February 27, 2019

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Devaluing Music

May 10, 2018

I love discovering new music. Once upon a time, my main source for this was MTV - obviously this was many, many, many years ago. I’d often go to the record store with a song I’d seen in mind and check out the album that begat it. More often than not, if the CD was for sale for $9.99 I’d buy it if I liked the single enough. For some reason, that was my sweet spot when it came to new bands, if a CD was $11.99, I’d likely pass until I heard more music off the album. $9.99 had a decent ROI. $11.99 risked diminishing returns.

 

I discovered a lot of great music this way, including the band, SuperDrag which became one of my favorite bands of the ‘90’s, and Nudeswirl. So the marketing worked. Replacing my vinyl collection was acceptable at anywhere between $12.99 and $15.99 for a CD. But $17.99 for a CD was a rip off, which is Ironic since I’ll now spend literally twice that on rebuilding my vinyl collection provided its 180 gram.

 

But I digress.

 

Now, of course, no one buys CD’s. Heck, most people don’t buy music at all. They merely stream it, which, I guess is the equivalent of renting – provided, of course you pay for a service, but I doubt most people even do that. Use the free tier, hear a few commercials. It’s just like listening to the radio.

 

 

Perhaps it’s all radio’s fault. We’ve gotten used to having music provided to us for free. Now we feel we’re entitled to all music that way, not just the singles that are released and are supposed to spur on sales of the album, but the album itself.

 

And yet, in 2014 when U2 released “Songs of Innocence” for free to reportedly 500 million iTunes users, only 81 million people could be bothered to listen to it in it’s first month. Instead people were more concerned by the fact that the album automatically appeared in their iTunes library and there didn’t seem to be a way to delete it. I don’t know how many complaints I heard about this. People seemed to hate the album on principle. Most wanted it gone, without ever hearing a note of it.

Personally, I thought it was one of their better albums in recent years. In fact, I even bought a vinyl copy of the album when it was on sale, and it got me interested in their music again. Now I’m listening to their follow up “Songs on Experience”. But had I not gotten it for free, I likely wouldn’t have bothered to listen to it. Oh, hell, if I’m really being honest, I probably wouldn’t have even been aware of it had it not arrived in my library enshrouded in controversy.

 

Similarly, in 2007 my interests in Radiohead had begun to wane. I had purchased “The Bends”, “Ok Computer” (multiple times and in multiple formats, to date), “Kid A” and “Amnesiac”, and “Best of”. While I love their music it’s not as accessible as I once found it. Though it eventually pays off, for me, it does take repeated listens, and sometimes I want music that I intrinsically react to, that I get a visceral reaction to, as opposed to music that grows on me, or that reveals its richness with repeated listens.

 

Consequently, I couldn’t muster the same excitement for “Hail to The Thief”. Perhaps part of that has to do with how I first experienced “Amnesiac”, but that’s another story.

 

When Radiohead released “In Rainbows” and allowed consumers to set the price they’d pay for the album, it seemed like a worthwhile spur of an investment for $5. Over the years the album has not only grown on me, but rejuvenated my interest in the band. It got me going back through their older records and checking out the albums I’d previously skipped over.

 

 

However, I recently watched a television show on Radiohead, in which a music journalist stated that by choosing to allow consumers to set a price on “In Rainbows” they had devalued the music on the album.

 

How does that make sense? I mean, I get how it makes sense, because as with “Songs of Innocence” it seems like many people assumed since the album was free it had to be bad. Why would a band as big as U2 give away a good album they could make millions from? It had to be some last ditch effort to rejuvenate their fledgling career. Right?

 

Why do we, as consumers, assume free music by a major artist equates to bad music? Isn’t it hypocritical? People won’t pay for the music they like, preferring to listen to it for free on YouTube or Spotify, but jump to the conclusion an album they can have for free isn’t worth having at all. If this isn’t a case of having it both ways, I don’t know what is.

 

Most people will blame the state of music on the record labels, and I agree, they’re partially responsible. A part of the reason I felt paying $17.99 for a new CD was a rip off was because at the same time the price of blank CD’s dropped to around $0.10 apiece while prices for CD’s with music rose from $15.99 to $17.99. Sorry, but that’s just greed. And it’s a good reason the music industry is in the shape it is currently.

 

But as consumers aren’t we also to blame? Everyone I know speaks about how music enriches their lives, got them through hard times, makes them nostalgic or comforts them. For as much as music enriches our lives, it’s odd how low a premium we put on it.

 

If you ask me, Radiohead didn’t devalue their music, we consumers, did.

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