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Music Is Worthless Part 2 – a Response to Jeff Schmidt

October 16th, 2010 | 26 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies |

This post started out as a comment on my previous post, in reply to one from Jeff Schmidt. But it’s too long for that, so it’s now its own post.

Here’s Jeff’s comment:

4 years ago – I could have said this exact thing -probably word for word.

Today – not so much.

If I was on the cutting edge of music market thinking then, maybe I’m on the cutting edge now with the complete opposite opinion. Is the tide is turning that much? I think so.

Pay what you want is a cop out.

Stand up for your work and put a value on it.

Telling people to “pay what they want” is the same as telling people you don’t really think it’s worth anything.

When someone tweets/facebooks/myspaces/social medias about new music available that is “pay what you want” – its not an enticement.

Rather, a flag for me to not waste my time.

It sounds like the artist telling me they don’t expect me to find enough value in their work to pay for it – so they’re letting me feel ok with paying nothing.

Dirty little secret. Giving music to me for free isn’t going to make me LIKE it more.

Do you know how much FREE music I regularly listen to? Almost none.

It’s easily downloaded – quickly forgotten.

The artist has swapped an email update note about a download stat instead of payment. Nice. Hope you can pay the rent.

Name another business that successfully exists on a pay what you want model?

Go to an art show – do you see paintings, sculptures, Jewelry and other art works put out as “pay what you want”?

Can you “pay what you want” to see a quality film? Go to a restaurant? Read a new book?

If a piece of sculpture I love is priced beyond my means – is that also a case of “brinksmanship”between the sculptor and I?

Does the sculptor OWE me the opportunity to TRY their sculpture out in my home – for free?

Is this what the internet has done to musical artists – reduced us to beggars, pandering to the marginally interested?

F’ that.

To be clear – Allowing people the option to pay more than asking price is not the same as saying “pay what you want”.

And here’s my response:

Hi Jeff,

I think there are a quite a few pertinent issues here, and a lot of them are to do with language.

Firstly, I don’t think ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ is the same as ‘pay what you want’ - the ability to pay or not pay with money is the same, but the impetus to consider value is different. It’s not possible to force someone to see the distinction, but for me as an artist, it’s key.

The problem with putting a price on it is that it never has represented my sense of the value in what I did – it’s a market defined value that makes a whole lot of sense when I have a fixed outlay to produce a set number of CDs, so can set a price based on my understanding of the likelihood of my audience being a) of a certain size and b) willing to pay a market-related price. That’s about recouping a fixed cost on the manufacture of a scarce product.

If the product being sold has no manufacturing cost (producing the music in the first place has inherent costs, but they are considerably lower than they’ve ever been before, and in many cases for people who own their own equipment, the main cost is time) then there is no outlay that needs dividing up. There’s no point at which the supply runs out, so I don’t have a fixed possible income based no multiplying the number of scarce items available by a unit cost, minus manufacturing cost.

I have a document of some music, music that the person hearing it may think is worthless shit, may think is the soundtrack to their life thus far, or more likely will enjoy in certain circumstances for a time, and it’ll become part of the aural patchwork of their life along with the hundreds or thousands of other works of music that they choose to own or just encounter via other media.

So, if I refuse to buy into the Big Music idea that the best way to think of downloadable music is as ‘digitised CDs’ and keep behaving as those there’s a meaningful unit costdespite there being a never ending supply of units, as though the shop was being constantly restocked with premium quality product regardless of how many shoplifters there areI can stop trying to put barriers in the way of people getting it, and start talking about the value in what I do. The value to me (which is huge – this shit is the soundtrack to my life thus far. It’s not a commodity I’ve invented to try and monetize and the realisation of its value is not based on any measure of the monetary of it as a business asset) and potential value to the listener -

  • the points of contact
  • the story it tells and is a part of
  • the process of making it
  • it’s context within other musics of a similar kind…

It’s possible to load it with value. And whether or not the smallest possible value one can put into bandcamp is ‘Free’ or not is entirely moot. ‘Free’ is just another number here, and it allows us to talk about value beyond money. Because someone downloading something for free hasn’t said they think it’s worthless. They’ve said that the value is not yet monetary to them.

