Music Worth Paying For

By Rob Patterson

What is music worth? Well, in these hard times when fearful right-wingers are screaming about creeping socialism, some free-market economic principles remain quite active in the business of music. Meld that with the decline of large record companies and the rise of digital communication—the latter contributed to the former, but not solely—and the price variable is variable indeed.

Money as always talks, but recent news stories have shown it can be a two-way communication. And there are few better ways for artists to show they care than giving fans a break where it matters most in a slack economy—the wallet. Recently, artists like U2 and Keith Urban are offering some of their concert seats for good-old-time prices in the $20 to $30 range. Lucinda Williams gave concertgoers $5 to $7 credits for merchandise at her shows and retroactively on her website. Others offer value-added extras like a live album for every concertgoer (Coldplay) or a complete digital download of the band’s catalog with every $42.50 premium ticket (No Doubt). Sincere or just canny or anywhere beyond and between such gestures can range, there is an awareness on the artists’ end that some prices have gotten out of hand.

Yet music lovers are still ready to pony up serious dough for artists they care about. A recent Boston Globe story tells how New England new folk scene stalwart Ellis Paul financed his latest album by donations that earned perks at certain levels—not unlike the public radio fundraisers like the one I just listened to on my local outlet—and a young Texas music act I rain across in my PR writing work, Zack Walther, began the financing of his latest recording with a similar program. Jill Sobule raised $80,000 for her new album from her followers through her website. And when my friend Sara Hickman made an album her label wouldn’t release, she called on her “angels”—a term one also sees in opera and symphony programs for donors—to help her buy it back.

Expect to see even more of this. It’s as populist as it gets, perhaps also with a tinge of the old-school notion of patronage. The Internet and the new music marketing and delivery modalities it offers makes such efforts easy and efficient … if the music is judged worth enough to enough listeners. One Paul fan gave him $10,000, but preferred to do so anonymously lest giving so much to art seemed trivial compared to all the other needs today the money could have gone to. Classy point taken there, but good music offers just as much sustenance to human life as more tangible basics.

Music still has inherent as well as actual high dollar value to many people … at least some of it. Radiohead’s name-your-own price initial Internet offer of their last album proved that. And even if free but unauthorized music has been the online fly in the record business ointment, it has its value too.

And one of them is as a marketing tool. The last decade has seen the emergence of countless new artists who have cannily used free downloads to gain an audience that then converts into a following of paid fans. Canny record labels—all indies, of course—have also made the most of giving music away as a way to later induce a payment for the same act.

If the music is good enough to enough people, enough of them will also be willing to pay for it. That’s about as free as the market can get if you ask me.

And hey, let’s hear it for good old capitalist competition. Both iTunes and Amazon raised prices on some of their downloads to $1.29. But Amazon kept some tracks at the old industry standard of 99 cents to undercut iTunes—the hot sellers, of course.

The “illegal” file sharing that doesn’t compensate the rights of the owners (who haven’t made that music free) will never disappear from the ’Net. But in what is trendily called the Web 2.0 era, there is now so much good that’s not just free but has been freed of any price for consumption that it seems even more churlish for anyone to trade the music being marketed for money (as equally churlish as the big labels and other power players in the biz may seem, ergo worthy of a good populist pilfering).

Just one of the many sites popping up to offer free music, and some of it by name artists, is New York-area radio station WFMU’s new Free Music Archive. The public station was my favorite during my 14 years in NYC, and its new archive is partnered with such fellow “Curators” as equally influential stations as Seattle’s KEXP and Portland’s KBOO as well as other entities who all have or secured the rights to share from their archives.

It continues to be a brave and exciting new world for music out there on the Internet, in spite of all the things in the equation that give me pause and are even irksome and troubling. And the change resonates everywhere that music and money are exchanged. But within the increasingly freewheeling world of delivering music to listeners, the new and more open playing field is encouraging many fascinating and potent redefinitions of the artist/audience relationship as well as the cost and value of music.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2009

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