for the discerning hip hop enthusiast (and you don’t get much more discerning than Cro), absolute gold. They represented something that is increasingly rare in the digital age: an actual rarity.

“The EP features production from some of my favourites- The SD50’s, Prince Paul (I’m presuming this is where their initial hook up happened leading to Kurious featuring on the Gravediggaz album), Sam Sever and Prime Minister Pete Nice.”

Now, when it comes to releasing rarities to a specialist audience, Cro is in something of a privileged position. As the presenter of a specialist hip hop radio programme, he’s something of an opinion leader already – something he brings to his job at Jibbering Records in Moseley.

He’s also (as you might expect) a DJ that plays all over the country and he’s a member of a number of online hip hop discussion groups and collectors forums.

“My main place for promoting the release was one forum full of record collectors like myself, they had already done similar releases so I knew there was a market. All payments were through Paypal and the Jibbering site as it made it seem a lot more offical than “Just send me 30 quid through paypal”.”

That’s right – thirty quid. For a record with six songs on it. That’s ten of your American dollars per song. Cro set up his record label and released his first disc on the basis that enthusiasts will pay above the odds for something of genuine value, quality and – perhaps above all – limited availability.

But there was more on offer than just the vinyl, and a problem with some of the artwork led to another good idea that increased the urgency for the first purchasers.

As the alternate artwork was meant to be used for the t-shirts but the printers couldn’t handle it I had the brainwave to get them printed out and signed by the artist. I made them available for the first 50 people in order to encourage the early presales. The t-shirt was a nice thing to offer to the people who were prepared to do the presales, created more of an interest and lets them feel special as they are the only people with them (plus it allowed me to get the right amount of t-shirts made with no stocks left over to clutter up my flat!).

Promotion for the record was conducted online, in the specialist online discussion groups – and the payments were taken online. But at no point did the music itself make its way onto the internet. Normally, I’d encourage wide distribution of the mp3s in order to generate interest for the music. But this was not the problem facing Cro and his Kurious release.

You’ll probably notice the ‘filesharing will catch a beatdown’ slogan on the label. No cd’s or digital copies of these tracks have been distributed, as I’ve felt for a long time that as music has become easier to get hold of, it’s also become far more disposable to some. These tracks deserve to be heard but please do so responsibly!

Agree and disagree. I think in the case of this record, on this label, in this market, Cro may have a point. One of the strongest things this record has going for it is its rarity and desirability as a physical artefact. But I think that misses the larger point that, as one observer put it, ‘Music wants to be heard.’ I think there’s a way to do both – and I suspect that ‘pulling a Radiohead’, as it’s called – offering a different physical and digital proposition – would be another way to approach this issue.

I’m not sure I agree that the 201st person who wanted to buy this record should miss out on ever hearing it just because they didn’t check in on the message board this week… but that’s another discussion for another time. There are, at least, snippets on the label’s MySpace page.

Correction: Cro writes: “the tracks are available in mp3 form from Amalgam Digital direct. I only licensed it for a vinyl run, so after it sells out (under 50 left now which is cool) it will still be available in mp3 form just not sounding anywhere near as good / long as the vinyl version.”

The important takeaway message here is that niche audiences and specialist products can be cleverly catered for through a mixture of digital media and traditional channels.

I’d like a proper website but it’s just time at the moment, I will get one sorted one day, just my web friend is stupidly busy so I’ve got to give him a bit of time. I used my blog and radio show too to post up snippets and play bits of the tracks people hadn’t heard before.

And the other key message is, of course, that the price of music is whatever the market will bear.

For most people, in most instances, with most mainstream music, that price is zero. $1 per track is usually approaching the upper limit. But $10 a track is entirely feasible under the right circumstances. Especially when you’ve got an elusive legend on your hands.

Kurious disappeared after his debut album, only to reappear on the song “?” on the classic ‘Operation Doomsday‘ album and ‘Monday Night at Fluid’, he’s also put out a 12″ on Stonegroove courtesy of Mr Lawson. I truly hope Kurious releases some new material and gets the props he deserves, a truly underrated emcee.