The Perceived Value of Music

I just read a blog post this morning about a statement made by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) about Spotify’s entrance in the U.S. market. I repeat it here:

Instead of being forced to buy full-length CDs at $15.99, fans can now make their own decision about how much they value music and how much of it they want.

You can read the full blog post from the Copyhype blog here, which addresses the errors of the above statement, including the fact that no one forces someone to buy CD’s and that digital single-song sales have been available for years.

What I wish to comment on is the phrase, “how much they value music”. I was in a three-way conversation recently about how (in my opinion) a whole generation of people believe it’s okay to consume music without having to pay for it. One of those people is 23; the other is in his 70s.

One of the things I like to say when I get in a conversation about this subject is that no one balks about going to a place like Red Robin and shelling out $16 for a cheeseburger and a drink (factoring in taxes and tip), consuming something that is literally here today, gone tomorrow.  But people balk at paying $16 for a CD, or in some cases, even $10 for an album download.

The response of my 23-year old friend did not surprise me. After all, he grew up during the arrival of peer-to-peer file sharing services like Limewire and the original Napster. But it was the reaction of the older person that really surprised me. I thought he would side with me, but then he started going off about needing to stick it to the big record labels. That argument, which I hear often, is SO 20th-century. The fact is, the vast majority of releases today are by indie artists who, like myself, don’t have deep pockets (if they have any pockets at all). We are just trying to, at the very least, break even on the costs of making a record, and hopefully make more than that so we can pay the light bill.

People who don’t value music enough to pay for it aren’t sticking it to the big record companies as much as they are sticking it to the little guy. What do you think about this? Am I old fashioned? I would love to read your comments.



Filed under Art, Music Career

10 responses to “The Perceived Value of Music

  1. Bryn

    Great question, Kelly. I don’t think you’re old fashioned at all. But it is a conundrum to figure out – how to make money as a musician when it is so easy to copy music files or get them for cheap. Larry and I often talk about the parallels between visual art and music, and I think the link here is that it is easy to make high quality prints of great art, and since most of us can’t afford the original, we buy the print. But it is still more fun to own the original. Perhaps the “original” in music is the live performance – something we as musicians have control over.

  2. This is a “hot button” issue for me. Ignorance is saying, “I’m sticking it to the record label.” And it is absolutely crazy making. But I think there is another aspect at play, ENTITLEMENT. Everybody’s doing it, so why not me? This is also crazy making. And really sad, because these individuals have legitimized theft for themselves. They have allowed stealing to become acceptable in their lives and I believe it compromises their moral code for decision making in the future… what will they tolerate next? If they can’t be trusted to act and respond honestly in small things…

  3. Patrik

    I think the idea of “sticking” it to major labels was naive even in the 90s. The truth is that losing a single sale, etc didn’t have a profound effect on a big label, but it did have an effect on the individual artist. Without sales, labels aren’t likely to fund a future album, and they certainly won’t put much effort into promoting it. On top of that, an artist under contract can’t just decide to put out music themselves. It’s like robbing a Wal-Mart employee to get back at corporate interests.

    I would actually be interested to hear specifics about the opinion of your 23-year-old friend.

    • It was interesting. He basically said that he wouldn’t consider buying music unless he was able to get it free first. Then, if he really likes an artist, then he will try to find them on vinyl. I tried to explain that people who make music need to make some money in order to keep making music. I felt like it never really sunk in.

  4. Stephen

    What is Spotify’s payout? .0003 cents if you’re lucky? That’s less than a GLASS OF TAP WATER.

    Yes, we’re in an age where something as worthless as tap water is worth MORE than music.

    Maybe the answer for music is to be the bottled water of the 21st century.

    • Hi Stephen, thanks for your comment. I don’t think the average consumer person is aware of the math. (Sorry, average consumer people.) I had a song of mine get 1,000 streams last year (that we know of, and that is another topic) and it earned me about $4. That is the price of a Happy Hour 1/2-price appetizer. I’m hoping that if I relate the math to something as ephemeral as food, maybe people will get it.

