Music Is Worthless

The BBC have an article today, in which they report on Rob Dickins, former head of Warner Music UK, saying that albums should cost a £1.

It’s a fairly radical step, and there’s some merit in what he says, as a response to currently-illegal downloading, within a fixed price market.

However, what’s missing from this is the simple fact that music is worthless. ‘Music’ as in noises that fit within the ‘organised sound’ definition that most of us recognise as music, has no inherent value at all. All the value is contextual. It can be invested, it can be enhanced, it can even be manufactured counter to any previously measured notions of ‘quality’ with a particular idiom, but it’s not innate. Noise is not a saleable commodity.

So, we’re back to the point I’ve been making time and time again. The financial value of music is entirely based on the listeners sense of gratitude for it – that gratitude can be

  • to the music itself for existing,
  • to the artist for making it,
  • to the person who introduced it to them and to the community/culture that fosters its existence.

And there are three entirely natural ways for that gratitude to be expressed:

  • Sharing
  • Saying Thankyou
  • Paying for it.

The problem facing those who ‘set prices for download music’ is that the price/value/gratitude matrix is impossible to second-guess. And fixed prices completely mess it up. A fixed price becomes a game of brinkmanship between artist and listener. The calculation of value is done without any room for altruism, for a sense of sponsoring or fostering art, for being a patron of the continuation of the art that we love.

The stats are there to back it up. My own experience with download sales has been that some people are happy to pay £20 for a download album of music that they love by someone whose work they want to see continue. They are almost always people who I have had contact with, that could be described as friends, but often that friendship came out of them listening to my music, being introduced to it by some other means.

I know that Zoe Keating has had a (small) number of people pay $100 for her latest album. Why? Because they have the means to and it’s a great way of demonstrating their love for her art in the face of a music industrial environment that is trying to force people to pay amounts that have no bearing on the cost of releasing music to the artist, or the value of that music to the listener.

Big Music – the major industrial model for releasing recorded music – is broken. It’s been broken for decades.

Now is the best time ever to be a musician making music and finding an appreciative audience for that music. The story telling that goes on around the creation of music and its inspiration is the best possible way of investing potential value in the experience of listening to it, and of encouraging people to go against the economic norms of the day and think about what music means to them and how much they are willing to pay to reflect that value to them, as their part in the ongoing financial viability of spending time making music.

It’s beautiful. It’s magical, it’s a chance to take art and tell stories about it, to get excited about things being wonderful and meaningful rather than spending HOURS talking about just how fucked up the latest crop of contestants are on The Apprentice. Or how bad the singers are on X-Factor.

Take great things, share them, be grateful for their existence and their role in making the world a nicer place.

Here’s some music that I love, that’s I’m proud of, that I’d love you to hear. You can listen to it all here, you can download it, share it with your friends on facebook or twitter, bookmark it for later, and if you want to you can pay whatever it’s worth to you. If you want to prove Rob Dickins’ point, pay a pound for it. If you want to get into a ‘whose listeners pay the most’ competition with Zoe Keating, feel free to pay $101. I’m happy either way 🙂

19 Replies to “Music Is Worthless”

  1. went to a panel at frieze yesterday. art academics talking about “who owns images” … like sitting in on a 2007 coffee shop conversation … your understanding is needed beyond just you field of music

  2. Whilst all this makes sense to a reasonable person, I very much doubt any record company will adopt anything like this as there is no way of predicting anything. If it costs £1 to buy an album they can then do their predictions and say we need to sell so many albums to recoup the album creation costs that the artist is gonna pay for one way or another anyway.

  3. Personally i like the pay what you can afford model but certainly understand why it would scare some artists. A lot of the acts i follow i think would be really suprised to pick up new fans on line- the live music is what its all about. So they really wouldn’t expect to sell much in way of extra copies by adapting a pay what ever approach. And would also wish to focus on physical sales to cover overheads for getting stuff pressed. Anyway presuming we stick to fixed price model then for downloads i’d suggest most folks are seriously over charging ( putting my anarcho socialist tendencies to one side to thinking as an economics graduate in term s of profit maximizing i’m sure lower prices in many cases would increase not only sales but profits.)
    On other hand if cd prices do fall slightly and price of downloads significantly i’d expect a similar drop in what folks pay on pay whatever deals. So the big labels continuing to stupidly over charge may be in other peoples best interest. For musicians and labels scared by pay what you like deals can i suggest most artists know full well 90 percent of sales will either be at gigs or be to established fan base within say three months of release. So honestly there isn’t much to lose by say putting last years album up on band camp. 🙂 see how it goes.
    Thoughts all over the place today so sorry if this is bit muddled.
    The fixed price quid an album idea hmmm could seriously pull rug away from under feet of folks doing pay what you can afford. That said if buying straight from an artist quid an album is prob more than same artist would have seen if signed to a major label.

