So Trent, he of NiN fame, recently blogged the results of his “post-In Rainbows” Saul Williams Niggy Tardust experiment with the name-your-own-price record release concept. Poor Trent is disheartened, it seems. He says that 28,322 people paid $5 for it and about 154,449 just downloaded the album. No idea how many snagged it off of p2p, but I would imagine at least a couple thousand, maybe many more.
Saul Williams’ 2004 release sold 33,894 copies. That record was likely for sale for around $10. For some reason Trent doesn’t seem happy with the Niggy numbers. I think he’s missing the point. Regardless of what he spent on the production of the album, Niggy Tardust had to cost significantly less to distribute. Bandwidth was (relatively) cheap in 2007. Pressing CDs, designing and printing cover art and shipping those CDs all over the world in 2004 was likely very expensive. And all the copies that didn’t sell are just sitting somewhere. Wasted. Taking up space before they eventually end up in a landfill. Remember, it still costs to distribute an unpurchased CD. Downloads don’t have that problem. Or I should say, they shouldn’t.
Perhaps old Trent, while pleased that 154,449 people out there have the Niggy Tardust record on their iPods and thus might want to catch Saul’s live show, is stinging from the fact that only 18% chose to pay for the record. Or perhaps he’s pissed about spending money to provide the record to those not willing to pay for it. Well, that expense should never have been incurred. Bit Torrent, p2p, mp3 blogs, fans, etc. could have easily distributed the album, requiring Trent (or in this case Musicane) to only incur the cost of distributing 28k thousand copies of the album. A reduction in cost of about 80%. My takeaway from this experiment and recommendation to any folks out there looking to follow the Niggy Tardust / In Rainbows model is only pay to distribute your music to people willing to pay for it in the first place. Those that want it for free will find ways to obtain it. Ways that don’t cost you a dime. You don’t have to provide that bandwidth.
So, at $5 for 28k downloads, Saul and Trent pulled in $140K. The costs associated with providing those 28k downloads shouldn’t have exceeded $10k. Recording and Production? I dunno. How much did it cost, Trent? Perhaps given the numbers for the 2004 release you could have safely assumed about the same number of buyers for Niggy Tardust, and budgeted accordingly.
Anyhow, don’t most musicians make most of their money on the road through merch and ticket sales? Think about those 150k freeloaders. If they liked the record they could very well be in the audience when Saul comes to town. I’d say those 150k downloads were a marketing expense. And much more effective than anything a major label’s art department could come up with. Don’t be sour, Trent. It’s just the beginning…
p.s. here is my estimate for distribution costs. Musicane uses Amazon’s S3 to provide the bandwidth. There’s a simple calculator, here. Maybe $2500 in bandwidth. If the record had been recorded and produced for $50k, that would still leave almost $100,000 for Saul. Not enough to live like a king, but not to shabby. The distribution costs would have been even lower (around $300) if they only provided the download to those that paid the $5, but that extra $2000 was definitely money well spent.