      • Tonepoet

        I dunno guys, I actually think it’s a pretty bad analogy. I mean its logical that something of a transient nature was picked and I know we can have plenty of all in excess but if we’re going to make a direct comparison about it the question must be asked:

        Would any of us really pick music over food and water if it really came right down to it? It’s hard to enjoy much of anything when you’re dehydrated and starving to death, if not already dead. An otherwise reasonable person might take rather drastic actions if forced to make the choice and let’s not forget the world population is constantly going up, increasing the demand.

        Please don’t take this the wrong way, it’s just that when you think about it of it in a purely comparative manner, when contrasted against food entertainment in general is really rather worthless, let alone any specific form like music and especially any single song or tune.

        Also, let’s not forget that your payouts are what’s leftover of after Spotify pays for their expenses and takes their share of the profits. You have to consider how much of that $4 goes back to the farmers who grew all of the ingredients if you want to make a more accurate comparison of value based upon what you receive on your end.

      • Thanks for your comment. I had to read it a couple of times to decide whether or not you were being funny. You were being funny, right? Just in case you weren’t…

        I think you missed my point. I’m not asking someone who is in a “drastic situation” to choose between starving and going without music. That is ludicrous. I am not asking anyone to choose between two things at all. Anyone who goes to a restaurant to spend $15 on a burger and drink clearly is not in a drastic situation, but rather has the means to buy both the burger and the music. They are nowhere near starvation. If they were, they wouldn’t spend that kind of money on a burger. They probably wouldn’t have access to the internet, anyway or walk into a music store.

        My post is referring to the mindset many have that there’s nothing wrong with not paying for music simply because they can get it without paying for it. This makes me think of the times I have been in Latin America and noticed all the bars over the windows and the embedded glass and razor wire atop the walls. The mindset there is that if you get your house broken into, it’s your fault. People justify stealing simply because they can, i.e. you as a homeowner did not take adequate measures to protect yourself. It’s a world where sometimes people really do have the make the choice between starving and stealing. Although there are many in the same “drastic situation” that choose instead to work two or three jobs to make ends meet instead of steal. That is because, despite their hardship, they know that stealing is wrong.

        This makes me think that, for us in this culture, the better thing would be to not spend the $15 on either the burger or the CD, but give it to those in need in impoverished countries. Of course, if that was something we had the means to do, then we could spend $15 on all three options.

  5. Tonepoet

    Although I can see how the notion can be perceived as humorous, I was serious with the comment but I’d ignored one point of stealing that underlies this chain of posts starting from E.F.F. through to here in favor of giving a partial answer one of the questions this particular article posed, e.g. ‘the perceived value of music’ as seen relative to that of food as brought up by the other commentors. Speculatively speaking if food wasn’t both commonplace and perishable, value could be much higher marked by its purveyors, leading to an entirely different sort of world economy where farmers have salaries closer to those of doctors because access to food could be just as effectively limited as medicine could be.

    If you’d like me to address the point of piracy more directly, there are several more factors involved with the way people fallaciously justify their own malpractices, albeit I have yet to hear any of the people I’ve personally spoken to say its justified ‘just because they can.’ Granted there are people who will behave in this fashion but this isn’t the only motive to piracy.

    Some say the value of the work is priced too high but I really don’t see what that has anything to do with it because I feel the services rendered by a particular person are worth whatever that person may set for it be it $.01 or $999,999,999.99 If they don’t like the price, they should go find somebody who’ll render the services within the budget provided. It can never be the exact same thing but that’s part of the value only their service is able to provide you and if they hadn’t rendered the service at all you’d still never have it but at least they’d have their time. If the value one party offers is disproportionate to the actual value being offered by the other, one or both will bend until the value is matched or receive nothing at all, which is the principal upon which a free capitalistic economy is based upon. Copyright only serves to modify the process in a way where collective payment may be substituted in lieu of a lump sum or a lump sum can be invested in by quantifying access to something otherwise unlimited. (Hence copying becomes theft of access directly from the right-sholder.)