Now, it may be that laziness, selfishness or just good old capitalist ‘why spend money I don’t have to?’ says to that person that they shouldn’t bother coming back to pay for it even if they decide down the line that they love it.

But if they hadn’t been able to get it for free in the first place, and build a relationship with the music, they’d quite possibly never have got to the position where they would be thinking about it at all. And thinking about it means they can share it, talk about it, play it to friends. All of which have value, all of which have potential to turn into revenue, all of which reduce vastly the cost of marketing a record.

Let’s not forget that 9/10 records on labels don’t recoup. That doesn’t mean the label, their advertising department and the pluggers aren’t getting paid, it means that the debt that the artist was gifted when they signed the deal has still not been paid off in sales revenue, and those costs are still being piled on.

Our thinking about this stuff has been hijacked by an economic system that has no process for dealing with ‘how to pay for ubiquitous goods’ – the only example anyone comes up with is ‘water’ – where it’s free on tap and people pay for the bottled version. But that’s a rubbish metaphor as there’s no distinction between ‘water’ and ‘my water’ – bottled water is just a marketing trick.

Generically, Music – as a concept – is worthless. ‘My’ music – the music that matters to me and soundtracks my day is worth FAR more than I could ever possibly pay for a CD. And there is no scientific measure of ‘good music’. Music plays so many different roles, means so many different things and one person’s gormet meal is another one’s shit sandwich.

I don’t expect Big Music to ever understand it. Because to understand, they need to acknowledge their own obsolescence in the process. It’s not that there aren’t macro-industrial processes that are still valuable, it’s just that they don’t have the infrastructure set up for the ones that matter for music as art/culture/meaning. Theirs work beautifully for convincing a million Glee fans to part with 99c a week for a download, but not so much for empowering audiences and musicians to connect in a way that makes the free/not free debate about value not ‘where can I get it cheapest?’

It’s a grown up relationship, that makes no sense to a vast part of the population of Britain or America, because we really have no economic precedent for it.

Which makes it all the more fun.

(Oh, and here’s Jeff’s first solo album – it’s amazing)

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26 Comments so far ↓

  • inkysmudge

    Ok, now I’ve stopped laughing and dried the tears at the ‘one person’s gourmet meal is another one’s shit sandwich’ line…..brilliant…. what fascinates me most about this whole issue is what its logical conclusion is for the (and I don’t want to use this word) ‘monetization’ of any creative endeavour.

    When we take in all the other creative fields and start to ask the question as to why we still pay for cinema/theatre/art show tickets/the tv license fee it’s not difficult to foresee a time when it may not be the case.

    If it’s not economically viable to put on a theatre production/make a film/exhibit some art/print a book or what have you then we just won’t do it. But that’s a business decision and nothing to do with the ‘value’ of the creative endeavour itself.

    Whether that means that all creatives will end up with some kind of ‘day job’ remains to be seen. If ‘society’s’ response to that is ‘we want creatives who devote their life to their art because it’s better’ then we’ll get further into the discussion of the ‘value’ of culture itself, stuck as we are in a capitalist system.

    If, on the other hand, ‘society’ doesn’t mind because technology allows everyone to be a creative (as Suzanne Lainson has considered) then we’ll know where we are. As always, beauty (or should that be value?) is in the eye of the beholder.

    Outside of the creative field, my perception has long been that in general, our society’s value system is completely screwed. You can insert a relevant example of the money spent on ‘this’ versus the money spent on ‘that’ as they are too numerous to mention. That is not to say of course that there aren’t people around trying to change that but we are where we are.

    As soon as we get to a wider discussion of what really matters in life, and what kind of a society we really want, all the better imho.

  • Bruce Warila

    I have always maintained that the real cost of music is the time (money) cost of finding the music you enjoy. In other words, my time (the time it takes to find a song I like) is far more valuable than the price of the download/stream. You can take away my music, but don’t ever rob me of the bookmarks that tell where to (re)find my songs!

