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If a CD costs you $19, does that mean a song is worth $1.72?



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by Michael Goldberg

Monday, April 29, 2002

The Value Of Music

How much is a song you love worth?

What value do you put on music? Is it priceless, or can you put a specific monetary value on it? If a CD costs you $19, does that mean a song is worth $1.72? What about the typical album that has a bunch of duds and a handful of songs you really care about? Do you divide $19 by the five songs you like and figure a song is worth $3.80? Or what?

I'm being facetious, but not entirely. For years now people have been complaining about the price of CDs. The standard argument goes that it only costs a quarter (or something like that) to press up a CD, so how come the price is so high? My standard response: That's like pricing a Picasso based on the materials (canvas, paint, brushes) used to create the painting.

But no, the proponents of cheap music say. A Picasso painting is a one-of-a-kind item; a CD is mass-produced. True, but the music itself — not the plastic disc, not the booklet — has a value far beyond the cost of materials. For me — and I bet for you too — it's of extreme value. When I can't lay my hands on a CD, even if I know I have it somewhere, I have been known to go buy another copy. Why? 'Cause I just have to hear that song, or that album.

For those of us with the music jones, who spend a good portion of our waking hours listening to music, the idea of placing a value on music is kinda ridiculous.

Devolution Of Value?

I got to thinking about this after a discussion got rolling, on a list I'm on that includes a bunch of folks who write about music, about how some people believe file-sharing is devaluing music.

Someone cited an article on the BBC's Web site. It quotes International Federation of Phonographic Industries chairman Jay Berman (former head of the Recording Industry Association of America, the lobbying group for the U.S. music industry): "The [music] industry's problems reflect no fall in popularity of recorded music; rather, they reflect the fact that the commercial value of music is being widely devalued by mass copying and piracy."

"You have an entire generation of people thinking content should be available for free, and that's just not a sustainable long-term business model for the labels," said Hank Forsyth, media analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein.

The concern of the music business, of course, is with what people are willing to pay for a recording. Value, for them, does equal dollars. But for music fans, that equation falls apart, and no one should know that better than rock critics, who get a lot of the music they listen to for free. Record companies send them promotional copies in hopes that the critics will like the album and write nice things about it. So critics, more than most music fans, know that "value" and cost have no real relationship when it comes to music.

Since I'm one of those critics who gets my share of free CDs, is the disc I pay for worth more to me than one that arrives in the mail at no cost?

To me, that's completely beside the point. If the CD contains music by an artist I care about (and after I've played it, music that I quickly can't live without), then it's of great value to me.

I don't mean to argue in favor of record companies continuing to jack up the price of CDs, but I do think the point is worth making that the "value" in music is not based on how much one does or doesn't pay for the CD or vinyl or download.

It seems that we have become so brainwashed that many of us do value things based on their cost. The more expensive the dinner, the shirt or dress, the concert ticket, the hotel room, the more valuable it is. I would certainly argue that when dealing with art, this is hogwash. It may cost me $7 or $8 to get into a museum, but if the works of art I get to experience up close move me in some meaningful way, that experience is way beyond the idea of "price" or monetary value.

Free Downloads?

The problem with free downloads, as I see it, goes back to the artist and the record company. The artist has created the music, often (but not always) with some input from the record company. The record company makes an investment in the artist with the hope of making a profit on its investment. We may not like the deal the artist and the record company agreed on, but if we take the music without paying, neither the artist nor the record company are compensated for their work. And that's not right.

Now some will argue that free downloads are good for artists and for record companies. In fact, Calvin Johnson, owner of K Records and the leader of the band Beat Happening said at the Experience Music Project conference that file-sharing was the "best thing that's happened." He went on to call file-sharing "our version of radio play. We put our songs on the Internet and think it's awesome."

I think Johnson is right, but I also think that it should be the choice of the artist and the record company to make certain songs available for free download — or not. The music that, say, Beat Happening creates and records belongs to them, not to you or me. If they choose to give it to us, wonderful. But if they want us to pay for it, we should pay if we want it.

Now if, by using file-sharing software, more people are actually exposing themselves to new music they haven't heard before and then, when they find a new artist they dig, buying the album — well, I think that's great. But if they're doing what some people I know are doing — filling out their AC/DC collection for free, or creating a hard-disk jukebox by grabbing songs they don't already have on CD off the Net, well, that's just not cool. I still call that stealing and I'm not alone. "I know that if you make something and someone steals it, that's theft," Elvis Costello said in an interview that ran in The New York Times Magazine Sunday, April 28. "That's all you need to say about file-sharing, isn't it? Where's the ambiguity?"

Taking an artist's work without paying and without their permission is disrespectful of the artist. But it doesn't "devalue" the music. Hardly.

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