Asthmatic Kitty, the indie label home to Sufjan Stevens, Half-handed Cloud, and the Curtains, announced today that it would begin pricing records based on the scores given to them by critics at the music Web site Pitchfork. Ropechain, an album by the band Grampall Jookabox, for example, received a 5.4 (out of a possible 10) from Pitchfork, so for the next 54 hours, says the Asthmatic Kitty Web site, it will be available for $5.40 plus shipping and handling.
The idea, says Asthmatic Kitty Assistant Director Michael Kaufmann, belongs to John Beeler, who manages the label’s Web site. “[W]e anticipated a negative review of the album,” writes Beeler via instant message. “We figured it’d score in somewhere between 5-7.”
“And it dawned on me,” he writes, “that that is also a great sale price point.”
Also via IM, Kaufmann says the label chose Pitchfork over, say, Rolling Stone, because “Pitchfork’s numbering system is convenient and corresponds nicely with the United States Dollar.” Perhaps less tongue-in-cheek, he says Asthmatic Kitty’s artists “do understand Pitchfork’s prominence…in the independent music community” but that he hasn’t had enough feedback from the rest of the label’s roster to determine how its sentiment is trending on this matter.
“[A]ren’t folks already using critics to value music?” he writes. “is this really any change?”
“I think I have a higher opinion of music criticism than Mike,” writes Beeler, who says he believes the perceived value of an album is cheapened by a lower price. “I think it sets an expectation,” he writes. “That can work well when you just grab some CD out of the used bin for $2 and it ends up being the best album you’ve heard in years. But I think it more often works against an album.”
Beeler says Asthmatic Kitty has had “a few orders” for the Grampall Jookabox album at the $5.40 price point but isn’t able to tell for sure because of its “kind of antiquated” payment-processing system.
Wouldn’t it be fairer, I asked Kaufmann, to take an average of critics’ scores for all the records Asthmatic Kitty’s released, and to then price the whole label’s records accordingly? That way, I ventured, you’d adjust for any potential bias on the part of one of the horde of ham-fisted hacks who comprise Pitchfork’s critical staff. “Coming from a critic,” he wrote, “we will have to seriously consider that.”
Photo from a Grampall Jookabox video posted by Asthmatic Kitty; that’s Kaufmann in the green.