Remixing Metaphors: Music and the Value of Cost

June 15, 2011
Fleet Foxes' "Helplessness Blues" sold for $3.99 on Amazon when it was released in May.

Late last year, Fleet Foxes, a band that already feels like they belong to another time, compared the $3.99 Amazon digital sale price of their new album, Helplessness Blues, to the cost of a whoopee cushion. Earlier label Asthmatic Kitty urged fans pre-ordering Sufjan Stevens’ The Age Of Adz to buy it somewhere besides Amazon, who alerted the label that they’d be selling his album for $3.99 as well. The label compared it to the “cost of a latte.”

There’s no lack of metaphors for the way music makes us feel, but whoopee cushions and latte’s? These are striking if only for what they point to — something wholly trivial or ephemeral, good for one use and then discarded. For Fleet Foxes and Asthmatic Kitty, the prices weren’t a question of money or even compensation. Amazon underwrites these deals, making up the difference between the lower price and the regular $7 or $8 tag for a newly released digital album. And, in turn, it probably didn’t affect the bottom line for the labels.  It’s more a question of value.

The obvious incentive for underwriting album prices is volume: lower prices equal more downloads, and the bump in sales gives the artist a shot at a number one record. (Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs and Vampire Weekend’s Contra both debuted at Billboard’s top spot; both received underwriting deals from Amazon deals.) But even without the number one ranking, the additional numbers can have a big impact. Jagjaguwar has had some high profile releases from Bon Iver and Okkervil River, though no number one albums yet. Label co-owner Darius Van Arman says that he could see a Billboard number one conferring a sense of legitimacy and cultural relevance to the label and its staff. And there are other benefits: “I also imagine with a high chart position, moms and dads stop giving their artist or label-owning children shit for dropping out of college,” he says. “Which is definitely good for morale.”

I asked Owen Pallet, an artist with an interesting relationship to the money that comes with music — he gave away the $20,000 he received when he won the Polaris Prize in 2006 — to play devil’s advocate: Why would an artist agree to sell a year’s worth of studio work for $3.99? “It’s a fast track to massive exposure for the artist, which equals more plays, more VEVO views, which equals appearances on Letterman, which equals high placement on festival bills, which equals bigger guarantees for the artist’s live show. You see? Devaluing one’s product might be a tough thing for an artist to deal with, psychologically, but it makes sense from a business perspective,” he says.

But if prices for music have fallen so sharply, doesn’t the value of the music diminish, too? Aram Sennreich, a music industry analyst and media professor at Rutgers, says no: “Music as a recorded product has already been devalued over a decade, so there’s not much devaluation that can happen.” He says nobody should be asking if the prices are too low, because price is irrelevant anyway.  “If you want to get technical, price and value are actually two different things. And measured in other ways, music fans value music now more than they ever have.” His examples: the growing number of music players and digital retailers, how much fans share music. He presented a different metaphor — iOS applications. They take programmers months to create and they retail for 99 cents, yet their creators are satisfied by the large volume they’re able to sell, and their sense of value is satisfied. “The artists who actually do feel as though their value as an artist or worker is somehow tied to the virtually arbitrary asking price of music in the store are those who have been successfully brainwashed by the labels themselves into believing that their merit is reflected in something meaningless,” he says. The list of metaphors gets longer: an album is not unlike buying an iPhone app, one choice for consumers swimming in an ocean of content (videos, applications, and music).

The ocean comparison stuck with me because it’s similar to “the cloud,” the music metaphor that’s dominated the last few weeks since Apple announced the iCloud, a competitor for Google and Amazon Music’s own storage services.  At a recent panel at SXSW titled “Digital Music Pricing Strategies: What Works?,” David Hyman, CEO for streaming service MOG, said he saw all music consumption moving to “the cloud.” But his idea is different. If  Google, Amazon, and Apple conceive of the cloud as a storage device, sucking up your MP3s and raining them back down on you at your request, Hyman’s version comes to you, music already intact. Kind of like how your basic cable pays for Mad Men but you get Keeping Up With the Kardashians as well. You don’t pay for pieces of content (in this case, songs and albums) but a whole package, not unlike the 500 cable channels you get with a subscription to Time-Warner. In this model, music value becomes even further removed from price. And if music is piped to you in a continuous multi-stream, there’s no way to couple value to any one song or album.

But what about value as it relates to ownership, which also finds itself in decline? Again, I found that I might be asking the wrong question. “Ownership is passe” John Beeler, publicist for Asthmatic Kitty, told me. It’s a sentiment he hinted at in an email newsletter he sent out last year upon the release of Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz. “We have mixed feelings about discounted pricing.” he wrote. “Like we said, we love getting good music into the hands of good people, and when a price is low, more people buy. A low price will introduce a lot of people to Sufjan’s music and to [The Age of Adz]. For that, we’re grateful. But we also feel like the work that our artists produce is worth more than a cost of a latte. We value the skill, love, and time they’ve put into making their records. And we feel that our work, too, in promotion and distribution, is also valuable and worthwhile.”

The email raised hackles on the internet, and, Beeler says, Stevens got questions about it during the promotional cycle of the album. A year later, Beeler is a little more comfortable with the low price tag. But not 99-cents comfortable. “I feel like the artists I work for — Sufjan just one of them — are incredibly creative and hard-working, and it’s difficult not to see a $0.99 price point as symbolic,” he says. “But what’s the difference between $1 and $8? Not much really.”

Seven dollars may not make much difference in the grand scheme of things, but Rutgers’ Senneich points to the genius of Steve Jobs’ idea of pricing songs at 99 cents. “If it’s less than one of those flimsy dollar bills in your pocket, it’s almost not worth thinking about,” he says. He said it was “below the threshold of consideration.” It’s an impulse purchase. (In my experience, the threshold is around $5 for an album, and I think my experience is pretty common.)

Is there a significant difference between paying $5 for 10 songs and 99 cents for one? Perhaps not, except that at 99 cents you are below that threshold. Marnie Stern, an excellent guitarist and giver of opinions, thinks the danger is that “below the threshold of consideration” might also mean below the threshold of giving a crap. I asked her how much she’d like to charge for her album: “It all seems pretty moot because even if I lowered the price to five bucks, people are still going to download it for free anyway.” Since “free is better than any price you could list… that’s what the majority of people listening to music are gonna be looking for,” she told Riff City. But price isn’t entirely meaningless: “I do think that if people had to buy it, they would appreciate it more, spend some time with it, and value it a bit more.”

That may be the most interesting thing about price, value, and music — that the threshold of free may upend the whole value equation in artists’ minds. There is no object-metaphor for “free,” and without that, there’s nothing of low value to compare it to. $3.99 bothered Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, but free was different in his mind. “I’ve downloaded hundreds and hundreds of records — why would I care if somebody downloads ours? That’s such a petty thing to care about. I mean, how much money does one person need? I think it’s disgusting when people complain about that, personally,” he told the BBC. Free feels good, cheap doesn’t. I haven’t heard metaphors for this, so let me offer one of my own: Music may be like sex. If you give it to someone for free, it’s yours to give. If someone leaves you two bucks on the nightstand in the morning, to them you’re just a cheap trick.

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