Wrong Thurr: How Dupri, Jay-Z, and Universal Misunderstand iTunes

In today’s music industry, few names are as important as those of Jermaine Dupri, the well-known rapper, producer and president of Island Urban Records, and Shawn Carter, also known as Jay-Z, the hugely successful recording artist who also serves as the president of Def Jam Recordings and Roc-A-Fella Records. Success aside, both men have something in common: they both work for Universal Music Group, whose president, Doug Morris, has been waging a public, nasty campaign against Apple’s iTunes Store.

Until recently, Dupri and Jay-Z have been quietly enjoying all the cash that iTunes has been funneling to their labels, but this month, both artists became soldiers in Morris’s battle against iTunes, publicly attacking the Store’s policy of offering 99-cent singles in addition to whole album purchases. Carter began by unexpectedly yanking his new movie-inspired album American Gangster from iTunes well after pre-orders had been piling up, stating that, “As movies are not sold scene by scene, this collection will not be sold as individual singles.” Then Dupri followed Carter’s lead, writing in a blog post that Apple should allow artists to choose whether to sell whole albums or singles and albums.

We’re not opposed to the concept of giving artists choice, but consumer choice is important, too, and that’s an important point that Universal’s executives still just don’t seem to understand. There are lots of stores selling music these days: online and bricks-and-mortar stores with CDs and DVDs, and online stores with digital downloads. Some offer only a handful of full albums. Some stock singles. And some, like Apple’s iTunes Store, sell both full albums and singles. Consumers buy from all three types of stores, and vote with their pocketbooks as to what they prefer. Should an artist or recording executive really be attacking a store if the way it does business has proved to be increasingly popular?

What inspired this editorial was a set of comments from Dupri, who didn’t just attack the iTunes Store, but went further, attacking consumers, too—clear evidence that there are still out-of-touch record executives left in this increasingly digital age. There are plenty of choice quotes that we could highlight, but none was more offensive than this description of how to manipulate consumers to spur album sales:

“We let the consumer have too much of what they want, too soon, and we hurt ourselves. Back in the day when people were excited about a record coming out we’d put out a single to get the ball going and if we sold a lot of singles that was an indication we’d sell a lot of albums. But we’d cut the single off a few weeks before the album came out to get people to wait and let the excitement build. When I put out Kris Kross we did that. We sold two million singles, then we stopped. Eventually we sold eight million albums! Did consumers complain? Maybe so. But at what point does any business care when a consumer complains about the money?”

Thankfully, there’s a simple answer for Mr. Dupri: the point at which a business should care about consumers is “always.” They are your lifeblood. They are the only reason you make money. And you should be especially sensitive to their complaints at the point at which your business is losing traction, declining in revenues, and succumbing to piracy. Thanks to artists like Mr. Dupri’s Kris Kross, which released albums with two popular songs and a bunch of tracks no one cared about before disappearing from the industry, that’s exactly where Universal Music Group was before iTunes, and where it will be again if it continues the practices that led to iTunes’ astounding popularity.

Dupri’s rant, like Jay-Z’s decision to pull American Gangster from iTunes, is premised on the inaccurate suggestion that record companies can still force someone to pay $10-15 for a collection of content that only holds $1-3 of value to them. Even more foolishly, it states specifically that companies can offer a $1 song for a brief period of time, then yank it to encourage people to spend $10-15 to buy the same song again with the rest of an album.

This goes without saying, but in today’s world, if a company tries to “cut the single off,” all it will accomplish is boosting illegal downloads of the track. Consumers today demand instant access to the media they want, so if companies decide not to let them have it legally, they will find another way to get it. Or they simply won’t listen at all. iTunes, like the sale of singles on albums, cassettes, or CDs, enables consumers to pay artists a fair amount for the tracks they like, rather than paying nothing for an album where the chaff grossly outweighs the wheat. And unlike any old fashioned record store, it incentivizes full album sales by offering credits for previously downloaded tracks from an album, rather than forcing consumers to buy the same song twice.

Though Dupri and Jay-Z have suggested that full album sales are important to an artist’s mission of delivering a complete body of work at the same time, it’s obvious that this really is about squeezing more money out of consumers, using guilt or any other rationalization that’s convenient. Another choice quote from Dupri is this one:

“Why do people not care how we – the people who make music – eat?”

Let’s be fair here. We’ve seen MTV Cribs—we know what your house looks like. Please don’t tell us that you need to sell full albums in order to “eat;” if so, you’ve either been an incredibly unlucky investor, or you burn more cash in a week than most people could in 10 lifetimes. You’re one of the ten richest people in hip-hop, with an estimated net worth of $60 million. So let’s leave you out of any discussion concerning artists that actually rely on album sales to survive—of course, that’s if you actually believe that the artists see any large portion of the money from album sales, which they don’t.

Also enjoyable was Dupri’s description of Apple’s downfall, should the labels decide to pull their music from the iTunes Store:

“If anything, WE made iTunes. It’s like how we spent $300,000 to $500,000 each on our videos and MTV and BET went ahead and built an entire video television industry off of our backs. We can’t let that happen again. These businesses exist solely because of our music. So if we as artists, producers and label executives stand up, those guys at Apple can either cooperate, or have nothing for people to buy and download on their iPods.

Apple thinks that’s never gonna happen. They think that we as the record industry will never stick together. But Universal sells one out of every three records. All it’ll take is for Warner Music to say, ‘You know what, I’m with you,’ for us to shut ‘em down. No more iPods! They won’t have nothin’ to play on their players!”

The statement is both generally and specifically absolutely laughable. Statistics show that the average iPod contains only a handful of songs purchased from the iTunes Store, which makes it pretty clear that the success of the iPod doesn’t depend on the Store — it’s a component of the iPod ecosystem, yes, but hardly the focus. Again, the only thing shutting down the iTunes Store is going to achieve is driving more consumers to the world of BitTorrent and illegal downloads. Of course, iPods play more than what’s available on the Store. And yes, MTV and BET built networks on the backs of musicians, but so did radio, and satellite radio after that, and without the ability to flood those entertainment channels with your music, you’d be selling way fewer records. How would you have gotten your $300,000 to $500,000 videos out to your potential fans without MTV, BET, iTunes and others? Don’t blame Apple — they were hardly the first to profit from connecting fans with artists, and they will most certainly not be the last.

iLounge’s editors have a lot of respect for Jermaine Dupri and Jay-Z as recording artists. Dupri’s history of famous tracks speaks for itself, and his Chingy collaboration song Right Thurr was featured on iLounge’s Backstage page as one of our editors’ favorite songs. Jay-Z’s albums, including American Gangster, have repeatedly been mentioned on Backstage, featured in our photographs, and enjoyed by our editors as well. But as executives, these guys are on the wrong side of history. Trying to use guilt and other tricks to make more money off of music is a losing strategy, and ignorant of the reality that consumers have other options, both with respect to listening to their music, and ignoring it in favor of other artists and labels.

The days of music industry gimmicks are over. In our view, artists should be glad when people think their work is worth paying for—as an anthology, or in pieces—and the moguls that promote them should be open-minded to the reality that the business has changed from buffet to a la carte pricing. If JD and Jay-Z really have a problem with selling singles, fine, don’t sell them. It’s perfectly fair for an artist to decide how his/her work is distributed, but don’t blame the consumer for making it clear that this is not the way he or she wants to enjoy your work, or iTunes for catering to those consumers rather than ignoring them.

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