  4. I’m not sure that describing the exchange of a product for a fixed price of cash as “brinkmanship” is going to cut much ice with either the major record labels or your average punter.

    It’s capitalism, and that’s the system we’re baptised into at the moment. I don’t like it much either, but that’s what we’re up against here.

    I mean, I’m really in favour of the pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth model (or in my case “pay-what-you-can-afford”, which is not really the same thing), as well you know, and I think/hope it’s the future, but I think it’s certainly too much of a leap for major labels who have got probably too much money and pride invested in an old (ie. buggered) business model.

    I think the “pay-what-it’s-worth” model (can I just type PWIW?) is the future, but we’re not there yet. Part of your forming relationships with the people who buy your music, as you describe, enables you to communicate the PWIW model and cultivate the idea, but it’s not the same as people having a collective understanding of what that is, even post-Radiohead/In Rainbows.

  5. I completely agree with you, Steve, when it comes to digital/online music downloads. People should pay what the music is worth to them because all they are really getting is binary info that stores the music they like – it’s nothing really tangible.

    However, CDs are a completely different story. A band/artist selling CDs at a show or in a story should NOT be giving them away for whatever the audience feels like paying. CDs are tangible objects and therefore should have a set minimum price – to cover the costs of creating the CD and a bit more to give an average value to the music itself. Then if people want to donate a bit more while buying the CD that’s not a problem, but CDs (and vinyls for that matter) need a set price. I see Matt Stevens operating like that and it works for him, eventually I’d like to make it work for myself.

    Great points as always on the music industry, though, as always.


  6. Tipping as a show of appreciation has long been with us, but I think it needs a face-to-face component to work. People tip to support the artist, but they also want the artist to acknowledge them back and they often want their friends to see them making the tip. Trying to do this online really loses a lot of the personal interchange that make tipping and donations work.

    Here are my thoughts about it at more length.

  7. 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”.

    1. There are some similarities between the concept of a “gift economy” and “pay what you want.” A true gift economy is based on actually giving away your stuff rather than hoping to get any sort of compensation. Unfortunately gift economies rarely go both ways. The artists give away their stuff, but they tend not to get the necessities of life back in return. The way most artists survive is with day jobs, grants/patrons, or selling their art.

      So far I’ve done six parts to the series. Here’s the most relevant:

      1. Lots of great points covered in your link Suzanne, thanks for sharing it.

        The “New Feudalism” is certainly something I’ve long felt implicitly about artists relationship to sites like MySpace/Facebook/Reverbnation/BandCamp etc…

        Value flows to the aggregator – not necessarily the aggregated even though without them, there would be nothing to aggregate. 🙂

    2. This was basically my point about CDs, but I don’t think you should force people to put a price on intangible items such as binary music files. If you don’t regularly listen to music you’ve downloaded for free, well I’m sorry, but that’s your own problem. Giving a certain value to music you got for free is up to you – I give a lot of value to a lot of the music I illegally downloaded. And the ones I give the most value to, I go and buy CD versions – a.k.a. tangible items that deserve a set price tag.

      But you can’t force people to pay for this they can’t even touch, even though it might touch them.

      I’m sorry you’ll be saddened and/or maddened every time someone copies your music to their friend’s hard drive. I look at it as an opportunity for more people to discover my music…


      1. “I’m sorry you’ll be saddened and/or maddened every time someone copies your music to their friend’s hard drive.”

        did I say this?

        Please refer me to the quote where I did.

        ” but I don’t think you should force people to put a price on intangible items such as binary music files”

        Really, what about software?

        No one is saying you “can’t” give your music away with “pay what you want”.

        I’m just pointing out how dumb it looks to me.


      2. I’m not saying you said that, I’m just saying it as a consequence of your arguments.

        And I pirate most of my software, mainly because I can’t afford the real thing. But software is different – it’s a true product that functions and you do things with; it’s a lot more tangible than a music file. See, forcing people to pay for a music file is like forcing people to pay for a Word document or a PDF. Forcing people to pay for software is like forcing people to pay for a tool – it makes a lot more sense to pay for a tool than to pay for an intangible product, because as a tool a piece of software is indeed very tangible (you can actually use it).

        And I know no one is saying I can’t do it, but what’s an argument if we all agree to stop!

  8. @Jeff S. Urgh…you sound a pissed off 🙁 and (sorry) a bit aggressive too – doesn’t really make me want to get more interested in your music… Oh well…don’t suppose you care about that 🙂 Fair enough, and honestly I’m NOT having a go at you – just writing down my gut reaction to what you said.

    OK then. I take your point about making a living and that people don’t “give away” stuff in other walks of life – actually they often do… like their time for example. I also very much agree that people should value what they do.

