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.

22 thoughts on “More Than a Penny for Your Thoughts

  1. Chris Becker

    The Guardian article is fascinating…and it doesn’t surprise me. Even with the development of tools for DJing mp3s, the culture of music makers I am familiar with always looks back to analog for inspriation and technique. It’s going to be interesting to see where we’re at a year or two from now.

    And the vinyl album cover? Puh-leeze. Like the song says “nothing compares…to you.” I’m supposed to get hot over downloading a pdf file and looking at it on my cell phone?

    I’ve been disheartened by composers – in real life conversations and on “blogs” (I’m not naming names…) – who tout the mp3 format as something wonderful. Mp3 sound sucks. If you’re talking about dynamic and frequency range – all of the things our ears are capable of processing and that are supposed to be of some importance to a musician – the mp3 is beyond lacking. And composers – “trained” composers – should know better. But as it is often the case, artists from the rock, jazz and so-called urban musical worlds are a step or two ahead of the folks coming out of universities with conservatory training.

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  2. Frank J. Oteri

    “[M]arket capitalism continues to be so effective” at getting folks to spend their money on things whether it’s physical LPs or CDs, hard drives, or iPods.

    Even when the software (e.g. the music) is obtained without remuneration, the hardware is still not free. This is why the download model ultimately is not one that is utopian and it is certainly not an escape from consumer culture by any means. The shelf life of an iPod is actually much shorter than that of a vinyl LP, but that’s another argument… And the iPod’s shelf-life of “coolness” is probably even shorter, if I can be so bold as to play soothsayer here, e.g. until the next hip device comes along that some corporation is able to convince everyone to buy.

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  3. Chris Becker

    “The shelf life of an iPod is actually much shorter than that of a vinyl LP…”

    As is the shelf life of a CD. The CD is still an unproven medium for storage whereas we have vinyl and 78 records going back to the early 20th century.

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  4. mmcginn

    There is something in the physical contact of selecting the record, taking it out of its sleeve and placing the needle on the vinyl that prepares one to listen. CDs contain this tactile element as well. In addition reading liner notes, when well written, enhances the listening.

    The ipod does not allow the listener this space. At the press of a button you can select any album from your collection and you hear it instantly. This idea of instant gratification with which our culture is so obsessed has made it into our way of listening. For better or worse I feel more people are losing contact with silence and noise as we are becoming more connected to our “devices”.

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  5. GalenHBrown

    “Mp3 sound sucks. If you’re talking about dynamic and frequency range – all of the things our ears are capable of processing and that are supposed to be of some importance to a musician – the mp3 is beyond lacking. And composers – ‘trained’ composers – should know better.”

    Certainly MP3 encoded at a low bitrate sucks, but most MP3s are encoded at a pretty high bitrate these days, and that’s only going to go up. Lossless compression is already starting to be available on retail music files, and if you’re ripping from a CD you can rip to whatever you like.

    I have no problem with people wanting to buy into the retro vinyl fad, but let’s not mistake a fashion statement for some sort of return to a superior format. Aside from the lovely large cover art, vinyl is mostly downside — inferior sound quality, easy to damage, requires special equipment that’s not so common any more, not very portable.

    The most interesting part of the Guardian article is the last paragraph: “Cara Henn, a DJ and regular Seismic Records customer says going to the store puts her in touch with her peers and has hammered home the vinyl trend. ‘I’ve really been getting back into my vinyl. I love it,’ she says. ‘I like to hear crackling, as if it’s actually real. Especially with drum’n’bass, DJs are really encouraging fans to buy vinyl.'” How strange that the inferior sound quality of vinyl is identified with authenticity while the inferior sound quality of badly encoded MP3s is so often identified with inauthenticity.

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  6. Frank J. Oteri

    “Aside from the lovely large cover art, vinyl is mostly downside — inferior sound quality, easy to damage, requires special equipment that’s not so common any more, not very portable.”