  • Steve thack

    Just thinking of other examples of pay what you can afford / think its worth. Band i saw last night were doing that with their cds. No idea if its working for them or not. Spoke to other artist earlier in year doing pretty well that way. Gigs i’ve run this year have had bar on similar basis (mainly bottles on self service ) we started out with suggested prices but scrapped even that. Fact is so far bar made profit. Considering doing events on a pay what you think its worth basis. But do think if people think something is free they expect it to be a bit shit. Not true, out of top five gigs i’ve been to this year three were free , one handed round a bucket.
    Guess when pay what you think its worth started it generally meant it was a radical artist thinking outside the box, hopefully doing similar radical stuff with their music. Now its more common it prob just indicates artist without a label deal. So fact its ‘free’ no longer in itself attracts me. ( On the other hand if your not on Spotify you’d better bloody find some free way for me to hear your music. Pref not myspace, and easier it is to share the better all round. )
    Personally i’d still put a high value on physical cd and pretty low value on downloads. Maybe i’m still trapped in the past.
    Any artist who is trying for a high fixed price for album sales i’d strongly suggest you make sure folks can download at least three tracks from it for free somewhere. Thats just about enough for me to fall in love with something and decide to spend good money.
    I have spent odd quid downloading tracks from artists i’ve not heard before, but think that counts as pretty unusual behaviour.

  • IanB

    The “how much to charge” is, in some ways, and counter-intuitively, not your choice…

    The deciding factor is: do you want to earn a living from your music? If the answer to that question is “yes, I want to be filthy rich” then economics plays a part in what happens next. If lots of people are vying to get your music then you charge as much as you can get away with. If nobody gives a stuff then the amount you charge could have an inverse relationship to your initial popularity…but to assume the supply is unlimited is incorrect because there could be a finite amount of people who want to listen – and they only want each track once which means each outlet can only supply them once and mutually exclude each other, which, to the outlet also then affects how they view your popularity or, to put it another way, the demand there is for your work.

    If you give your work away free then you will definitely create a demand – if your work is good – but it could choke your potential earnings if you don’t charge equally (proportionate to the perceived base cost of the medium) when you decide the time has come to try for the filthy rich stage of your career…

    There are a lot of people making donuts – to get rich you have to be close by and at the right price for them to buy your donuts. If you make really good donuts then they will go out of their way and pay a little more for them too. Nobody will care how much it costs you to make your donuts – as long as they taste good.

    • Howlin' Hobbit

      @IanB — there’s a vast difference between “earning a living” and “becoming filthy rich” from your music. which question are you addressing?

      I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t turn down the filthy rich bit, but I’m aiming at the making a living thing.

      • IanB

        Ah you naughty monkey – I said “earning a living” too with a flippant “yes, I want to be stinking rich”. ;-)

  • Neil Alexander

    Awesome thread, conversation, what have you…. :)

    I have strong feelings about this stuff. As is usual for me, I can see both sides of the “equation”, and the points made. My take on it runs something like this: I am an artist first; as a business person I’m not quite so sharp (working on it), but the bottom line is Music for me is a gift. One of the things that brings me the most joy is being able to “re-gift” – in other words, give this glorious music, which I have been given, to YOU. That’s what it’s for, IMHO. (My favorite kinds of gigs to play are the “free-outdoor” ones.) I don’t have the kind of following that justifies significant sales data; what I’m interested in is GETTING MY MUSIC OUT THERE – to YOU. Does offering it for “Pay what you want – even free” make it worthless? Well, that depends on your concept of worth. Money-wise, I find it intrinsically difficult to put a “value” on these things; but Art in general needs to be available to a populace for it to have the desired consciousness raising effect. Art elevates us, brings us together, etc. (We know all this already…)
    I’d love to be able to sell my CD’s for $20 a pop – but I have yet to generate that kind of interest and those kinds of numbers. Without the big biz funding that helps put artists in front of 10′s or 100′s of thousands of prospective fans all at once, things tend to move slowly. But they still can move, as the new social media models show, and I’m ok with this. It’s more important to me to make my music – my art – available to people. As someone who can’t afford to be buying CD’s every 10 minutes – or even once a month! – my sympathies lie with those of us who want to learn about new music, explore things, but can’t be shelling out $ every time.

