As 2014 draws to a close, I wanted to just put down some thoughts that have been buzzing in my head about music, its value, and why Taylor Swift, Spotify and everyone around and in between keep getting it wrong.
Music is my favourite thing. You know how every single person in life has that one pastime or hobby or interest that they are insatiably nerdy about? For me that is music. Specifically, pop music but lots of other kinds too. The listening, watching, enjoying and analysing of music and all its related topics is my geekery. I go to a lot of live shows (shout out King Michael who keeps a tab for me), I buy merchandise, I sign up to the mailing lists so I can get the free downloads, I get sucked into YouTube holes where I watch interviews and music videos and performances and I get sucked into twitter arguments where I talk about the same. I run a blog that approximately 8 people read regularly. That’s how immersed I am.
Naturally, my consumption of music has changed with the times. Between 1994 and 1997 I had a cassette walkman that I would listen to as I cycled around the back entry behind our house. For my 9th birthday I got my first CD “boombox”. You can see the exact model I own in the cafe scene of Spice World: The Movie. It’s sitting on my chest of drawers right now. I don’t know if I’ll ever part with it. When I was 14, I had a CD walkman which took 2 AA batteries on the half hour drive to my grandparent’s house and 2 AA batteries on the way back home. When I was 15, I ripped files off my CDs at almost unlistenably low quality so I could fit more songs (approximately 60) onto my 128mb mp3 player. Then I got an iPod, discovered Limewire and Bearshare, and the game done changed.
It was then that I stopped paying for music. Why would I spend the money I earned from my low-paid weekend job on stuff that people would willingly share with me at the price of nothing at all? I had no qualms about piracy. It is not theft anymore that it is stealing from Letts if you photocopy sheets from a textbook because you have a class of 35 and only 10 copies of the reading material. I was a kid from a low-income family whose interests exceeded my cashflow. My favourite artists would understand I wasn’t trying to swindle them, I thought. They wouldn’t want me to not listen to them just because I can’t afford to, that’s not what music is about, I reasoned.
This was my most intense period of musical discovery. I learned new artists just starting out, old artists my parents would have listened to back in the day, deep cuts and bootlegged leaks from my own favourites, genres I would never ever dreamed of exploring if I had to put cold hard cash where my mouth is. From the age of 16 to the age of just turned 24 I downloaded almost everything in my iTunes library from fileshare sites or a group email account where we would upload albums as attachments and save them into the drafts. And then, two years ago, I stopped.
My reasons for “getting clean” were twofold. The first was quality control. I had a vast iTunes library and approximately a quarter of the music downloaded had never been listened to even once. I wanted to downsize, and when trimming the fat didn’t work, I completely nuked it and decided that I would only add back music I had bought and paid for. I also had lots of low quality files and no way of knowing for sure that the HQ download wasn’t just a LQ download re-encoded. The only way to know for sure that everything on my iPod was a good quality mp3 was to procure what I wanted personally from a legitimate source – Amazon or HMV for albums, iTunes for stray single tracks – and import it myself.
The second reason was because I value music. As I mentioned above, it is my favourite thing. I was no longer a student on minimum wage. I was a grown up with a salary and a small amount of truly disposable income. I am, generally, an honest and fair person. In fact, another thing that I value highly is fairness, and I have done since I was a small child. It seems fair to me that if I have the money, I should pay a price for something I want. I was at a point in my life where I had the money. Music is something I want. So I started paying for it.
It hasn’t been easy, especially when it comes to the ridiculous notion of staggered release dates (shout out Prince Broderick who hooks a sister up with those US releases xoxo), and rebuilding my library has been a long and costly process. Two years on, I still haven’t purchased all the music I used to illegally own and would now like again, but legtimately. I’m getting there, though. Maybe I’ll be done by the end of 2015.
The point of all that autobiographical meandering was to hammer home the point that I am the type of person that values music. In the communities in which I choose to involve myself, I’m pretty weaksauce in my passions. In the grand scale of the population of the world at large, however, I am a minority.