    Galen, many audiophiles would contend, as would I (and I don’t count myself among their ranks), that records will always sound better than CDs no matter what. For some, hearing the inevitable quantization of digital encoding is as audible an annoyance as tempering thirds in order to have equal temperament. But just I’m willing to concede the values of equal temperament for many (but not all) things, I’ve learned to have to live with CDs (I now have more than 5000 of them) but I still prefer records (and have even more of them).

    Turntables are not exactly “special equipment that’s not so common,” either. Many companies are still making them and it’s cheaper to buy one than to buy a computer. Plus, given the myriad used LPs and used turntables that have been flooding the market since the last time the punditocracy told us that we should abandon our collections for a superior format (the CD), it has been easier to become knowledgeable about a broad range of music than ever before in human history. I consider my record collection my PhD.

    Yeah, yeah, I know all about how the Web is supposed to be the great information equalizer, and obviously we’re having this conversation on the web and I’m clearly an advocate for web-based endeavors (which includes the digital transmission of music), but it is not a where all be all. Wikipedia is NOT the Grove Dictionary (which I know has its problems too, but that’s for another debate).

    I still buy LPs all the time. In fact, I’ve probably bought more LPs in the last year than any other year in my life, which is actually quite a lot of records. I’m out of wall, in fact, which I’ll admit is a problem. But for some reason it feels less ominous than my home computer dying on me last week. Glad I didn’t store my collection there (but, even sadder, I stored drafts for several of my own compositions there which were not backed up, alas).

    As for portability, why is it such a virtue? Wasn’t the rise of farm-based agriculture an advance over hunter-gatherer nomadic life? Seriously, the last thing I want to do when I’m wandering around town is listen to music. I create time specifically to listen to a broad range of music which allows me to focus on all of it a lot better, whether in a concert setting or at home listening to a recording.

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  7. CM Zimmermann

    FJO,

    Thank you for the clarification with respect to the effectiveness of market capitalism; I was worried for a moment.

    CMZ

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  8. Chris Becker

    Hi, Galen – I’m sorry, but…you’re wrong. Higher bit rate mp3s do not have the dynamic or frequency range of a vinyl record. I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but that translates into better sound from the vinyl medium.

    Talk to a decent recording engineer. Or a decent musician. Especially vocalists. Or a guitarist. Ask Jack White. Or Neil Young.

    Have you even sat down and compared the two? If yes, and if you can’t tell the difference or if the difference to your ears is negligible OR if you still think vinyl is inferior soncially then…more power to you. I’m not trying to change anyone’s minds (even though I sound like chicken little here…) But it is fun to sit and compare CD, mp3 and vinyl recordings (I recommend Beethoven’s 9th or Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps). Well, fun or depressing depending on your mood.

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  9. GalenHBrown

    The vast majority of the sources I’ve found say that Redbook audio has a considerably higher dynamic range than vinyl does. 16 bit sound gives you 96db of dynamic range, and most of the sources I’m seeing on vinyl say it’s around 75db.

    In terms of frequency, the Nyquist theorem tells us that 44.1khz is more than enough to exceed the nominal 20Khz top end of human hearing (and very few people actually hear in that range). Any additional frequency response in vinyl is irrelevant, since we can’t hear it.

    As far as quantization distortion, I’m skeptical that it’s really a factor, especially when you consider that vinyl comes with a significantly higher noise-floor, but I’m prepared to be wrong here. I don’t have time right now to do the research.

    The reason that vinyl sounds so “warm” is actually distortion.

    When I say “vinyl has inferior sound quality” I mean it in a fairly technical sense — vinyl is less accurate. But you’re welcome to prefer the vinyl sound. On the other hand, if I preferred the vinyl sound I’d prefer to have my music post-processed to add the vinyl sound and then recorded to CD, for the sake of the various kinds of convenience.

    I could elaborate, but I gotta run.

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  10. Frank J. Oteri

    While I’ve really been enjoying the feud between the iPod admirers and the vinyl apostates (whom I count myself among) and I’ve even been fanning those flames, I’m actually slightly disappointed that no one thus far has answered the main question I attempted to address above, namely: “How much is music worth to you?”