    Interestingly enough, I’ve SOLD more music since I’ve started offering it as “Pay-what-you-want”. Let me say that again: I’ve SOLD more music. Cha-ching. And a hell of a lot more people have at least HEARD my music – either by downloading, or listening and deciding not to download – than ever before. I say that skews things in favor of “win”.
    (My 2 cents.)

  • Stephen White

    An excellent conversation on a topic artists and label partners have been struggling with for a number of years.
    All art has value. I don’t think any of us dispute that. In the current climate, the question for music makers is still “how do I gain attention?” In the past the band in the garage may have plastered their hood with posters and played for free to gain attention and build audience. The hope of course is that the 6, then 8, then 100 people that came to the free jams would grow to love them and then pay to see them in the club – and eventually pay to take home their recorded music. Right?
    Now, like it or not, the cyber/social world is where we turn for building that relationship and distributing much of our “art”. And that is where the “pay what you think it is worth” or even offering a free or unique track can help add value to one’s overall artistic relationship with their audience. Does it work? So far – Sometimes. Will all recorded music have to be distributed for free? Nope. (ok, at least I don’t think so). Is the cyber/social world the only way to build a relationship with you audience? Hell no. Does it make music worthless – again hell no. Paying “what you think it is worth” or giving it away for free are not economic models. They are methods for gaining attention and building a relationship with your audience. We need to adjust how we approach our reimbursement for our art. That’s the trick.
    Lastly, there is always going to be that unique “sculpture” or “painting” in the gallery that is priced beyond the means of most of it’s admirers. Of course, many visual artists make a series of prints from the master work that can be sold at a lower price, or even given away as post cards or as images on flickr. And, my aunt loved Michelangelo’s Pieta. She visited it a number of times. And had a 12″ reproduction on the bookshelf at her home.

  • Howlin' Hobbit

    Just a brief comment on one small part of this post.

    Where (in the the “first world” countries at least) does one find water for free? I know that here in the U.S. of A. we pay for the water that runs out of our taps. Not that it’s a heavy expense, and lord knows it’s a necessity, but it is charged for.

    And, though I said “first world” countries above, even in the “third world” countries there’s a charge. Sure, it’s maybe not monetary, but if you have to walk your ass down to the river/well, carting a jug, and then carry it back home, that is a cost.

    The point being, the folks that say music should be “free like water” are pretty much talking out their ass and should be roundly ignored.

    I’m thinking “free, like a gift” is a better metaphor. If you think that my gift to you has blessed/enriched your life in some manner, and you’d like to show me some love by gifting me with something back (talk about me, send me some moolah, just play my stuff for your friends) then I am grateful and feel blessed myself.

    Full disclosure: I haven’t “taken the plunge” yet. My last release had a minimum of $3 for the download. But the one I’m working on now is definitely slated for the pay-what-you-want model. I don’t have a huge fan base. But the fans I do have came through for me (the one time I’ve asked) like gangbusters. It awed and humbled me.

    This next time? I’m just going to trust my fans. I may be slow, but I can learn.

  • Rob Michael

    I totally get where Jeff is coming from and there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution.

    If you’re viewing art in a gallery, there is no need to take it home to try it out. You have had an experience with the piece in the gallery. You’ve already ‘kicked the tires.’

    Items/ experiences possess different values to people for different reasons. I have found, time and time again, that given the opportunity, people will happily choose to pay what they feel something is worth.

  • Cameron Pyke, Small Symphonies

    Just want to raise a rather tawdry pragmatic point, arising from the scenario of the ‘honesty bar’ described by Steve Thack. One of the factors that makes this work is the presence of other people. You are not going to go up to the bar and take drink away for nothing without attracting a degree of disapproval. The presence of onlookers, who may not be that interested, will possibly make some people pay over the odds.
    The problem with a donation button system is that the consumer is not conducting the transaction in the view of peers. Conscience and reputation can take a back seat. This means that, with the best will in the world you can download product with the intention of making a contribution later, and never get round to it.
    On the other hand, if you make the download electronically conditional on an unspecified payment – I could see that working.
    I have to say I’m not at this stage yet and have no experience to draw on – songs visible but not monetised. I think I’ll go for the three free songs format suggested by Steve Thack.
    Sorry to air a rather cynical view of human nature.

