What is Music Worth?

Back in the days when the hippie ruled the earth, the record album and
its cover art stood for something. The album, as a package, was an
intrinsic whole. And the process of carefully pulling the slender,
fragile black vinyl disc from is vibrantly-decorated cardboard sheath
and placing it on the turntable was, um, a total trip, man.

Nowadays, the album and its cover art are just so passé. We live in a
world of digital singles and downloaded music. This has altered our
value perception of the medium.

We once held music high in a symbolic, artistic regard that compelled
us to collect its physical manifestation (the LP, the tape, the CD).
Many people now consider music a mere commodity with limited
usefulness, and with little long-term benefit.

Recent surveys have demonstrated that digital music buyers have little problem deleting music files from their computer once they’ve lost interest in them. Compare that to the pride of the LP collector.

In a sense, the physical good has always been intrinsic to the value of music. Not only is the music worth something to us as consumers, but the package as a whole appeals to us. How many millions of CD’s have been sold because Mariah Carey shared some extra bust with a photographer?

That would suggest then that, because music’s delivery has always been limited to physical media, we’ve never developed a sense of the true value of music itself, that the worth of music is subject to the packaging efforts of the record company.

So, rather than representing a degradation of our attitude towards music, internet delivery may be, for the first time, establishing a true value regime.

At its heart, music is an artistic endeavour. However, the artistry is inextricably linked to cultural mores such as status and categorization. Music feeds our sense of self-identity in contemporary society.

But the package overrides that relationship because of the added — and subjectively different — value we place on a physical good.

When we purchase music on CD, we are ambivalent about our long-term relationship to the music, even if we may never listen to it more than once or twice. After all, what are we buying: music, or a plastic disk?

This is because we have trouble throwing “stuff” away (especially when it cost us our whole allowance one weekend twenty years ago — think of the Glass Tiger and Platinum Blonde LP’s you can’t bring yourself to (rightfully) toss in the trash).

Digital music, on the other hand, is just music. It doesn’t carry any value other than in and of itself musically. And so once its cultural value is lost, so too is its inherent value.

On the internet today there are two business models at work, each expressing and testing our sense of music’s value differently.

The first model is akin to our traditional experience with musical properties.
At Apple’s iTunes Music Store, when you buy music, you essentially own it, with some restrictions. It’s like buying a CD, just without the annoying plastic wrap.

Under this model, not only does the music hold value, but so does the file on your computer, as a sort of a metaphor for ye olde CD.

The second model that’s developed online is more like a rental model. Most other major online music stores, including Rhapsody, Napster and the brand new Yahoo! store operate under a “subscription” model.

You basically pay a flat monthly fee for pretty much unrestricted access to the store’s library. You can listen to whatever you like, whenever you want.

Of course, there are more restrictions in this model that limit your ability to “own” any of the music. For example, if you want to burn a track to CD you have to pay an extra fee.

The subscription model is quickly gaining steam, partially because it’s so affordable — a monthly subscription to Yahoo! can be had for as little as about 7 bucks — but also because it better represents society’s ephemeral relationship with music without all the physical baggage.

What’s interesting is that the physical delivery of music and its online counterpart, especially as regards the subscription model, may not be as mutually exclusive as they seem.

A recent study by the NPD group found that digital music buyers are starting to re-purchase their favourite downloads on CD. They want their permanent collection to be physical and of a better sound quality.

The NPD sees a new model where digital music is a sort of “try before you buy” environment. This model would enable us to engage with music first and “stuff” second.

Online music is an explosive industry and we’re no doubt just witnessing its beginnings even today. The coming years will be fascinating as they continue to change our relationship with an artistic medium pretty much everyone can relate to and redefine the way we value it.

Suffice to say, though, that the days of album cover art are over.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, May 20, 2005
Copyright 2005 Andrew Robulack