Making Music Cheaper Than Coffee Won’t Devalue It

image from www.freefoto.com People say that if music costs less than a cup of coffee or a bottle of water it will devalue the 'art' of music. Ian S. Port, the SF Weekly music editor, doesn't think so. He contends that fans don't judge the artistic value of music by what it costs. If true, they would look down on the artists that give away free MP3s and those available on file-sharing sites. Some do. As far as young fans are concerned, they most likely don't. He thinks that those who contend that pricing music lower than coffee or water miss two essential points.

First, neither of those items can be downloaded quickly and anonymously at zero cost. If people could touch a cup of coffee and make it their own, while the other person that bought the cup still had their own, they would. Especially if no one they knew bought coffee—ever. Port adds that in this day and age it has become reasonable to pay 3-4$ for a cup of coffee because it's a tangible, personalized good that's made in front of you. Buying music on the other hand, paying $10 to download a digital file that's a copy of a copy—all of them made at no additional cost beyond storage—is different. That's why young people, he argues, consider it to be rational to pay that amount for coffee. It makes sense. Moreover, Port thinks comparing the cost of music to that of coffee is apples and oranges all over again. Making downloads dirt-cheap may be, at present, one of the few ways left to compete against file-sharing. After all, free music online isn't going away.

He believes that lowering the price of music won't devalue the 'art' of music; it will get more people buying it. Anyway to increase the volume of sales in the face of the downward spiral of physical ablums would be wothwhile he asserts. Though, lowering albums to $1 poses problems with royalty calculations, he thinks Rob Dickens has the right idea about music. Superfans will still pay high-prices for elaborate packages and vinyl lowers would too. Here's what Port had to say:

"Several have argued that selling an album for less than a cup of coffee or a bottle of water would devalue the art of music… young people who don't buy much music anyway — don't judge the artistic value of music by what it costs… coffee and water bottles can't be downloaded quickly and anonymously at no cost, while digital music can. Second, paying $3 or $4 for a tangible good seems intrinsically reasonable… to a 13-year-old. But paying $10 to download a digital file that's a copy of a copy of a copy — all of them made at no additional cost — somehow doesn't." (Read on.)

Does making music cheaper than coffee devalue it? Or, does Port make some good points about the inherit difference between the two?

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  1. I had this same argument with a website owner who was claiming that selling music was like selling pizzas. That pizzas were exact clones that can be reproduced.
    I stated the same argument as Port, the analogy simply does not work.
    Pizzas are created individually and then sold and consumed. The person who made that pizza no longer has it once it is sold and consumed and he has to make another one if he wishes to stay in business.
    The composers who work for our company make between $100 and $5000 a month from selling copies of music that they created once. They never have to think about or touch that piece of music again and the money just keeps flowing in, month after month, year after year.
    Critics need a much better analogy than pizzas and cups of coffee when referring to digital copies and the demise of the music industry.
    Mark Lewis, CEO
    Partners In Rhyme Inc

  2. Unfortunately, this just feeds the stereotype of how completely clueless the music industry is about economics. Coffee is a physical good whose distribution is high-touch and labor intensive. Music is a whole other animal. It’s ridiculous to be comparing the two in the same breath.

  3. IMHO, fans buying mp3s today are not really paying for ownership of the music.
    They are really paying for access (or “convenience” of having the track handy when you feel like hearing it).
    Ownership of music might be worth 10$ or $16.99 an album, or $0.99 a track.
    The value of Access, however is a lot more blurry. In theory, kids can have access to a gazillion tracks, for free or almost free, at all time. So the marginal value in gaining privileged access to one more track is hard to guess.
    Truth is, the true scarce resource in this music economy, is the fan’s attention (the number of minutes he or she will spend enjoying one particular piece of content). Monetizing ownership or access to that content both do a poor job of optimizing the economic exchange between fan and creator.

  4. @taylor – Why is this bullshit?
    Will a $4 price point work the way the current music industry system works? Hell no – not by a long shot. Music is priced @ $10-11 because there are too many hands in the cookie jar. Too many people need to get paid out of that $10, and sadly it’s the artist who get’s the smallest cut.
    The music industry is going against the grain of basic economics – supply and demand. There is too much music available to support the current “list price”, which is why sales are down.
    If you look at it this way though, the artist who isn’t signed to a label, can sell an album on Amazon (digital) for $4, and get almost $2.80 for each one sold. When was the last time any artist made that much on a sale being signed to a label? Also because the price is cheaper, fans can afford to buy more music (it almost becomes an impulse buy).
    I know there’s a ton of other factors like marketing/branding, the cost of the recording itself (studio time) but musicians need to change the way they think if they want to succeed. Treat what you do like a business, and make business decisions.
    High prices (even it’s just a perception by the fans) and lack of deep artist-fan engagement is what is really hurting the music industry, piracy is just a scapegoat (I mean really, piracy is as old as recorded music and the industry is still here).

