What is music worth?

January 24, 2008 | By | 9 Replies More

A few months ago the English alternative rock band Radiohead released their long awaited album “In Rainbows” as a free download, leaving it up to the fans to decide what they would pay, if anything at all.

As someone who has had the difficult and expensive experience of distributing physical copies of my documentaries on DVD I can tell you that it was with great anticipation that I viewed this experiment. I was surprised and a little disappointed to find that only 40% of those downloading actually paid for it.

I recall as a young man buying vinyl records for about $5 a piece and watching as the price slowly went up and up, hitting about $12 before giving way to CDs which eventually topped out at around $16 to $18 a pop. These days, with iTunes selling individual songs for $.99 and most albums for about $9.99, I feel like I am getting a bargain. Of course, I still have the expense of having to burn my own CDs to play them in my car, not being hip enough to own an MP3 player.

Still, I find myself wondering what I would pay for some of my favorite music if given the opportunity to decide on my own. The temptation to take it for free would be strong but I am smart enough to know that if enough people do that the ability to place our own value on music would disappear, as it has done with Radiohead. The band has since retracted its “free or whatever” offer, prompting some to accuse the band of chickening out as they saw potential revenue slip through their fingers.

In the band’s defense, Radiohead’s leader Thom Yorke contends that it was always an experiment, not a business model for themselves or anyone else, and that it had run its course. (As of December 31st “In Rainbows” has become available on iTunes and the CD can be purchased through the usual outlets.)

However, a nagging question still remains. Now that music is being freed from the cost of being physically reproduced on disk, how much should we pay for it?

What is music worth to you?


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Category: Art, Consumerism, Current Events, Entertainment, Media, music, Statistics

About the Author ()

Mike Pulcinella is a documentary filmmaker.

Comments (9)

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  1. Alison says:

    I'm old-school, and pay for pretty much everything I get. Yeah, I've been guilty of taping movies off TV and fast-forwarding through the commercials. I've gotten a few hard-to-find CDs from friends and put the tracks on my ITunes. But I know that the people who are selling their tunes on the internet are trying to do something good – make the music available to more people, with less of the money going towards manufacturing and more towards the artists, so I'll pay. I also like being able to pick the songs I pay for – no more getting the album home and finding only two tracks I like. (That's good feedback for the artists, too, telling them what works and what doesn't.) However, the kids who cut their teeth on hacking and phreaking and getting free downloads and cracking copies have a different mindset. No matter how good an artist's intention, he, she, or they need to keep in mind that they need to balance their altruism with a healthy cynicism.

  2. "…they need to keep in mind that they need to balance their altruism with a healthy cynicism."

    I learned that the hard way when I noticed that there were several posts on a bodybuilding forum that described how and where to get free downloads of popular bodybuilding DVDs. I then posed the question, "Why should I finish Raising the Bar 3 (the latest installment of my documentary series) if all you want to do is steal it??" Along with some very complimentary responses I was disheartened to find a callous attitude toward piracy among many of the forum members. Don't they realize that they are removing the incentive for producers to create the very materials that they crave?

    Apparently not.


  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Living in Nashville, I've met several recording artist, and ont thing often missed in this sort of debate is that the record label gets the lions share of the profits from the music sales, with as little as 12 cents of each CD sold going to the original artist.

    In the past, the companies claimed the overhead involved with manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing the physical media, not to mention the financial risk involved with fronting all that money for a product that might not sell, but with many of them using publishing on demand technologies, and electronic distribution sites like I-tunes, this is not justified, and still these companies want to charge about the same price and filter down about 1 cent per song to the artists.

    The music publishing industry has in the past been controlled by a cartel of publishers, who would basically tell the artists "Take this deal on our terms or you won't get published", which gave no choice to the artists and kept a lot of good music from reaching the listeners.

    This is true in all forms of media. Ask John Fogerty or Roger Waters, two well known singer/songwriters that were prohibited from performing their own compositions, while their former record labels raked in tons of money in royalties and did not have to pay residuals to them as they were no-longer in their original bands,

    Then there was the cast of "Gilligans Island" , who referred to the show as a carreer killer. and they got no income from the profits made on the show when it was syndicated. Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr, Jim Backus, Natalie Shafer and Tina Louise were all well known for supporting roles in various TV shows and movies before. but while Sherwood Schwartz lived well off the syndication, most of the cast got out of acting. Dawn Wells who played Mary Ann, operated a florists shop in Nashville for several years.

