Jay-Z & Kanye West: The iTunes 'tax' on 'Watch the Throne'
Fans who wanted a copy of the Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration "Watch the Throne" could buy a download of it early Monday morning. Yet those who have long been buying music online may have felt as if they had been hit with a bit of sticker shock, as configurations started at $11.99 and extended to $14.99 for a deluxe edition. Perhaps iTunes is just getting into the spirit of the wealth-examining "Watch the Throne," in which West drops the phrase "luxury rap" and refers to someone beneath him as a "customer."
Come Friday, however, the standard edition of the album will be available to all retailers -- physical and digital -- but the deluxe CD edition will be given solely to Best Buy for an additional 10 days. Fans who can sit tight for a few days will have cheaper options, as Best Buy is currently listing the standard CD for $9.99 and the expanded edition, which has the same extra tracks as the iTunes version, at $12.99.
The iTunes home page immediately directs potential buyers to the expanded $14.99 configuration of the album without making it clear that a slightly cheaper version exists. Retail exclusives have long been a source of contention in the music business, and the arguments against remain the same -- they limit consumer choice by playing favorites and drive prices higher.
Back in 2008, when Best Buy exclusively sold Gun N' Roses' "Chinese Democracy," Michael Kurtz, the driving force behind the indie-retail marketing celebration that is Record Store Day, warned that exclusives would be bad for the consumer. "By eliminating competition, the prices of the CDs are going up," Kurtz said. "The biggest United States retailers are partnering with the biggest labels, driving the price up by not allowing competition."
Pricing for the iTunes exclusives is in the opposite direction of industry trends. Granted, iTunes has never engaged in the extreme discounting of its competitor Amazon, but the latter has been continually challenging the perception of what an album is worth, recently discounting Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" to 99 cents.
Complicating matters have been artists' views on the issue. When asked whether she thought her album was worth more than 99 cents, Lady Gaga told the Wall Street Journal that she had Amazon's back. "It’s invisible," she said. "It’s in space. If anything, I applaud a company like Amazon for equating the value of digital versus the physical copy, and giving the opportunity to everyone to buy music."
As of today, Amazon does not have "Watch the Throne" listed in its MP3 store, perhaps not wanting to tip its hand as to how it will price the album. Amazon, remember, will not have access to the expanded edition until Aug. 23. But it's likely safe to bet that the standard version of "Throne" will go for considerably less than the iTunes price of $11.99. For instance, when West released his "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" in late 2010, Amazon quickly made available a coupon that allowed fans to purchase the $4.99 album for 99 cents.
Despite the maze of configurations and retail exclusives -- imagine a world where the film industry released separate editions of major movies to multiple theater chains -- "Watch the Throne" is still expected to have a solid opening. According to figures released in industry trade Billboard, "Watch the Throne" is on track to sell somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 copies, which would give it the second largest opening of the year.
-- Todd Martens
Images, from top: Jay-Z at Coachella in 2010 (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times); Kanye West in spring 2011 (Associated Press).