  • Jeff Schmidt

    There’s way too much to address in comments.

    3 years ago I addressed a lot of this, and said many of the same things.

    http://www.beautiful-bass.com/weblog/2007/10/downloads_entitlement_the_fear.html

    The mistake I saw being made then – was in equating the value of the music – with the costs ADDED to the music by a form of distribution.

    Namely – Getting CDs into record stores.

    I thought lot of artists were making that mistake of perspective when they complained about not being able to sell copies of CDs at historic prices.

    I said that the $18.99 for a CD wasn’t about the value of the music – as much as the price of distribution of that physical object.

    We both agree – absent that physical system – the price of music must come down.

    BUT – I only said the price had to come down.

    Not that it had to be free.

    And while FREE is a legitimate price for music – not all music should be free.

    You mentioned Zoe Keating.

    15 years ago her album would be incredibly hard to get and probably cost $20 or more as a special order from the classical dept at a tower records.

    Today, she’s selling it online for $8 – or more.

    Notice – $8 – OR MORE.

    Not “Pay What You Want”.

    There’s a huge distinction. And that’s all I’m pointing out.

    • Steve

      Jeff

      So the person who paid $100 for Zoe’s album – would they have just downloaded it for free if that $8 min wasn’t there? We’ll never know how many of Zoe’s lovely listeners would’ve paid less for the album if they could. I know that the average price that people pay for my downloads (of those that pay) is more than $8, and those who paid less… would they have left it alone if I’d put a minimum on it? well, the only album in my catalogue at the moment that has a minimum is the Lawson Dodds Wood album, it’s also the one that has sold the least. By quite some considerable margin. Is that down to the music? Possibly, though that seems deeply unlikely to me – all the feedback I’ve had suggests that it’s one of the most ‘commercially viable’ projects I’ve ever been involved in. But people seem to have missed it…

      I don’t know how much of that is price.

      Another comparison with Zoe – Zoe has had eye-watering numbers of copies of her albums torrented. She’s got the stats for it. How many of those would have paid a dollar? 2 dollars? or even just put in their email address? We don’t know. But I do know that nothing of mine (that I’ve ever been able to find) has ever shown up as a torrent. Despite the fact that, technically, it would even be legal, given the Creative Commons license on everything.

      I do know that people share my music with their friends – I know because they tell me, and even at times ask for permission…

      That said, I don’t think my relationship with my audience is typical. At all.

      You seem to be suggesting that some kind of minimum amount implies value – your value. I’m saying that that is both meaningless – bad music doesn’t suddenly become meaningful because the person selling it wants to charge more. There are people whose music I would’ve downloaded and probably paid a few quid for, but I haven’t because they’ve tried to game it. there are even artists who’ve sent me their music for free, but their desire to try and squeeze $15 out of every listener has made me think they’re idiots, and therefor I’m less inclined to help plug what they do.

      And again, I reiterate, “pay what you think it’s worth” is a whole different conversation to have with your listeners than “pay what you want”, whether they know it or not ;)

      And of course, your album is worth a whole lot more than $5. Seeing a $5 price tag on it is kinda sad. So we’re back to perception. Yours is that price-less things are value-less. Mine is that a low minimum says you’re happy with that amount and that’s under-appreciating the ability and willingness of those people who are grateful for your music to reflect that gratitude in the transaction surrounding them acquiring the music.

      As I said to Trip on twitter, I don’t think there’s a moral imperative here – I don’t think you or Zoe are ‘wrong’ for putting a minimum. I can see situations in which it’s a wise and prudent thing to do… mainly for those people who have other agencies driving traffic to their sales site – Zoe has a huge number of people discovering her music through all the media coverage she gets and other people she plays with – they may well then end up encountering the sales page on her site before connecting with her as a person. At that point, you want the cost of the music to be something that the culture of the people who are finding your music deems to be a ‘worthwhile risk’ (for those who don’t take the time to listen on bandcamp before buying, anyway).