    After all, the whole idea for what I wrote began with the rather provocative sentence I quoted from Dan Levitin’s book: “Americans spend more money on music than on sex or prescription drugs.” Is that actually true? Anyone have access to stats on this?

    Perhaps I followed up my initial query with issues that were too polemical here. Better might have been making analogies with how people order entries in restaurants or what grocery items they buy. People claim that CDs are too expensive yet folks are buying them up at even steeper prices in New Zealand, just like certain overpriced restaurants have month-long waiting lists. What is the dividing line between price point and taste?

    So, I’ll ask again: What is the right price for music? I’m more inclined to buy a CD or an LP when it’s $10, but I have spent up to $50 for a single LP. I’ve also walked away from records that were free. How about you?

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  11. Colin Holter

    One thing that complicates this matter is that when you buy a CD, you’re not, in one sense, buying music: You’re buying documentation indicating that music has taken place. Even when the presentation of that documentation receives the bulk of the labor involved in the music it represents, as in the production of a studio album, the compact disc is a tiny crystallized shard of one particular manifestation of the quadrivial human phenomenon of music. Music is priceless, but I never pay more than $20 for a CD, and I weren’t pathologically vulnerable to bargains, I’d buy even fewer than I do now. I don’t even look twice at vinyl.

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  12. CM Zimmermann

    How much is music worth to me? I suppose this question depends entirely on the context. I am inclined to say ‘everything and nothing’. Two interesting points about this discussion:

    1. Music is being equated with its own material trace. This is to say that music is being discussed as an object and a commodity at that.

    2. The notion of ‘worth’ is articulated solely within the context of monetary value.

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  13. philmusic

    “How much is music worth to you?”

    Frank for myself, and I think for most musicians, It’s worth our lives.

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  14. Chris Becker

    This
    is helpful.

    Music is priceless, I agree. I just hope composers don’t sell ourselves or our listeners short by becoming advocates of inferior sound. Especially if our advocacy is based on a lack of experience with other mediums (or because our hearing is damaged from cranking up the “buds” on the 1, 9 train trying in vain to listen to a string quartet…noise floor indeed…)

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  15. Frank J. Oteri

    I partially share CM Zimmermann’s seeming disappointment in equating “art” and “commerce”—money is rarely a motivating factor for me—but I still think it’s valuable to have these “reality check” discussions from time to time since the entire world we operate in is based on money and monetary value, for better or worse. Try telling ConEd or Verizon or your landlord that you’re a musician and don’t really care about money and therefore won’t pay your bill this month. See what happens.

    While I agree that music is simultaneously “worth” everything and nothing—plus it’s poetic way to describe it so it feels good to say, too—I am very concerned that it is being devalued more and more even amongst ourselves (we who supposedly live for music), at the peril of our future well-being. It concerns me that so many people I’ve spoken to in recent years have made self-justifying excuses for not spending money on music whereas they wouldn’t and couldn’t make those same arguments for other things, e.g. food, clothing, travel, home improvements, etc.

    It could be argued, and has been, that music is a luxury, an add-on, unlike some of the stuff I mentioned without which we couldn’t live. But I could not live without music either, and I’m sure the same is true for most of the folks posting here.

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  16. rtanaka

    Considering how badly musician’s have been treated by record companies over the course of its history (artists typically receive less than a percent per record sold for most record deals), it’s probably not a good idea for composers to bank on recording formats as a way of making a living. Even pop musicians make the majority of their money doing live performances, maybe combined with advertising revenues that they get for their name recognition.

    I think recording formats are more useful for PR purposes rather than something to be paid for, personally. Some composers seem to do pretty well by earning royalties in this fashion, but they’re almost always music written for purely commercial purposes, like jingles or background music. With CDBaby and iTunes and such things are somewhat more fairer now, but I really don’t know anybody who’s making a living selling albums with art music. I’m pretty sure that the bread and butter of most musicians’ living has always been in doing live performances.

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  17. Frank J. Oteri

    “Even pop musicians make the majority of their money doing live performances, maybe combined with advertising revenues that they get for their name recognition.”

