The first guest post in our series on the value of music is by Brooklyn based indie artist Matt Morrell. Matt is an indie singer-songwriter in the vein of Conor Oberst, the Mountain Goats and Jeff Buckley. Not only his is stuff great and absolutely worth checking out but he has some great thoughts on what the value of music is, from the perspective of an independent artist.
To refresh your memory, the question I asked was:
“What is music worth today? Is it worth the $17.99/album that a CD retails for? Is it worth the $9.99/album that you can buy an album for on itunes? Is music free (or devoid of worth), now that it can so easily by disseminated online? Does it have some other value or gain value from some other place?”
The main thing to keep in mind from a musician’s standpoint is that traditional music sales are no longer anyone’s primary source of income. Just as a hit record today may never be played on the radio, the days of record sales being a barometer of a musician’s popularity are over.
Goal #1 as a musician is not to sell your music; it’s to get people to love your music. CDs, in one sense, are leverage that you can use to get your music into people’s minds and hearts, and the price you set on that music is a tool, albeit an important tool, on the road to that goal.
Purchasing music is not charity. Ever since Napster arrived, there has been this constant barrage of messages about how artists need us to buy their albums. I don’t subscribe to that argument, and frankly I find the appeal a little obnoxious. The industry around record sales, the same industry that has fifty years of clauses built into record contracts to keep artists mired in debt, they might need record sales, but artists – middle class, working artists – are in a much better position now that their careers aren’t judged by Soundscan numbers.
So to get to the question, I think the price of music starts at just around zero and shifts in a kind of auction with the changing context of the work. From a band’s point of view, I think the CD has three ways of looking at its price: the price as a “record,” the price as “music”, and the price as “merch”.
As a record, that $18.99 price tag on a CD sitting lifeless in a store is probably more of a liability to you unless you are a successful pop-country artist with heavy radio and CMT rotation. (Pop-country, of course, is the exception in any discussion of CD prices or relevance). Even if you’re lucky enough to get label backing or distribution, you don’t get to see much of the profits from CDs sold at a retail store. People might be paying nearly twenty dollars, but there are lots of hands in that pot and you won’t see much of the money. At best, it’s cool to have your CD in a store next to records like “Blonde on Blonde” and “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain”.
On the other hand, as “music”, an album of mp3s downloaded “illegally” off the internet but played constantly on someone’s iPod could easily bring in $15-$50 a year in merch and ticket sales at shows down the line. As a “legal” download, iTunes and Amazon are kind of doing the job right now, but I don’t know how long it can last. The process of actually loading up and iPod and credit cards and all that nonsense is pretty cumbersome. Until digital music is as easy – and cool – as going to a record store counter and putting down some cash for a 45″ single, that part of the business is transitional at best.
Then there is the CD as “merch”. Merch sales are the lifeblood of a band anyway, and CDs are a crucial part of that. There’s a difference between a CD you bought in the store and a CD you buy from a show. It’s a souvenir, and at many shows, you buy it directly from the band itself.
And when the band gets a little more creative, there is no limit to how much they could get for a CD, either at a show or over the internet. A band with a great following will easily be able to get $20 a disc on their website for a short-run CD, signed by the band, at very little cost to them. I know some bands have a problem doing this, but music fans love autographed stuff. And why not: you can’t get an autographed mp3. A fan is much, much more likely to fall in love with an album that they have an autographed copy of even if they had already downloaded it for free on the internet.
Bands and artists have never had more freedom in setting their own price for their music. There is no set “retail price” anymore, and any band worth a fan’s time will figure out how to set the right prices in the right context. Still, no matter what the price on the music is, who’s paying for it, or what medium that music is on, every artist has to get out there, make great music, connect with their audience and play shows. There is not, nor will there ever be a substitute for passion, persistence, and commitment to craft.