The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Music Piracy Part Three: What Is Music Really Worth?

In my rambling discourse on music piracy, I did touch on the subject of how much music is worth. The point was that piracy does exist because music is worth something.

The underlying question is the same, just with extra question marks...what is music really worth???

There isn't another question or factor...if music isn't worth anything, no one will take it. A decade ago, no one would dream of stealing copper wire. Now, it's as common a crime as speeding (well, almost).

The answer is simple: Music is worth what people will pay for it, or give for it. Most people wouldn't dream of stealing big screen TVs, and they buy those as if the things were as necessary as food. If you left a 50 inch screen on a street corner, then someone would probably take it. Same with 300.00 shoes, or iPads...leave it on a bench and it will find a new home.

Which is what file sharing is. People leave music online, and of course people will take it.

But it is worth something. One good indicator of what music is worth is to watch a street corner musician at work. If he or she is good at the trade, then the instrument case has cash in it. Most of the audience throws in quarters, or maybe a buck (the top price of an mp3).

Yet...an accomplished group, maybe even a legendary one, will have it's music shared for free in a peer to peer environment.

This isn't an accident. It has nothing to do with the artistic worth of the music. While that is part of a song's intrinsic worth to some people, it's only part of the thing that people are really paying for, which is value.

A couple is having a nice day at the beach. They top it off by going downtown and having a nice dinner, and as they walk back to the car or are sitting around in the park, they hear music by some street musician. If it adds to the experience, a dollar is thrown into the guitar case. There was some value there, and it generated a cash reward in appreciation.

This scenario isn't too far from the folk music example in the previous essays. That quality of being part of a nice evening is really about community, and there's an sort of democracy in effect. The street musician is really an equal, and producing part of a collective energy that produced a safe beach to enjoy, good food to eat, a safe place to hang out in, and music with the live energy of an entertainer to add to the atmosphere. It's a product that most people understand, and they will generally give what they can. A violinist in a restaurant may seem like a silly cliche to some, but people like it when some talent adds to the overall fun. Music is functional also.

The other end of the spectrum is arguably value also, and let's be the devil's advocate here...

The product of the millionaire star. To enjoy it, the average person might have to pay anywhere from 30.00 to 250.00 to see it live. The CD might cost over ten bucks, and it comes with the stern warning that only the buyer can use it (even if we all know it'll be used in any number of ways that even the musician would have no problem with unofficially). The web will often be full of news about the star, and most of it will reflect the lifestyle of someone who thinks they're pretty special...throwing tantrums at airports, trashing hotel rooms, having illegitimate children without judgement by most of society, getting away with petty crimes, and most of all, the idea that the artist has this sort of special life that puts them at the level of royalty.

If you don't think that attitude exists, then try a little experiment. The next time a big star comes walking by with an entourage, try simply stepping into that person's path and see what happens.

I remember reading about some big rock benefit, and a famous singer's entourage came bursting through the backstage area, yelling for everyone to get out of the way. They cut a path through the crowd, and then came up on Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, and Keith Richards, and began to get into their faces. The three just laughed and the entourage was forced to move in another path.

What struck me about the story wasn't that this famous star's entourage was forced to actually respect human beings, but that it was a classic case of nobility running into bigger nobility, or at least nobility that knew it didn't have to move aside for an equal. I'm sure more than a few commoners were simply shoved aside before that perfumed train hit the immovable objects.

My point is that all this, not just the music, can figure into what the fan perceives as value.

I mentioned buying that star's CD. It goes deeper than that.

Take the Beatles for example. I bought all their LPs in the vinyl days. then I bought all of their CDs. In some cases, more than one in order to get a "remastered" or "original master tape" version. While each assumed that I had bought only a license to play it, the seller never assumed that I had bought a license to own it for life. I had to buy each delivery vehicle separately, even if it was the same song, and if you count the digital age, then there's songs that have been purchased a few times.

In other words, there's some Beatle songs that I've spent around 20.00 or 30.00 just to listen to it from my teenage years to the present.

One of the silliest articles I ever read was about rock stars who complained that when CDs were sold in a used record store, they were being robbed of royalties on that secondary sale. I'd be lying if I said it made me feel some sort of tinge of pity for the star. When you think of how much it can cost the average Joe to be a "fan," trying to collect royalites off a used record is almost like taking coins off a dead man's eyes.

Of course that never happened...the record industry, while pretty obtuse at times, simply isn't that stupid. It was a non-starter right from the beginning.

The problem is that it simply adds to the unflattering picture of an entitled class.

That's an extreme. There's plenty of music stars that I admire also, and the quality virtually all have is gratitude. There's plenty of talented, and lucky, stars...the ones who stay around and have long careers generally know that without some 40 hour a week schmoo putting out hard earned cash for their music, they'd have to contribute something to society that might require showing up to work on time, putting up with arrogant bosses, worrying about layoffs, and having to actually decide what to buy and what not to buy.

The smart ones know that, and that's why the good ones work so hard and show appreciation (or at least make sure their press agents tell the public that). They know that the average person needs to buy food and necessities, pay bills, wear decent clothing and pay taxes...and now they have to compete with the internet, game consoles, sports, literature, television, movies, and even vices.

You can't beat all that by acting like the audience owes you a living...at least for very long...you can't even beat that by producing great art, even if it is great art...you can only beat the competition if you can at least do what that street musician I talked about did...provide all or part of a great moment.

Which in essence, is what a great song is.

A song, like I said, is worth what people will pay for it. Some Beatle songs have been pirated for sure, but the latest reissues with yet another remastered mix did well. Good music will sell most of the time.

As far as always being able to make people pay for it...if we can't keep people from stealing money, copper, jewels or stop them from taking drugs, how do the record labels and artists think they're going to completely stamp out free file sharing?

That audience will pay money for perceived value (like a computer). Sure, don't leave it lying around, but the industry will be better off finding the next new thing that people will buy than to get too heavy handed with an audience that already shells out money for CDs, concert tickets, t-shirts, souvenirs, and ten dollar hot dogs.

Next Episode: Let's finally talk about the blues, the long tradition of ripping off artists done with both good and bad intentions, how file sharing helps and hurts the genre (and small labels in general), and how the digital age will make the blues even better (and how it already has).