More Nonsense Music Economy Quotes, this time from Vince Gill (in 2012!)

As is the way with Internet things, just as it happened with that Joni Mitchell quote a while back, there’s a Vince Gill quote that’s circulating as a meme again after a few years away. The actual quote is apparently from an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in February 2012, and begins ‘I still want to have hit records’, which points to a slightly different set of concerns than the bit that’s circulating.

The quote in the meme is this, “The devaluation of music and what it’s now deemed to be worth is laughable to me. My single costs 99 cents. That’s what a [single] cost in 1960. On my phone, I can get an app for 99 cents that makes fart noises — the same price as the thing I create and speak to the world with. Some would say the fart app is more important. It’s an awkward time. Creative brains are being sorely mistreated.”

Now, remember that this is from 2012 – the streaming economy was in a wholly nascent form, and the idea of railing against a download costing 99¢ seems absurdly quaint in these days of micropayments and disappearing songwriter royalties.

However, I get where his disquiet was coming from, he was part of the ‘golden age’ of recording artists, and was a huge success in the CD years.

But even if we’re talking about the cost of a download being the issue here, there are huge practical and economic holes in his argument – ones that would be written off as so obvious as to be not worth dealing with if it weren’t for the resurgence of the meme. So here we are…

The problem with his raw comparison of price – beyond even the issues of inflation hinted at in his quote – is the massive reduction in the unit cost of manufacturing and distribution. Of that 99¢ in 1960, a huge portion of it went on making the vinyl and trucking it round the country, with manufacturing being replicated across continents if it ended up as a global success. Every radio station needed a physical copy, shipped to them, and the staff to do that shipping got paid. It was a fragile, high cost item where a teeny percentage of that went to the artist (once they’d recouped on their deal) and the writer (once they’d recouped on their publishing deal).

So the distribution portion of that 99¢ now is the cost of uploading a file once for each shop. It can be fully automated, and if it’s viable can even be brought in house and done on your own website or server. The percentages taken by companies for download sales (when they still happen, which is for the most part a Bandcamp thing these days) are much, much smaller but even then are much more likely to be profit for the company concerned, so marginal are the costs-per-track of hosting an MP3 download.

So if I sell a single track for 99¢ (a frankly ridiculously huge amount for a single track download, given what it is that most of us are trying to ultimately do, which is get people to fall in love with our music and support all of it) I get to keep a much bigger percentage of that. If Vince Gill’s record deal is/was so shitty that his label takes it all, that’s a problem with label deals, not music being devalued…

Music has become a ubiquitous good, instead of a scarce good – this happened 20-odd years ago, so was old news by the time he started musing on the cost benefit analysis of music vs comedy apps. Music being a scarce good, pre Internet, meant that if I made 1000 7” singles and sold 1000 singles, I needed to spend a good chunk of my money making another 1000 singles to sell. That’s not the case with downloads or even with the horrors of streaming…In fact, it’s the main reasonable defense of streaming – the fact that repeat listening means you keep getting paid suggests that there’s a level on which it’s a more accurate reflection of the value the listener places on your work over time, rather than of your ability to convince shoppers that they need to own your piece of plastic this week, regardless of how they’ll feel about it in years to come. And no further investement or production cost is required from the artist. The work continues to accrue payment just by people choosing to listen to it more. I’m not wholly convinced by that argument and how it interfaces with the phenomenology of ownership as it relates to music collections, but it’s a fairly solid economic principle, even if the numbers involved are currently ruinous for many musicians and songwriters…

So the bigger problem in discussing this – whether we are having an historical argument with a Vince Gill quote from 9 years ago, or a current debate about the value and economy of streaming – is we have no comparative metrics for understanding what the value of that “music” is to us or to the listener when its decoupled from a piece of plastic that cost a shitload to produce and distribute, and the vast majority of musicians and music industry people aren’t taking the time to talk to their audience/market about value in any way other than comparisons with the price of coffee or fart-apps.

We need to present the conversation about value in terms that don’t start with ‘I still want to have hits’ – that’s of no use to anyone in deciding what is and isn’t important within the music economy. One person’s desire for a hit record doesn’t impact on the relative merits of pricing systems at all, whether they’re product or experience based and they certainly are no measure of whether ‘music’ in an abstract or concrete sense has been devalued.

What, I’d suggest, does matter is the degree to which any model supports sustainability and biodiversity – more music, more diverse musical practices, happening in more places by more people. A model that doesn’t prioritise the familiarity of wealth experienced by those who were famous for selling bits of plastic, but also acknowledges that platforms generating wealth for shareholders at the expense of the artists making the work for which access is being charged is a truly horrible model. But the record label age was that too. Execs made WAY more than the vast majority of recording artists, because the artists were almost always the last to get paid. Same as it ever was.

Just have a think before you cosign Vince’s decade old musings on the value of an economy that’s been superseded by streaming in the intervening years…

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