  5. I think psychologically free does have an affect.
    We have come to the point where many people expect music files to be free. It doesn’t mean they can’t distinguish between what they like and what they don’t, but in terms of “value,” I’d say the consumer doesn’t feel it has value. In many cases they won’t pay for it, even if it is something they want, because they feel ripped off if they have to pay.
    I’ve been doing a long series on whether music and other forms of art can operate as a gift economy. I’d say that it can’t, unless the artists get life sustaining gifts in return. They need housing, food, etc. I think most creative people will need day jobs to pay their bills, just as most always have had. Then they can give their music/art away for free.
    At any rate, here are a few thoughts on art being free:

  6. Why does music have to be compared to a physical object to show the difference in value?
    I like to drink coffee while listening to music but other than that there is no correlation between the two. Music should have the same approach art in a museum currently does. You pay an admission fee to view and experience the art but the art is technically free. Why not have the same view for music? You pay a certain fee, listen to as much as you want, and then after a certain time period you have to renew your fee.

  7. When the price goes too low, it can easily turn into a forgotten piece of music buried deep on one’s hard drive. What is lacking in free or dirt cheap is that moment when a music fan CHOOSES to invest in an album. It isn’t just about the money but the time and effort needed to really dive in and enjoy the music, an obligation for someone who actually voted with their wallet for an artist. I say let the freeloaders listen to streaming music, but for the rest of us who never stopped buying music, keep that price well under $10, but let’s not get carried away . . . the freeloaders won’t pay a nickel if they are used to getting it for free.

  8. Piracy is a scapegoat for a lack of deep artist-fan engagement? Really?
    Digitization of music was the first kick in the industry’s nuts. Taking the tangible aspect out of music has evidently had a dramatic effect.
    Then while the majors were at bay Napster came out to play. Our first engagement with digital music was an illegal affair – music sales were doomed.

  9. “Why not have the same view for music?”
    We already do. You pay to gain access to a live show or performance. As you said, the art (or music in this case) is technically free. The problem with your analogy is that if I want to enjoy museum art at home, I can google it. Free.

  10. yes, in addition to high prices. The two work in tandem.
    The problem is that many in the industry are playing the old rules, but the fact remains that those rules don’t apply.
    The internet has made things more accessible, more social, and easier for an artist to get their music to the market. If you keep prices in check, engage with your fan, then the fan will be less likely to pirate. I’m not saying it will wipe out piracy, like I said before- it’s been around since recorded music, and will always be there.
    If you want your fans to buy and not pirate, myou need to show them the value, in other words keep the price down, engage with them, give them “extras” and you’ll win. If you fight it any other way, you’ll lose. If you want proof, just look at the last decade or so.

  11. Hence the second part of my comment:
    You pay a certain fee, listen to as much as you want, and then after a certain time period you have to renew your fee.
    You don’t currently pay to gain access to listen to Pandora/Last.fm/Other online radio outlets? Unless you listen past a certain amount of hours. Music should be free to listen to but if you want ownership their should be an admittance fee. When you download a song from a P2P network you should be charged (well your ISP should be).

  12. Agree w/ @lms10045. As for Port’s contention that people who don’t buy music are not judging artistic value by the cost, that is just plain silly. Unless they are removing themselves from our capitalist society, of course people who don’t want to pay are saying it’s not worth anything. You can’t say you something has value but that you want it for free– not unless your agenda is an overthrow of the capitalist system. Which I don’t sense is actually the agenda for most freeloaders.
    So fine, take music for free if you want to. That’s a choice that’s available now because of the technology. But spare us the rationalizations and the smug assertions that you know what the future looks like. I choose to pay for music — when it comes with a price tag — because I support the artists who make it. If you do not pay, you are choosing to abandon that support. And, alas for you, you are also losing out on the benefits of investment, which are forever denied to those who take without giving.

  13. I hear ya. It was a reluctance to change. If you’ve been making those sweet millions for decades from physical sales, cries for a need to change I guess fall on deaf ears!
    Interesting point though. Better than this cup of coffee (irrelevant) argument. Content is king. This band called Portugal The Man is a text book example of what you talk about.
    I attack this from a slightly different angle personally. I see the recorded music as the promotional tool for more profitable and less pirated areas of business such as touring and merch. I don’t see why we have to be fighting at all. You either sell a cd at $8-$10 and pack extras such as photo booklets, unique access codes to exclusive online content or you have your music available to download for free or do a radiohead method and let the fan suggest price.
    The extra however many new listeners will fill up your, now, bigger venue and will buy more of your merch.
    Every band is different of course.

  14. Well said. I think many are looking for that “one magical solution” to solve everything, but it’s not one idea that will fix things, it’s many.

  15. In the same way that music/coffee is a poor analogy, music/art museums doesn’t really work either. Painters don’t get paid by taking a portion of ticket sales from museum-goers. They get paid (usually huge sums) by individuals who want to own the original copy, which is a valuable thing in-and-of itself. You can reproduce a painting a million times, but the original still retains its unique value.
    This model would never work for music…even if fans renewed memberships every year, the money wouldn’t be enough to support an artist’s living. Furthermore, unlike a painting, the original masters of a piece of music aren’t widely valued by collectors (in fact, with digital recordings, “original masters” don’t even exist in physical form). Finally, when people “experience” art in a museum, no effort is required of the painter. For people to experience music, a band must devote time, energy, and money to playing shows & touring.

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