Recent singles and album releases have nicely illustrated some of the reasons a musician might release music at a seemingly outrageous price. From Mike Doughty's $543.09 song to the £3000 single from Gaggle to a Bob Dylan release with only 100 physical copies, each of these choices has different reasoning behind it from art to politics to exclusivity to copyright.
Last month I wrote about Mike Doughty's release of individual recordings of a single on a digital voice recorder. I referred to this project as an example of "Conceptual Art For Superfans" because of Doughty's art world references, the exclusive nature of the release or releases and the fact that it was combined with the offer of a personalized message that is available for $35,335.53.
Doughty describes the pricing of the personalized message as a decision that is "clearly...intended to discourage requests for personal messages" though you can get one if you want to spend that dough.
Given that $35k for a personalized message is absurd in terms of any rational calculation of value, I think his statement about why he offered it at that price is actually more about the overall construction of the artwork than a simple statement of fact.
However $543.09 to a well-off art collector is not a high price but it is one that ensures the exclusivity of the item in question because it is a high price to everyday people. Exclusivity is a powerful force for artists with a close relationship to their superfans as Marcus Taylor points out when discussing Amanda Palmer's $5000 house concerts.
So Doughty gives us at least two reasons for high pricing that would inevitably result in an extremely limited release, art and exclusivity.
Gaggle - Power Of Money
Feminist women's choir Gaggle, which is described in Wikipedia as an "all-girl alternative choir" though they all appear to be fully grown women, released a digital single off an already released album for £3,000 with an explanatory statement including:
"What does money mean to you? How do you put a value on the things you care about? Is money the same thing as worth? This song is precious. And yet, we're told that, nowadays, 'a single' is almost valueless. And that pisses us off. So we have done a budget of how much this single 'cost'. The many hours it took to write, arrange, compose, master; the expertise of all the musicians, technicians, designers, producers involved; all money, time, energy, love and blagging that was ploughed into making all that happen. And come up with a VALUE. We are putting this tune to market for the sum of £3000."
In part this can be taken as a statement about the value of art but one with a strongly political tone especially given that the single is titled "Power Of Money." Check the video above for such lyrics as "I hate the power of money, making people rich or poor" as well as a nice newsy soundbite at the end.
Given that the single is available for free listening on YouTube and now, by extension, Hypebot, and that it can be bought for £0.99 on iTunes, one would only think of this as an exclusive release if one didn't realize these other options exist.
Surprisingly Tim Cushing of Techdirt missed the point of this release in a post that focuses on a number of financial and theoretical concerns that seem irrelevant to this particular project. After missing all that, he then decides:
"Gaggle's move here is a publicity stunt, primarily aimed at raising awareness of the band with a secondary aim of opening a dialogue about the value of artistic endeavors."
I'm not convinced of that statement. I don't see any evidence elsewhere that would support that statement and I find most of what Cushing has to say about the release irrelevant. I'm not attacking him. I just think it's a classic example of what one knows programming one's interpretation of the world.
In this case, the expensive release is an interesting example of political art. While it has given Gaggle media attention, which will help publicize the group, to reduce it to a "publicity stunt" is to call their integrity into question when what they are clearly doing is using media to spread a political message.
So I would say the reasoning for such an expensive release is primarily a political art move with conceptual aspects rather than a release striving for exclusivity.
Bob Dylan's Copyright Extension Collection
Late last year, Sony released Bob Dylan's "The 50th Anniversary Collection: The Copyright Extension Collection Vol. I." However they only released 100 copies shared between a "handful of record shops in Germany, France, Sweden and Britain."
It's not an expensive release given the circumstances with prices for the CD set ranging from $39 to $138 in shops. This is a serious collector's item with 86 tracks on 4 CD's. It can be found online having sold for $910.00 on Ebay and available for around $5,359.54 on Discogs.
However, if you log in from Germany or France, it's available on bobdylan.com as a digital download and is also showing up on filesharing sites.
So why would Sony put out such a limited edition of a highly collectible release at such low prices? Because they were dealing with European copyright laws that now extends copyright to 70 years from 50 but requires publication before the end of the 50 years to get the extra 20.
In some respects this is the most disappointing reason of all. An exclusive release not designed for exclusivity's sake but instead to keep previously unreleased tracks from going into the public domain. Hmmm, maybe that's exclusivity in a different guise.
So there you have it, four reasons a musician might put out an extremely expensive or extremely limited release:
Got any more?
Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (Twitter/App.net) blogs about music crowdfunding at Crowdfunding For Musicians (@CrowdfundingM). To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.