A few thoughts on the relationship between cost, value and the action of sharing music:
As I’ve said before, £10 was never representative of the real value in an album. It was less than the value of the time the person takes to listen to it, and certainly not anything like the value the artist places on their finished work.
And of course, given that all albums sell in different amounts, and all the cost of making the album is upfront – before anyone knows how many it’s going to sell – it couldn’t really be described in any fractional way as a share of that value.
No, it wasn’t an expression of ‘value’, largely because the most natural way of expressing our sense of value in music is to share it.
For the artist, we love to play the music we think is the best we have for people – we play it live, we want radio to play our tunes, we want people to hear the album. We’re never sad when someone sits one of their friends down to listen to the album having told them how awesome it is. Because the performing and playing of our music is an expression of our sense of value in it – the opposite, to withold it from people who want to hear it, could only seriously be motivated by shame: an expression of our conviction that the music wasn’t worth the time of the listener.
As fans, the more we love an album the more likely we are to tell people about it, and where possible to play it to them.
Encouraging people to buy it isn’t really an expression of the value of the music, but an expression of either
- our acquiescence to the value system expressed by the music industry – music is “worth” approx £10 for each 60 minute lot we buy
- or it’s driven by our desire to see an artist who lives off the proceeds of their art be compensated fairly for that art
In the latter instance, we can then make ourselves arbiters of what is a fair wage, and opt into doing our part in the pragmatic subdivision of their living costs, realising that offering up however much we pay for the music is a way of being a link in their ongoing creative process.
And we can most easily do this in a ‘pay what you want’ environment. Uber-fans used to do this by buying multiple copies of an album, often during pre-release, to help spread the word, and to help out the artist. Now, it’s much easier, and more incremental, via ‘pay what you want’ downloads – especially when that download happens in a place where the album is listenable-to in full, and shareable via links or embeds (yes, I’m looking at you, Bandcamp – step forward, take a bow…)
The fixed-value monetary expression most naturally makes sense in two ways, both of them tied to physical product:
- It was the paywall through which music was available. I’ve talked before about those long-forgotten days when I would buy albums based on reviews, hunches, artwork, suggestions… often without having heard a single track. I had to buy most of them because the indie record shop in Berwick had VERY limited stock. I can only off the top of my head think of three albums I ever bought that they didn’t have to order for me (Back In Black by AC/DC, The Seer by Big Country and Question & Answer by Pat Metheny) – everything else was special order. So it wasn’t that no-one would play it to me, it’s that I was hundreds of miles away from a copy of the music I wanted to hear! Scarcity drove the buying process.
- The other value is simply that a CD or record, as an artifact, as a stand-alone work of art, as a beautiful container for the music, was worth that. This is born out by the relationship between elaborate packaging and price. Labels who sold their CDs for more invariably spent more time on the packaging (ECM being the main case in point) and budget price CDs often featured lower quality paper, cut-down liner notes, bad photos etc… The complete package is, to the people who still value it, worth paying a tenner for.
When people argue that the value is “all in the music”, ask them when the last time was that they paid as much for a (non-deleted) 2nd hand CD as a new one, or were happy for the box to be broken but still pay full price… Our perception of what the price of a CD should be is exactly the same as any other physical object, and has nothing to do with our notion of the value of the music.
But, what happened because of that is that people were conned into the idea that buying lots of cheap music was better value than paying more for one great album. I used to do this – I’d pass up albums that I was sure I’d love, in favour of 3 budget price ones that were less certain, but offered more minutes per pound. I’m sure if I’d bought the first album, I’d have had more ‘listening hours’ per pound out of my investment… And for the artists, they lost out because I’m far less likely to talk about mediocre music than I am about music I love. So I short-changed myself, and the artists I could’ve been raving about…
We need a complete rethink of how the economy around music works. And it starts in the relationship between fans and artists.
I’m now Twitter-friends with lots of ‘famous before the internet’ (FBTI) artists. The challenge for them is now to be as interesting as the people without the baggage are. When they manage it, they win twice – so chatting with Kristin Hersh or Rosanne Cash, Vernon Reid or Mike Scott is not only interesting for the conversation itself, it’s interesting because it puts them in the position where whatever the state of their relationship with the ‘industry’ is, I now see them as ‘one of us’, and am far more likely to seek to support them and their music, both by telling people about it, and with actual cash monies!
I’ve mentioned before that in the 90s, we indie people were desperate to look like ‘the big people’ and now its reversed, with superstars desperate to look approachable. But there’s a massive musical middle class who, if they get it, can cash in on their pre-web fame and actually chat to their audience, via Twitter, Facebook, Blogging, community forums etc. and circumvent the arguments of the old industry about how to force music back behind a paywall, and instead – like us – build a community of people who care, and are willing to express that care and their gratitude for the music by sharing it with their friends AND paying for it.
- Who’s getting it right?
- Whose music do you share most with your friends, and how to do you share it?
- What entertainment media (physical or digital) have you paid the most for over the last couple of years?
- What kind of band merch are you most likely to buy?
Let’s have a conversation about what works, what we ‘actually’ do, and see if we can’t start to carve out a fun way forward that’s good for music, for artists and for listeners.