    The problem is that somewhere along the way, the publishing industry started to believe that alternative opportunity costs were real losses, and they lobbied for such legal travesties as the digital millenium copyright act(DMCA) and the Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act (UCITA) which not only attempts to outlaw the fair use of copyrighted materials, but extends the definition of piracy to include fair use, places the authority for enforcement under the control of the publishers and absolves the publishers of any responsibility for abuse of this authority.

    In 2006, the band Twisted Sister, produced a CD of traditional and not-so traditional Christmas songs performsd in a heavy metal style of rock. After the CD hits the stores, they made all of the songs available on the internet for free with no strings attached. Sales of the CD went up.

    As for Radioheads album, they have a good idea. The probably made a good bit from the donations recieved during the limited availability, and it put the music out where it could be heard by their target audience, which is always difficult with alternative bands. Some of the money that would have gone to overpaid executives at a record label, and to some high priced suit at an ad agency, went directly to the band, instead of the usual 1 cent per song per copy that they were used to.

  4. nalgenegirl says:

    Personally, I am more than happy to pay for music that I know I will be able to enjoy on a regular basis over an extended period of time. What is frustrating, however, is not being able to hear an entire album so that I can determine whether I will like it enough to bother to pay for it. You could drown in the amount of music there is out there, and so much of it is just plain garbage. Personally, I think it will be interesting to see how the music industry fares considering all the turmoil it's going through now. It seems to me that people downloading music for free probably isn't going to stop anytime soon, and whatever (hopefully profitable to the artists/creators) solution is found is going to take a lot more creativity than suing consumers.

    In case you are interested, the artist Saul Williams also did something similar with his new album "Niggy Tardust" (produced by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails). There are a couple of interviews with Saul Williams and Trent Reznor that go into some detail about their distribution method and the numbers of leechers/payers.

    Cnet interview with Trent Reznor: http://crave.cnet.com/8301-1_105-9847788-1.html
    Interview with Saul Williams: http://crave.cnet.com/8301-1_105-9848536-1.html

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    What is music worth to me?

    You caught me on a music high tonight. I just finished listening to a Steely Dan DVD, “Two Against Nature.” Walter Becker and Donald Fagan have never been better. Just when you think that you’ve seen and heard a tune that is impossible to beat, you hear the next cut and then the next. They play with a terrific group of musicians, the kind of musicians that musicians admire. The music is planned with precision (it has to be when you coordinate four brass players and a threesome of gorgeous backup singers) to enhance the rhythm section. Somehow, the music is simultaneously tight but the feeling is loose. This music is not for everyone. To enjoy it fully, you need to pay attention, because there is a lot going on: ever-changing textures of harmony and rhythm, combined with intelligence and humor.

    To answer your question, though. If someone had charged me $100 and left me only this DVD in return, I could not have felt cheated. As it was, I paid $15 at Amazon.

    Other music has taken deep root in me. I have bought full price music from many musicians and groups where I felt like I got a steal. (e.g., some of these performers include Yes, ELP, Cat Stevens, Chicago, Wes Montgomery, Oscar Peterson, Norah Jones, James Taylor and Hillary Hahn, to name some). On the other hand, I have bought many pieces of music where, though the musicians were sincere and talented, it just didn’t work for me. Where it doesn’t work for me, the music is worth almost nothing. I have given CD’s away where that is the case.

    The value of music to me is widely variable, then. I tend to like music that is carefully crafted, so I do tend to like musicians who can do the sorts of things that not all musicians can do. Then again, some musicians who are terrifically talented are not “musical.”

    What is music worth to me? I’m afraid that I simply have to price it a la carte, and it can range from $0 to $100 for an album (meaning about $0 to $10 per song). I hope this helps.

  6. Vesperiant says:


    You knew that I couldn't resist this topic!

    First, I agree that musicians who create worthwhile music deserve to be compensated well for this unique ability (very similar to actors, writers, poets and painters). I don't think that anyone would really disagree with that who wasn't simply a contrarian.However, how they should be compensated is a true mess.

    Niklaus makes some great points about how artists mostly get the short end of the stick from the "industry" and always have. How much of the cost of making great music is purely padding added on by greedy corporations? Your observation about album prices going up when we were kids even though the technology of record production had not really improved for decades is a great example. Why was the price going up on "old' technology? Greed is the answer for the most part. In my opinion, the pricing of music (both recorded and live performance) is based more on the spending habits and spending power of the age group between 12-35 than on any realistic assessment of the actual costs of producing and distributing the material. We have been getting "ripped off" for years and that is why the younger generation is so willing to steal artistic material when possible.