    Ryan, the top stars probably rake in the big bucks for both live music AND recordings, but from what I’ve been able to glean from most of the “pop musicians” I’ve gotten to know is that they make even less money than people in the classical biz for their live gigs which is why the term “pop” is as inaccurate as the term “classical.”

    Typically a band will play a club and get a percentage of the door minus an initial fee that the house takes. All too often, if you are a relatively unknown band, most of the folks there are your friends which means that your friends are basically bank-rolling your gig. If you get $50, you’ve had a really great night. Factoring in composition, rehearsal, travel, set-up, and gig time, that’s way less than minimmum wage

    But before you start thinking I’m bad mouthing the clubs and try to get a ride on that band wagon, I also know the ecomonic realities of the real estate market. If clubs paid bands what they were worth, they probably could not afford to stay open in the current market.

    Of course, no matter what, people will play music which is what this entire economy is based on. That’s why I started this query in the first place. How much are you willing to pay out of pocket to hear music? How much do you think your own music making is worth? There seems to be a disconnect between them. I know that there is for me. I spend way more on music than I get from it and I probably always will, even if my music miraculously starts making a fortune; that’s how addicted a music junkie I am. Does anyone here have a different story?

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  18. rtanaka

    Ryan, the top stars probably rake in the big bucks for both live music AND recordings, but from what I’ve been able to glean from most of the “pop musicians” I’ve gotten to know is that they make even less money than people in the classical biz for their live gigs which is why the term “pop” is as inaccurate as the term “classical.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I’ve gathered (being around the LA/Hollywood area for some years) is that the recording industry is incredibly unfavorable to working musicians, regardless of genre. Say, I’ve heard that even mega-stars have trouble leveraging getting 10 cents per album, which doesn’t even amount to 1% if it’s a 20 dollar album. So selling a million copies of something will get you a measly 5000 bucks. If you’re lucky, that is.

    In many cases the contracts are set up so that the musician actually has to to pay for the recording costs, and end up becoming in debt to the company. Sometimes the company will buy out the rights to certain works for the control factor alone, hold it in stock for a while until it gets popular (like when the musician passes away) then sell it to the public when there’s a demand. In the meantime, though, the artist has no say in how their music can be utilized. There’s a lot of shify things that go on behind the industry that’s not quite apparent in what’s seen on the screen. A lot of what we see is glamor without any substance.

    The reality seems to be that unless it’s self-produced, then most musicians will not see most of the money that goes into a recording production. The only advantage recording labels offers for its musicians is its exposure to major supply chains and major advertising venues, which gets them enough of a notoriety/reputation that they can use to cash-in through other means. I would not consider, though, going to the record store and buying albums as a form of “support” for the artist themselves, because the majority of it goes straight into the pocket of the producers.

    Taking advantage of naive musicians can be rather lucrative, and unfortunately it seems to happen quite frequently, even among very talented musicians. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of famous pop stars getting ripped off in this way…part of the reason Zappa is so angsty comes from a reaction toward these practices, I believe.

    As with most free-lance performers, you can make enough of a living if you manage to string enough concerts together, provided that you’re doing something people might be willing to pay for. For some people, this means having to play at gigs of tonal music (the standards, wedding musics, background music, etc.) while doing the more creative things on the side. The best way to support the arts, I believe, is to attend live performances put on by the artists themselves.

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  19. JJeffers

    Being of neither the mp3 or vinyl camp, but simply a collector of CD’s, my criteria for the worth of a compact disc is something like:

    What is this going to teach me? (Being fairly behind in my listening, there are a lot of recordings that fall into this category). If I think I’m going to learn something about music, if I think I’m going to learn whether I love or dislike some style or technique, things like that, the recording will instantly become valuable to me.

    Is this going to lift my spirits? Most popular music I buy falls into this category, and if it makes me happy, price becomes less important.

    Just a few things I know I think about when perusing the shelves that make up my criteria for “worth”.

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  20. mmcginn

    maybe/not
    Sound, color, words, etc. belong to no one and everyone. Ideally shouldn’t music, art, literature, etc. be free?

    Reply

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