    (The analogy to visual artists doesn’t really work for me… They most oftentimes produce one off “stuff” it’s a whole different thing to reproducing digital files.)

    The problem is not that one shouldn’t charge for the work you do/make… The problem is the present delivery model – It’s bloody broken! And you can’t fix that without threatening people with laws that are unenforcable…Or forcing ISPs to police their customers. (OK…Blaa blaa yes we all know this…. and you were making a slightly different point in that musos should state a fix price..?)

    Not every musician is going to be liked/appreciated enough to make a go of things…it was always like that… but at least everyone now has a chance to try – It also means that the truly talented who are not “mainstream” now really have a chance to change the musical sound map….And I really do think that’s an amazing thing.

    The present situation will change – not least in that people will realize that if they don’t pay a small something for things they will have no musicians/artists left to create work for them. I could be wrong but I believe there are enough people who think like that to make this work.

    I rather agree with @mike R “…I think the “pay-what-it’s-worth” model (can I just type PWIW?) is the future, but we’re not there yet…”

    Thanks Steve for getting people to react here – brilliant!

  9. I would like to say thank you for this post and a number of others I have spent the last hour or so reading, I’m really quite appreciative of the insight, as I speak purely from the dedicated music fan’s perspective. There’s a lot here both in the posts and comments for me to digest and (attempt) to reconcile to some of my own pre-conceived notions, so I likely have little to contribute to the conversation at large, but I do some of the bigger picture hasn’t been addressed.

    I understand the point of view in regards to the financial value of music being based on a listener’s gratitude for it. I have paid well above token amounts for downloads at Bandcamp under the ‘name your price’ strategy out of respect and a level understanding that what I recieve is the end result of sometimes years of dedication, frustration and plain old work, thus, I believe that should be compensated for if I choose to reap the benefits.

    I am a little old school in that I much prefer my music to be contained on a physical format, primarily because it allows me other indulgences that I am both accustomed to and appreciate, but ultimately I do not place less value on a download just because it’s ‘intangible’, or rather, doesn’t have some paper and plastic bits for me to place on a shelf and be all proud of having. At the end of the day, all music on all formats is data – be it analogue or digital – housed on synthetic material, therefore ultimately I pay for the music, not the idea that I have something “more” than that.

    But I also am aware that the public at large has a very different attitude – the dedicated music enthusiast (as I so call myself and if I may be so bold) is a very different creature to that of the casual listener. Mr Dickins is speaking from a business perspective, and while his proposal caters for the casual listener, it is designed to benefit the major labels with high profile artists – much, I believe, to the detriment of independent artists and labels.

    If, and I suppose at this stage that’s a big if, major label releases became available for next to nothing, the balance between high profile labels/artists and their independent counterparts will shift dramatically. Artists who make their work freely available in a bid simply to be noticed and heard lose one more drawcard as an attractive alternative. Labels that value craft beyond that of music and can not afford to mass produce their physical releases, nor would they have the market for them for it to be viable, will find it that much harder to justify needing to charge ten or fifteen times the amount of a major label release – because the average joe’s view has been narrowed down to that £1 price tag.

    I am not a musician, but I have my own creative pursuits as well as run my own, very small, business. People do place value on music and art outside the realm of the financial. -But- it is human nature to not just equate the two, but to see them as directionally proportional. Ergo the higher we value something, the more we are prepared to pay for it. Coversely, from a simple consumer perspective, the less we “have to” pay for it, by and large, the less we value it. Like it or not, the actual price placed on something greatly affects the overall public perception of its inherent value, which is the crux of Mr Shalit’s bottled water comment, though a better analogy could have been used, and is what the poster above – Jeff Schmidt – has conveyed with his reaction to ‘pay what you want’ Bandcamp releases.

    A former music industry exec saying albums should be £1 is little more than someone attempting to solidify music as a disposable consumable, which I believe to be a very dangerous thing indeed for all concerned, because if you tell the general public that’s what it is, a very high number will agree.

  10. Great discussion, sorry I’m a bit late to it, will subscribe to this blog to be more timely in the future.

    I read the post and the comments, here’s my two cents:

    – The reason that all the arguments for and against free are so tortured is that we all know it’s against the law to take copyrighted material from someone else without his permission. Sorry, but until you change the law, that’s the situation.

    – If you were to change the law, what should it be? I have never heard a good idea, and even Creative Commons fails as it is difficult to define “commercial”.

    – As for pricing, I seriously doubt real time pricing is the way to go. It was tried in the heady days of dot coms and bombed. Better to attack the fixed costs in royalty schemes, and then maybe try some pricing stuff, rather than simply going all hippy and sharing everything.

    More to say, but my comment is long enough! For anyone who’s interested, here is a post I did on what I call The Culture of Free:


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