Friday, July 27, 2012

What's a Song Worth?

Last night I noticed that a musician friend of mine had posted the following quote to his Facebook…

"The devaluation of music and what it's now deemed to be worth is laughable to me. My single costs 99 cents.  That what a single cost in 1960.  On my phone I can get an app for 99 cents that makes far noises - the same price as the thing I create and speak to the world with.  Some would say the fart app is more is more important.  It's an awkward time.  Creative brains are being sorely mistreated."  - Vince Gill

I initially agreed with the sentiment conveyed here and I shared the photo on my Dirty Roots Radio Facebook page, with this comment:

“Vince Gill isn't someone I play on this show...but he IS one of the few "modern country" artists I really respect. And what he speaks here is the sad, sad truth.”

The post received many “likes” and a few comments.  One of which came from another of my good friends, Michael - also a musician, who said:

I've had an argument about this very pic before. I think he's dead wrong. A dollar a song? Does he realize the value of a dollar? Clearly he doesn't. How many people will download this asshole's song for a dollar? Thousands? Millions? Ridiculous. He has completely lost touch. I'd sell my songs for $0.50 each and hope a few hundred people bought them so I could have a little pocket money. His songs aren't that great. He's got millions of dollars of marketing behind him. At least a fart app can make your friends laugh. Well, come to think of it, so does Vince Gill's music! So I guess they should be the same price.

In fact, creative brains are being mistreated by the kind of tyranny artists like Gill represent. He has a stranglehold on the market. It's sad how far from getting it he is.

But I see why you posted this, man. I know it's because of your love for music. I just happen to disagree strongly with Mr. Gill.

A meaningful and so-far respectful debate has followed.  And Michael’s comments have caused me to reframe my thoughts on this matter a bit.

First off, I think my attraction to this picture/quote had more to do with the sentiment behind it than what Vince Gill was actually saying (I assume it’s a legit quote).

Now that I’ve had some time from my original finding/posting of it, and thought about what Michael said, of course $.99 is enough for one song.  It’s a song, not an album!

Maybe the issue is the medium.  When I saw the great Jason & the Scorchers in concert earlier this year, Jason commented, “Here’s one from our first album….Yeah, I said ALBUM.  ‘Here’s one from our first download doesn’t quite get it’.”

Another way to put it comes from Jonathan Franzen’s novel “Freedom”, and I’m totally paraphrasing from memory here.  One of the characters in the book is a musician and he’s asked about the mp3 culture.  He talks about how years ago, a Bob Dylan album was a healthy and nutritious “meal” that you could buy and that could nourish you over a lifetime.  But now, with the downloading of a $.99 computer file, or the illegal free downloading of it, it’s more like a piece of cheap gum that loses its flavor in just a few minutes and provides no sustainable benefit.

I’m not necessarily complaining about music formats here.  I was a CD junkie who reluctantly made the move to mp3s for the convenience and cost-effectiveness of it.  I’ve gotten into vinyl since then, which helps me feel like I’ve balanced that issue :-)

I love the convenience that mp3s afford me as a radio show host who tries to feature obscure music that people may not hear elsewhere. 

Just one example…

I came across a Perry Como tune a while back that I wanted to work into one of my playlists.  Was I going to buy an entire Perry Como album?  Absolutely not. No disrespect to his work, but he’s not my cup of tea and I knew that my playing of this one song on my show would be a very sporadic occurrence.

But I wanted to play it when I wanted to.  And I firmly believe in paying for the music I download.  So I happily plunked out the $.99 it took to get that one song.  It was worth a buck to me. 

Another reason I’ve grown to accept the mp3 revolution is that, let’s be honest, an awful lot of music sucks.  And the anger and complaining over buying an entire album of crap just to get one good song is older than mummy dust.

So I’m OK with mp3s.  And I’m OK with the price.  A buck is fair.  If the price of a single grew equally to the price of everything else from Vince Gill’s childhood to now, they’d be what, like $47 apiece?  That’s ridiculous.

I think my bigger point here – and the reason I initially identified with the quote in the first place – is the cheapening of art.  Vince Gill is saying that his creation is valued the same as a fart app for your phone.

Shouldn’t it be more valuable than that?

Not in terms of dollars.  In terms of intangible worth.

I get that the megabytes or whatever that it takes for your phone to play a Vince Gill mp3 and those that your phone requires to make fart sounds may be equal.  But which is truly WORTH more in the long run?

The mp3 culture has a LOT of benefits, but I firmly believe that it HAS cheapened music.

In this modern age, anyone with a computer can record a song or album and make it available for download.  Is that a good thing?  In one sense I say it is, because it’s leveled the playing field.  You no longer need a major label recording contract and a million dollar machine behind you to get your music out there.

On the other hand, an even playing field means there’s a LOT out there.  And a lot of anything means a lot of good and a lot of bad.

But, I suppose, “good vs. bad” is in the ear of the listener.

When I can download a song for $.99 it has the potential of becoming pretty unimportant to me.  What’s a buck?  If I’m a buck short on my mortgage, it’s a lot.  But you can’t buy a soda for a dollar at the gas station.  I drop a dollar or more very frequently without thinking about it.  So, when I spend $1.70 at the gas station for a bottle of soda, what am I saying about the value of a song, someone’s original creation?

When I’m standing at Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis, debating on whether or not I should go ahead and buy the Willie Mitchell 45 that I found for $1.50, I’m looking at the thing.  I’m holding it in my hands.  It’s tangible.  If I get it home and don’t like it or don’t want it, I still have to LOOK at it.  It’ll be there until I trash it, give it away, or sell it back to the record shop for trade.  I have to THINK about it.  Think about Willie Mitchell’s creation.  Think about what it means.  Think about if I’m going to give it space in my life.

When I buy a soda for almost the same amount of cash, I don’t think about those things.  I think, “I’m thirsty.”  And I quickly weigh out whether or not a drink is worth $1.70.  If it is, I drop the coin with no regret, drink the soda, and throw the bottle away, never giving it another thought.

When I download an mp3 I never touch it and can’t see it.  The little computer icon that comes with it gets lost in my windows media player, along with tiny pictures of every other album or song I own on my computer.  If I don’t like the song, I never have to think about it again and will hardly ever be reminded that I bought it. 

A fart app for my phone is much the same.  If a laugh with my buddies is worth $.99 at the moment, I download it.  I can’t see it.  It doesn’t take up any physical space in my life. I never have to think about it again.

Which is probably the appropriate approach to a fart app.  But is it the appropriate approach to music?

The price isn’t the issue here.  A buck is fine and more than fair for one song.  As Michael pointed out, many artists would be thrilled to make less than a buck.

The questions that are left rolling around in my head – and that I request you weigh in on here – are:

--Is the mp3 culture cheapening art?

--Is a level playing field better?

--How much emphasis should we put on the importance of someone’s creation?

--Is one person’s creation more valuable than another’s?

--Is it fair that Vince Gill is no longer played on country radio, just because he’s older and doesn’t sell as much?

--What can be done to help my friend who originally posted this photo have more of a chance to have his very worthy music heard when he doesn’t have a machine behind him like Vince Gill or any other number of artists?

--What about artists like John Mellencamp, who doesn’t get played on radio for the same reasons as Vince Gill, and who take to promoting their music by selling it to businesses to use in advertising?

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