How much is music worth to people?
This isn't a new question for me. For the past 25 years I've fed my family by selling the stuff. And even though I haven't operated a brick-and-mortar record store for almost a year now, I'm still as curious about it, and as relatively uncertain, as always.
After all, I'm still a music fan of the highest level. I was born that way. The big difference is that now I'm out here in the real world, making buying decisions as a consumer. No more promos. No more wholesale. No more first-look at the used buys. I'm a music consumer, just like you, spending my extra cash, looking at my options.
And one thing is pretty clear from this vantage point: Things have gotten to a place where I simply do not need to spend money on music to enjoy it.
Are You Trying To Piss Off Your Record Store Pals?
I've got a ton of friends who are still running stores and working at record labels...and they surely don't like sentences like that last one.
But they aren't dumb. As a matter of fact, they're the best in the business. The past 15 years of pure volatility in the industry has made sure of that. They know what they are up against.
I say that because I've always figured music nuts like me would keep feeding money into the industry, if not simply for control over what was reaching our ears and the ability to avoid the general lameness of mainstream music (something that doesn't seem to change regardless of consumption methods.)
However, my change of perspective has left me wondering...
These days, can even a music nut like me be satisfied without spending money?
Music Is Valuable, But How Much Is It Worth To You?
Before we go any further, let me differentiate between "worth" and "value".
Music has great value to me. I can (and often do) make the argument that music is as vital to us as love and nature. Most of my friends and family feel the same. I think it's safe to say that music is just as valuable to society as ever.
But is it worth enough to make you and I pony up our hard-earned money when we don't have to part with it?
Because the simple fact is that we don't have to part with it to enjoy the value of the art anymore.
Around my house, on the spectrum of free and legal, I've got Spotify, Internet radio, Wi-Fi apps, Direct TV radio stations, and Youtube. All of which offer infinitely better and more diverse choices than anything I had growing up (or any of the pitiful, corporate terrestrial radio stations in this town, which we've also got.) Many of these options offer me a great deal of control as well.
Somebody Must Think It's Worth Something
While it's true that most normal people aren't nearly as obsessed with music as I am -- which has always been the case, regardless of the delivery methods -- it seems like most people are still willing to spend a few bucks on it here or there.
Many people, like me, still love the control and flexibility of ownership.
Many more people (count me on this one, too) simply believe in supporting the artists that contribute their incredible art to our lives.
(Skeptical note: Experience leads me to believe that. like those who claim to shop indie and then follow their pocketbook to Wal-Mart, there are plenty of posers in this regard. But it's still a big part of the equation.)
The introduction of viable digital purchasing methods (not available until way too late in the game) and the (overhyped, but still big) resurgence of vinyl have provided different buying options for different kinds of listeners, and helped provide signs of optimism about music sales.
According to Billboard, last week Daft Punk's new album sold 339K copies, even though it was openly streaming for free even before the release date (I saw my son listening to it on Spotify and assumed it was already out.)
That's a damn decent number, especially since that's just a few of the delivery options out there. In fact, global music sales actually grew in 2012--only by 0.3 percent, but hey, it's the first time since 1999.
So some people are still spending money on music.
I'm still spending money on music too.
I am a lifelong collector. If I dig something, I still feel the need to own it. If it isn't in my collection, either on CD or LP, then I'm saying it really isn't worth anything to me. Even without the perks and connections of the industry, I'm still willing to spend money to hold music in my hands and truly own it (which is why I don't include MP3s as an option; to me, owning a file is like owning air.)
How Long Will We Keep Spending?
That's all fine and good right now, but I still worry about whether it will last. To put it another way, when push comes to shove, will my fellow music fans and I continue to ante up for something we can hear for free?
I don't see myself stopping, but I don't see my buying habits expanding or anything, either. I will always collect, but now that I don't have to buy albums just to test them out, I won't. If I'm going to buy spend money, the album is going to have to be good.
And as I mentioned earlier, most people are more casual about their listening habits than I am--happy to listen to whatever mainstream crap they get dished up for them on Pandora, or Clearchannel, or Disney. These people have no desire to control or collect, so the free options--especially streaming--cannot be ignored when considering music's future worth (not value.)
Many of these music pups still don't even know about music streaming. Most of the people I talk to don't. They know plenty about Netflix, but not Spotify. But the news is spreading quickly--and Apple's streaming service will launch soon, which will accelerate that expansion.
Once they find out, the industry's hope is that they'll pony up for the subscription, and that revenue will offset the lost sales of physical and digital goods. It's my hope too, and a real possibility.
But it's equally possible that most of those casual listeners will put up with a commercial or two while they stream at home or listen to the radio in their car or replay the stuff they already own on their phone, and be just as happy as proverbial clams.
Hopefully--for the sake of the musicians, and my indie record store pals, and my crazed, yet beloved industry--that's not the case.
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I guess we'll see.
Because even though I hope it never comes to this, if the money got tight, and I had to do it--even as a lifelong music junkie--I could almost certainly feed my habit without paying a cent.