    The key issue at hand I think the E.F.F. was trying to exemplify but failed to mention outright is that it seems to be that many of the people, at least out of those I frequently exchange comments with on the subject, seem to be afraid that up-front payment will have them investing value in something they rather much dislike with no recourse for recouping any significant portion of their lost value.

    Even where samples are involved, hidden portions of the work might not be quite as satisfactory as the selective examples provided and the availability of samples might not even encompass a fraction of what’s available on the market. At least so I”m left to speculate anyway, as people tend to reason that they’ll illicitly download something and if they like it, then they’ll buy it.

    The problem with this if practiced as prescribed from an ethical viewpoint, is that once you’ve listened to a track, service has been rendered. Therefore by any kind of equitable standard, some amount of the requested payment is owed, even if it’s not the amount for ownership entitlements. From a practical viewpoint, the author couldn’t preserve control of access to their work from somebody who ultimately decides they’d rather not pay and maintain continued access (regardless of original intent), while also in rare cases it can also break the value of exclusivity deals from an audience willing to invest more in the value of the work. Additionally, the amount of time any of us will spend doing any one thing is indeterminate but finite, thanks to the factor of our mortality. Not only does this decrease the overall demand for music but it also means if you offer up a free hamburger today Tuesday may never come. As such simply offering it up as a freely available service with donations as optional is unilaterally unfair.

    However on the flip side of the coin, it’s of note that if this is truth as opposed to cow cud, one downloaded copy isn’t necessarily one lost sale because if XX.XX% of downloaders ultimately become customers, total losses to the industry are often inflated, since customers needn’t don’t buy access twice unless you carelessly lose your means somehow. Some even go so far to say that if they bought it once and never sold it, it’s remains theirs regardless of where from, a-la Napster’s original rendition of “space shifting” (as opposed to Rio’s more reasonable interpretation.)

    A subscription based on demand service such as Spotify can compromise between the interests of some of the more reasonable people who’re true to their word by making them pay this fractional amount up front for the privilege. Ultimately if the subscription to Spotify lasts long enough, to the point where a specific piece of music is accessed as if it was owned, the royalties come close to paying the 99 cent asking price that’s typical of the more complete access rights an iTunes purchase provides. It also accounts for changing tastes, since you can cut that process off early if you stop listening to the music.

    That is minus any royalties one might’ve paid for times they couldn’t access the music but wanted to since at that point, the value each song adds to the subscription is worth less than an having an iTunes song outright. Pay more get more, pay less get less and eventually you’ll find terms that fit within your budget.

    Copyhype’s right in pointing out that other such services such as Raphsody existed for a long time now and in pointing out there should be no need to obligate certain service provisions. I just think the point the E.F.F. was trying to make was one of such marketplace considerations since the marketplace for these services seems to be gaining more share than they had once before.

    I’d continue but I could ramble on about my viewpoints on copyright until the sun stops shining and think I’ve covered the aspects of piracy that fall within the scope of the chain of posts. Sorry if this is a bit too long already, it’s just that conciseness never been a strong point and where ethical or legal manners are involved, comprehensiveness is paramount. In fact I think the E.F.F’s preliminary err was that they were overly curt and monolithic about the manner.

    • Hi Tonepoet. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I will never again mistake your comments as being in jest. :-)

      What I was hoping to convey via this thread was to somehow make people mindful of the music they consume. If they see value in it, then what is that value? If they like what the artist is doing, what is the best way to show their support? Music, unfortunately, has become so commoditized that the art is disconnected from the artist. As an artist, it would obviously help me out more if people bought the whole CD as opposed to downloading a single track. Granted, when someone listens to the 1m30s samples and only likes one or two songs, then by all means, they should buy only the songs they like. At the end of the day, directly purchasing songs or “albums” provides more direct support to the artist. The Spotify/Rhapsody/LastFM/subscription-service-du-jour model certainly gives the consumer more bang for their buck. But the artist is completely disconnected from the consumer as a result.

      I hope I articulated this well. I appreciate your analysis of the various delivery models and resulting revenue paths. It serves to reinforce my point about music becoming so commoditized as to be atomized.


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