What is Music Worth?

For the past two weeks I’ve been working my way through David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works. To my surprise, I found the lengthy chapter on the music business, band finances, and record deals utterly fascinating. It’s led me to an interest in the business side of popular music — an interest that surprised me. I’m usually content to be the anti-capitalist who’d rather critically appreciate music than learn about the nuts and bolts of how it got to my living room.

Then I happened upon a piece, written by music journalist Nitsuh Abebe, about the band Grizzly Bear. It was entitled, “Grizzly Bear Members Are Indie-Rock Royalty, But What Does That Buy Them in 2012?” I highly recommend reading it. It paints a sobering portrait of what it is like to make a living in a moderately successful, critically adored indie band. However, the article is not trying to cultivate a “woe is me” view of musicians. It is instead trying to tease out some of the financial realities of being in a successful independent band in the year 2012. What does making a living as a musician — even a modest, lower-middle class living — look like in a musical culture of piracy and album leaks?

At one point during the article, Grizzly Bear’s frontman, Edward Droste, says that paying $9 on iTunes for the band’s new album, Shields, is hard for him to wrap his head around. For the band, these ten songs represent two years of collective artistic effort. Nine dollars is, in his words, “the price of an appetizer, a large popcorn at the movie theater, and you’ll have it forever, and [we] took two years to make it.” Keep in mind, too, that bands net about 14% of the profit from an album purchased on iTunes — in this case, about $1.26.

I’m sympathetic to Droste’s argument, although I realize that there must be some balance; while I have paid upwards of $25 for a vinyl LP, it does limit the number of albums I can buy. I could have purchased three albums on iTunes for that same amount. However, I know that I am a person who enjoys the vinyl at least three times as much, so for me it is worth it. The extra expense also makes me select albums much more carefully; I don’t just buy whatever seems like it could be interesting. Combined with the enjoyment of periodic trips to a record store, the sonic qualities of vinyl, and beauty of the large artwork, and the ritual of putting on and caring for a record, the choice for me is a no-brainer. I’ll take the hard copy any time (even if it’s a CD). The music just means more to me that way. Plus a more significant chunk of the money I spent supported the artist and the independent record store. (The exact numbers vary depending on country, terms and type of record deal, transportation, and other variables, but it’s at least three or four times more than through iTunes.)

Anyway, after the Byrne chapter and the Grizzly Bear article, I kept running into articles about the state of the music industry and the value (or apparent lack thereof) of popular music. I read musician Damon Krukowski’s excellent piece on the insultingly low royalties being paid by streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora. For example, he estimates that it would take 312,000 plays on Pandora to earn the profit of one LP sale.

After that, I came across author Chris Ruen’s column on Pandora and Spotify, which basically further elaborates on some of Krukowski’s points. He concludes that free content is having a negative effect on musicians, and (inevitably) on artistic creativity more generally. And I don’t see how he could be wrong about this; the content may be being consumed for free, but it certainly isn’t free to produce.

Then, to end on a pithier note, just a few days ago, I saw a retweet, originally by an author named Brent Weeks (@brentweeks):

Two things strike me about this tweet. First, obviously there’s the discrepancy in the value of artistic production. But second, the fan’s outrage highlights how defensive we get when we’re asked to ponder the wider ramifications of our consumption habits. This is telling. Consuming is so closely linked to our identities that we perceive even the mere opening of a debate on the subject to be Luddite nostalgia or an attack on our “rights and freedoms” (usually vaguely defined).

I suspect that most of the time, these protests are smoke screens; it’s not a question of cost, or of freedom; it’s a question of (1) priorities and (2) a basic knowledge of social responsibility. If someone wants to illegally download music, that’s their choice; but it can’t be disconnected from the negative effect it has on musicians. It won’t do to blame someone or something else. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. In the end, I don’t know what music is worth. Its worth isn’t ultimately quantifiable at all. But surely it must be worth more than $0.00.

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