More Than a Penny for Your Thoughts
“Americans spend more money on music than on sex or prescription drugs…Two concert tickets can easily cost as much as a week’s food allowance for a family of four, and one CD costs about the same as a work shirt, eight loaves of bread, or basic phone service for a month.”
– Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music (Dutton 2006), p. 7.
“I’m still not sure about the MP3 generation. You can have a full hard drive and nothing to show for it. Record collections are very personal. You can view into a person’s soul really.”
– Stuart Smith, proprietor of Seismic Records in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, quoted in “Back in the groove: young music fans ditch downloads and spark vinyl revival” by Katie Allen (The Guardian, July 16, 2007).
How much is music worth to you? Most people already know that I love receiving free recordings and that I’m a highly addicted used record store junkie. I’m also way more inclined to buy something if it’s on sale, and I know I’m not alone in this regard. A salsa record dealer I know who has worked the flea market circuit for years is able to convince buyers to pay $40 for records by putting $80 price tags on them and saying that all his merchandise is half price. Two times in my life thus far I’ve paid $50 for a used LP, which definitely stung my wallet. But I’d willingly do it again if I found something I really wanted to have that I spent years looking for.
Of course, finding that long sought-after recording is quite different from impulse shopping, which emanates from a completely different mindset: e.g. “ohmigod there’s a theremin and a harpsichord together on one track” or “everything on here is in 53-tone just intonation”. And despite clever marketing schemes, whether we’re talking about the good old days of the $4.44 “Nice Price” or today’s oft-touted dollar per song download paradigm, ultimately the price we’re willing to pay for something has little to do with whether it’s cheap or even fair. In New Zealand, new CDs are usually priced between 30 and 35 NZ dollars, which comes to somewhere between 24 and 28 U.S. dollars, and their record industry seems to be healthier than ours.
I’m sure there are numerous psychological studies of consumer culture that explain why market capitalism continues to be so effective better than I ever could. And there’s also market research discouraging free concerts with claims that people value things more when they pay for them. I’m not sure I agree but it’s probably why I still completely don’t get the whole product-less ethos of the iPod generation. Why would you want to accumulate, much less pay for, intangible musical files? As one used record store owner I know put it, “Downloads have no monetary value, since you can’t resell them.” Then again, he clearly has an agenda.
However, I admit that I’ve enjoyed some free musical experiences more than concerts I paid top dollar for, and I treasure everything in my record collection, including the scads of freebies. Though, admittedly, if my solo LP by jazz guitarist Bill Harris—a rare Mercury recording that I paid fifty bucks for—were to crash to the floor by accident, I’d probably be more upset than if it were something easier to replace. Try finding him on iTunes.