Valuing Music: Returning To “The Core”

06/28/2011

Valuing Music Sufjan Stevens and Latte

Do you value an album less if you choose to download it for free rather than purchase it? If you purchase one album at $7.99 and another album at $3.99, do you value the more expensive album more? Jessica Suarez, formerly a writer at Stereogum, recently wrote a piece on the notion of album prices and their construed values for New York City public broadcast company, THIRTEEN, entitled “Remixing Metaphors: Music and the Value of Cost.” The article poses an interesting question: what is the value of an album?

Suarez begins comparing two groups’ stances (Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens) on the price Amazon set for their recent album. On the one hand, Sufjan Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty discouraged fans from purchasing the album at the mere $3.99 comparing it to the “cost of a latte,” while Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold is quoted saying “I’ve downloaded hundreds and hundreds of records — why would I care if somebody downloads ours? That’s such a petty thing to care about. I mean, how much money does one person need?” from an interview with the BBC.

Later in the article, a distinction between the two positions is drawn from a conversation Suarez has with Aram Sennreich, a music industry analyst and media professor from Rutgers, who informs her that price and value are two inherently separate concepts. While the price of music has dropped, he argues the value of music has skyrocketed pointing to the increased number of media players and digital retailers as examples.

“In the beginning musicians performed because they loved it. We weren’t high paid businessmen. We just played on the corner for pennies and nickels. Then it became profitable. Then it became exploited. The internet is a way to bring back, just a touch, to that core.”- Jay Z

Sennreich makes a good point distinguishing between value and price. Pecknold’s disregards for artists’ concern about earning as petty, suggests that those artist are ignoring the intrinsic value of the demand for their music, even if people are unwilling to pay for it. Surely, isn’t having a listener base more important than how much money an artist makes?

In an interview with Cornell West for New York Public Library, rapper Jay Z described the music industry “In the beginning musicians performed because they loved it. We weren’t high paid businessmen. We just played on the corner for pennies and nickels. Then it became profitable. Then it became exploited. The internet is a way to bring back, just a touch, to that core.” Jay Z makes two relevant points: first, the original value for musicians was playing for the love it, and second, musicians earned a value of self-worth through monetary gains.

When Asthmatic Kitty compared selling Sufjan Stevens’ album at $3.99 to the cost of a latte, the point was that monetary value of the album should be more. The problem with this assertion is that it confuses value and price. Some fans might willing to pay more for their lattes than a Sufjan Stevens’ album, maybe out of a need for caffeine, but still value both a latte and Sufjan Stevens’ album the same.

CD pirating and value costs Amazon

The question then becomes what is the monetary value of an album that is both sufficient for artists and attractive to consumers? Rather than answer this question, many musicians have followed the lead of Radiohead, choosing to make their albums available for donation instead of setting a price. In this sense fans can choose for themselves what an artist’s album is worth in comparison to a latte.

There is another advantage, not to be confused with value, with lowering the price of an album which Suarez points out: volume. The less expensive an album is the more likely more people will purchase the album. The gain of exposure is of a value if an artist is interested in popularity. Suarez asked Owen Pallet, a musician who gave away his $20k Polaris Prize money, why musicians would agree to selling their albums at $3.99 to which he replied, “It’s a fast track to massive exposure for the artist, which equals more Last.fm plays, more VEVO views, which equals appearances on Letterman, which equals high placement on festival bills, which equals bigger guarantees for the artist’s live show. You see? Devaluing one’s product might be a tough thing for an artist to deal with, psychologically, but it makes sense from a business perspective.”

Pallet’s point suggests a new marketing model. Forget about making money off the album, view it as publicity. This model surely isn’t easy to accept for musicians accustomed, like Sufjan Stevens, to profiting off their album because it forces them to pursue other methods such as performances, appearances, or sponsorships. Regardless, if the price of a record becomes less than that of latte, it’s incorrect to assume the value of that music has changed. As Jay Z stated, the internet is returning artists to “the core” where value is measured by artists’ love for creating and sharing—and that is priceless.

Sufjan Stevens: “I Walked”

Fleet Foxes: “Helplessness Blues”

This article was originally published at Noise Pop’s “Soapbox.”