      So Zoe’s pricing works because there’s a general consensus amongst her listeners (the vast majority of whom previously paid either CD or iTunes prices) that the minimum works for them. And we’ll never know how many other people would’ve bought it outside of that…

  • Jeff Schmidt

    PWYW is a tin cup in a train station.

    Thats the way it comes off every time I see it.

    Jussssayin.

    • Steve

      I think it’s quite possible for ‘name your price’ models to come across as nothing more than tip jars.

      The huge difference is that no energy is being spent on making that transaction happen. A tin cup in a train station is there for a fixed amount of time while the person is playing. If I could play for an hour and then have the station leave a donations box on their counter for ever with all them money coming to me, that would be a more consistent analogy, but also would reflect a level of support and value that they had in it…

      But even that doesn’t work. Cos we’re not talking about performance, or tangible stuff at all. We’re talking about a completely new transaction, part of the possibility of infinite replication at zero cost. There are no analogies for that. So we need to rethink it. And the transition is already proving very uncomfortable for those who have mechanisms built around selling CDs-with-music-in.

      So if that’s what you see, that’s a legit response, and one that anyone proposing any kind of listener-governed pricing model needs to confront, deal with, and be aware of.

      Thanks :)

  • Steve thack

    I’d say a set minimum might make sense but prob comes across to many as a suggested price. Wouldn’t be surprised if it reduced average payment. There are albums i’ve bought and paid very low amount for. Done so on basis i was only checking out new act. I Find it more convenient to download than stream. And downloading means it counts on last.fm stats. I definately should have paid more for shemakeswar’s album. And would have done if i’d heard any of her music prior to the purchase. (Then again i’ve bought albums at fixed price that i thought were seriously undervalueing the art (eg burning codes) )
    Would min price have made me pay more? Hmmm not in short term. Ie would have delayed purchase while i listened to artist in other ways. Which could well lose a sale. ( Even with great albums only takes one duff track on your myspace and i’m prob checking someone else out)

  • Brenda K

    Another good and thought-provoking post! I have to say that my (and my music partner Chi’s [wait - let's leave Chi out of this since he is such a product of the Big Music M.O., and honestly if he knew I had just uploaded both of our existing albums onto BandCamp on a PWYW basis, he just might really kill me!]) natural inclination is to side with Jeff since I tend to believe that by making our music available for free, we are making a personal statement that it has no value. However, you have made such a compelling case for offering music on a “pay-what-you-like” basis, and in all fairness one must agree that a digital download has no inherent value since it can be duplicated endlessly at no additional cost, especially given the variety of platforms that offer free distribution of digital downloads. Apparently you start incurring cost once you start charging money for the downloads and need a third-party source to process the payments!

    Your argument that there is no scientifically provable standard of quality is also compelling since it is so hard to shake off our conditioning, at least for us “classical snobs” that OUR standard is the highest one, and admit that quality is entirely in the ear of the beholder and utterly context-based, and thence a totally subjective thing.

    That said, I guess we’re not doing so terribly since we have been consistently selling “hard copy” CDs for $20 each at live performances, even to young people (!) (and in some cases, just by people asking us about our music and then buying them…how do you say “sight unseen” in a hearing sense…”hearing unheard”??? I guess that means that various people who randomly hear our music at the public events we perform at think it is worth paying for, and that is definitely building our fan base on a local level. That of course is in tandem with doing what I can to enhance and personalize the experience of our music to our listeners. Nevertheless, I am convinced that offering “pay-what-you-want” downloads is worth doing as an alternate means of sharing our music in hope of reaching a wider audience.

    Thanks as always, Steve! Thanks also for sharing Jeff’s album. It’s great!

  • Clark Sorley

    I often think that the elephant in the room in discussions like these is a simple fact: that down the decades the great majority of recorded works had zero commercial value. Outside of these works being meaningful to their creators and an immediate circle they were virtually worthless.

    The record business then was like a high stakes casino where the big wins were huge. There were few artists who got recorded at all and of those who did, and had their work released, a tiny minority were commercially successful. They were the hens who laid the golden eggs.

    With technology and the Internet the age of the golden egg is over. What we have in place is something entirely new in its embryo. The old values and associated metaphors don’t make sense any longer. It doesn’t follow that a piece of recorded music should have a given monetary worth. And as I am pointing out, it never did.