    Why would sending you an electronic file through the internet cost anything like a CD which has to be manufactured with artwork and liner notes and then shipped? You and I send all sorts of files via the interent every day. What does that cost us? Some prorated percentage of our monthly internet bill is the honest answer. At $9.99 you and I are getting getting screwed for downloads, but we think that it is a deal because we are used to paying $12-16 at the CD outlet. Truthfully that $12-16 CD at the outlet is a fraud to begin with. $0.05 cents worth of aluminum and a $1.00 for packaging and shipping. Add in the costs of recording, producing, marketing, distribution and fair profits for everyone and you would get in at about $5.00-$6.00 is my estimation.

    These folks have been using our emotions against us for years and making obscene profits which are (again in my humble opinion) far out of proportion. Does anybody really think that a Hannah Montanna concert is worth $500.00 a ticket? No, but seeing your little girl cry because she can't go would make you spend it (and more). That is what they count on. When I was a teenager the best concerts went for between $20-30 dollars a ticket. That is what it costs just to park now. Prices have certainly increased across the board, but not even close to this level.

    Monopolies can charge what they please and each band/artist is a monopoly in our current model. The record companies realize this and act accordingly. Laws and regulations can break monopolies, but in their absence Black Markets will serve the same purpose. That is what is happening. The Chinese don't want to be outcasts in the world of copyrights and patents, but their economies can't bear our price gouging so they ignore our copyrights. The kids are simply applying the same philosophy. If we had fair pricing then most folks would happily comply and profits would probably go up for the manufacturers in the end. But, they are greedy and dream of a world of shorn sheep buying their $50.00 CDs and $2,000 concert tickets.

    Unless the price of smashing up hotel rooms, cocaine and Dom Perignon have increased far beyond what believe them to be, I have to say that until we get a fair break from the music business then my heart will not bleed for them at all. As soon as we get it set up so that every record company can sell Radiohead CDs at whatever price is competitive in the market and the same thing with concert tickets/ promoters while utilizing the anti-collusion and antitrust laws to enforce competition we will continue be robbed. While we are being robbed it is not reasonable to ask us to be happy about it and support it.

  7. Erich: No that doesn't help at all! LOL! Maybe I should rephrase my question.

    Obviously music that we know and love is priceless to us. Music that doesn't connect with us is worthless. I suppose what I was trying to figure out for myself is what a reasonable price for an album of UNKNOWN music would be.

    For instance, I recently downloaded from iTunes an album by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros after seeing this beautiful trailer for a documentary about their return to their homeland for series of concerts.


    Even with iTunes ability to sample the music, the long, slow nature of Sigur Ros’ songs doesn’t reveal itself very well in a 30 second sample so it was with a bit of good faith that I purchased it. I have since grown to like it very much but the point is that I hesitated to take the plunge for a moment. What price would have caused me to push the button more readily and would it be a fair price? What is a “fair” price anyway?

  8. Oh, and don't even get me started on "The Dan"! For those of you who are fans I heartily recommend Donald Fagan's latest solo work Morph the Cat. Also downloaded from iTunes for $9.99, by the way! If you can't tell by now, I love the instant access of downloading music but want to be sure that the artists are properly compensated.

  9. The Radiohead model is the model of the future, because it eliminates the middleman. The cost of distribution of digital downloads is pretty close to zero, especially when compared to the current CD/DVD distribution model, which is to all intents and purposes broken.

    My own position is that I would gladly pay $10 or more for a direct download of an artist's recordings IF they would quit using lossy compression and busting the sound quality down way below CD level. I can tell the difference between WAV and MP3 format very easily, and the major download services are not going to get any money from me until they start making music available at least at WAV quality levels.

    It is frustratingly ironic that the gap between the sound quality level that most artists record at and the quality level that most people acquire music at is probably wider than it has ever been. Low-res MP3 doesn't cut it for me.

    So…instead of buying time-expired poor-quality downloads, I instead download a lot of music from live music sites that refuse to support lossy compression. I would like to be able to pay the artists money for these downloads, but since the sites live in a "grey area" legally, I cannot contribute to the artists themselves (although I do help with the running costs for one site). This frustrates the hell out of me, as a guitar player and music fan. However, until the remaining card house that is the music industry collapses, and/or artists start offering their music at much higher quality levels online, that is where you will find me. iTunes, Rhapsody etc. will not be collecting money from me any time soon. Artist direct sites; maybe, if they make the downloads available at WAV quality level or better.

    Incidentally, the developments of the last 10 years only serve to show how far ahead of its time the Grateful Dead were, with their model of recording all of their concerts and releasing many of them over time, while allowing personal-use-only taping.

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