    The motive for putting your music out – i.e. letting it go into the electronic ether – has to be that it might be heard. It might be discovered by people in far-flung places it otherwise would not have. This is a great boon. It is an added benefit to any artist in its own right as until fairly recently such a thing was impossible without the patronage of a major player. However, you can’t immediately attach a commercial tag to that with any realistic expectation. Actually if you do, it is likely to have the effect of tying a led weight to your work. It ain’t gonna fly.

    If big numbers catch on to what you’re offering then you’re closer to a negotiating position where money-making deals are possible. Until then, you’re not exactly giving it away, you’re just letting it be heard. Sure, if you can find a way to get folks to part with cash on the way then all power to you.

    Asking people to pay what they want is not a begging bowl it is just adding a further dimension to this interesting new scenario. Some might oblige, most will not. Whichever way it’s a harmless option which does not demean your creativity and value. That will be determined by other, much more important factors.

    • Steve

      Clark,

      thanks – interesting stuff. I think the distinction needs to be made between labels and independent artists, particularly those for whom CD/LP/Cassette sales on tour have always been a vital source of income. I’ve never lost money on a recording project. I’ve made enough to live on for a few months off most of my CDs. CD sales have turned tours that would’ve broken even into profit making ventures, and now the sales of MP3s are making the time spent producing new recordings well worth while, in terms of hourly pay. At a cottage industry level, there has always been gainful employment to be had recording yourself playing, and giving people who *care* about it the opportunity to pay for it.

      The key distinction here is between ‘music’ which is worthless, and ‘my music’ which is priceless. The music I love has most definitely has a value that can easily and logically be expressed monetarily. The ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ model is more than an interesting dimension, as far as I can see – it’s a way of acknowledging that the real value of a work of art is decided by the person experiencing it, not the artist.

      The reasons for the economics of art as it stands are many – from limited access (scarcity) to the illusion of cultural significance, peer pressure, lucky timing re: connection with the zeitgeist and plain old ‘put the time in, get really proficient at your chosen medium, tell compelling stories through it that connect with the culture they exist within’.

      The visceral response to that is to want to experience it, then share it. The emotion most readily transferable between recipient and artist is gratitude. And gratitude is very well expressed through money. Whether it be an old lady giving a kid 50p for helping her across the road, or the person who gave Lobelia and I a hundred bucks at a house concert recently because they’d had an amazing time, and had the means to express it in that way.

      So while Big Music has never been profitable for the artists (it has been massively profitable for the machine behind it), music has generated a huge amount of money from people who are willing to pay for it, and a very sizeable (but largely invisible) number of artists have made a substantial part of their money from selling their music at gigs.

      • Clark Sorley

        Steve,

        We must inhabit different worlds! In my long experience the numbers of musicians who have earned significantly from recordings, independent or otherwise, is small. On a chart of the national economy I suspect they would barely register a blip.

        I think you might be exceptional. Most of the talented people I’ve known find the process of turning their creations into a unit commodity an alien endeavour and soon run out of steam if they try at all.

        Still, I appreciate you make a good argument for recorded music having a healthy commercial future. I fear myself it doesn’t but I’ll be more than happy to be wrong.

        • Steve

          Clark,

          A lot depends on expectations – I don’t think the amounts involved are ‘significant’ in national economy terms, and are certainly a tiny percentage of the gross revenues of all the music industries, but they are significant in the life of a touring musician. Just witness the panic that ensues when someone’s CD shipment doesn’t arrive in time for a tour…

          And the recorded music industry still grosses BILLIONS a year. It’s just that none of it filters through to the artists. The only bits the artists make are the bits they make for themselves. The artists who don’t make any money from CDs on tour are the ones who end up having to buy their own albums from their label at $8 a copy. Insane when the saleable value of a CD in a lot of gig situations now is $10…

          BUT if the CD cost you $2 to print, $10 is plenty of profit, and it becomes part of something worthwhile…

          We also on our last tour made a good amount of money selling USB memory sticks with our entire back catalogue on, with video too… The stick is useful beyond the music, the music was at a much lower per-album cost, but meant that we were able to make more per-show on merch than previously possible thanks to people paying $30 each for the memory stick…

          And of course, at gigs you have the face-to-face element mentioned elsewhere in the comments, and the direct thanks of the artist that you’re buying the music from.

          As I’ve said before, the magic of the new music environment is that is MASSIVELY favours artists who are self releasing their own compositions. We’re in a position of being able to experiment with models, ideas, and do it all in conversation with the people who buy our music.

          If your desire is for the music distribution process to be mediated and managed by a third party, even before you’ve grown to the size where you can no longer manage it yourself, then you’re fucked. If you’re willing to have fun making music that you love and inviting the people who also love it to be a part of its spread and the economics of making it viable to keep making it at the same intensity and still pay the bills, then now is the best time ever for music makers :)

  • Jennifer

    I don’t think ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ is the same as ‘pay what you want’

    Well yeah, but even the first of those doesn’t really do it for me as an expression – partly because the worth of music might not be measurable in terms of cash, and partly because (as you imply here, and I agree) it has no absolute value (in fact, nothing does).

    Even the expression “pay what it’s worth to you” seems wrong to me. Suspending for a moment the question of whether it’s measurable in monetary terms at all, and supposing it is – well, if you’re skint you might easily not be able to afford what you think a piece of music is really worth.

    & I don’t want people to not be able to buy their basic food or whatever because they paid me money. If people are that skint, they can have my music as a present, even if they think it’s worth thousands of pounds. But if they have some discretionary money to spend on entertainment, then they have the opportunity to express their support for my creative work, and take satisfaction in that.

    Connected with this: it’s not only the music which is worth different amounts to different people, the money is too. If a skint person gives me 50p for a song and a rich person gives me 5 quid, that doesn’t necessarily mean the song was worth more to the rich person. The 50p might be worth more to the skint person than the fiver was to the rich person. Some people have so much dosh they wouldn’t even miss 5 grand! The more I think about how money works, the more I think the whole thing is “how long is a piece of string?”!

    So, what I want to be asking people for is more like, something like: Pay what you feel in your heart is the right amount for you to pay, & I hope you enjoy the satisfaction of having supported my work. And if you can’t afford money, maybe you can somehow or other “pay it forward” with something good in the world.

    Not sure how I’d actually word it (& I have a bit more time to think about that before I’m ready to actually “launch” :-) ), but that approaches the spirit of it.

    • Steve

      I think what your linguistic wrestling proves, Jennifer, is that this stuff REALLY comes into its own when you’re in conversation with your listeners. I’ve told various people who were ‘saving up’ for my music that they could download it for free, with my blessing, precisely because of the things you mention – that expansion on the parameters of ‘worth’ is not something that easily translates into a 5 word phrase to sum up the nature of the transaction.

      I regularly get emails from people who say “I couldn’t afford to pay you what I think it’s worth” – so I say, great, pay whatever feels right for you bearing in mind what you can sensibly afford…

      Thanks for bringing this part of the conversation back to the forefront :)

  • Steve thack

    I’d suggest that the income stream from cd sales at gigs is something that is prob in slow decline. Though chance to meet artist, get cd signed and have unique piece of memorabilia of a great night in addition to some great music will be significant source of cash for a long time yet. ( Especially with a bit of clever thinking: tour exclusives, creative packaging, etc)
    Guess i’m most likely to part with my cash when i expect album to be hard to find anywhere else.
    Thinking through last seven albums i bought six of those were at gigs. ( Brain freeze if i go any further back that last 4 weeks) oh and think only one album downloaded in that time. ( And an ep from friend of a friend that he posted me for free) this is me buying less music these days. :)
    One thing i’d like to do more of is pre order an album far enough in advance that you know purchase is helping fund production of the project.

  • Suzanne Lainson

    On Twitter you asked how many of us sold CDs at gigs? I’m not a musician, but I work with one who has always done well with CDs at shows. She’s put out 8 titles and has them all available. She owns all the rights and produces the albums herself. She still prices them at $15. I went to a small concert of hers about two weeks ago. I think 50 people were there and she sold 26 CDs.