What I’m saying is that when Taylor Swift talks about the value of music and the value of albums and pulls her music off Spotify and people say what a clever girl she is, those people tend to be me, or variations of me. They value music and they value albums and if they use Spotify they probably have a premium account. By virtue of being interested enough in Taylor Swift to write about her opinions they are probably as consumed with music and the music industry as much as I am. It’s hard to remember, because we forget that our own worlds are not The World, but most people in the street do not share our views. They simply do not value music the same way as we do.
The great and also terrible thing about the internet is that people can, for the most part, get exactly what they want. The internet is helping to nichify society in a way that is a whole different argument for another time. A free streaming service – whether that be Spotify, Beats, Pandora – serves the niche of people who like music but don’t value it. They won’t pay £8.99 for a 12 track album but they will pay £10.99 for the latest Now! compilation because you get 40 current hits at a saving of almost £30. These people need music to power their workout (they value health) or to dance to in clubs (they value leisure pursuits) or to listen to as background noise (they do not value silence) but they don’t care deeply about music, and they will not care deeply about music just because Taylor Swift and Take That start being withholding.
See, here is the thing about music – it’s really not a necessity. I mean, to me it is essential. It is the main course. But to someone like my brother (who does not pay for music) it is like, a side salad with too much leaf and not enough dressing. Like, he’ll eat it. But he’s not gonna pay top dollar for it. In fact, it had better come free with his meal.
Do you know what my brother pays for? Comic books. And video games. And art materials. He pays a lot of money for these things. They are his favourite things. He values them above all else. He does not mind paying money for them. He does not think the price of comics or video games or fancy art pens is unreasonable. But he does have an issue with the price of music. Because he doesn’t care about music very much.
Music is just far too subjective to attribute a set value to it in this new digital landscape where demand will never ever exceed supply. Not only will the value vary from person to person, as individuals the price will vary from song to song and artist to artist. The Britney Spears demo of ‘Telephone’ was purchased by a fan for hundreds of dollars at a time when, as one pithy observer commented, you couldn’t get people to pay 99 cents for the latest Christina Aguilera single.
But if you can’t put a fixed price on music anymore, what can you do? Well, the answer is not to try and berate and punish casual consumers by telling them they’re playing the game wrong and then taking your toys and going home. Newsflash: casual consumers don’t give a shit about whether your motivation is preserving your artistry or preserving your bank account, because they think artistry is pretentious and that you make more than enough money as it is. You cannot convert casual consumers into fans that are prepared to make a financial (and indeed, emotional) investment just by taking away your product. But you can convert casual consumers into fans by making a financial (and emotional) investment in your product look like the more desirable, value for money option.
This is something Taylor Swift does well. She invites fans to her house to play them music, she sends them gifts because they make her laugh on Tumblr and she pays for them to get burritos when she bumps into them in the street. There is absolutely no chance of Taylor Swift paying you any kind of special attention if you don’t put any time or money into it, but if you connected to ‘Shake It Off’ on a molecular level because you heard it on TV or the radio or Spotify, chances are you might be willing to work a little harder to feel like part of the special Taylor Swift crowd. But to build this kind of dedication, you still need to put your product into accessible places to get people to buy into all the add ons. In a digital world, if you want the in-app purchase you need to make the game a freemium download to begin with.
Which is why this comment from Scott Borchetta, the head of Taylor Swift’s label was just absurd: “If this fan went and purchased the record, CD, iTunes, wherever, and then their friends go, ‘Why did you pay for it? It’s free on Spotify.’ We’re being completely disrespectful to that superfan who wants to invest.”
No, you’re not. The superfan wants to invest. That’s why they’re a superfan! Their friends don’t value music (or maybe just not Taylor Swift’s music, specifically) in the same way so they don’t make the investment. Besides, how do you think the superfan became a superfan in the first place? Not from spending money willy nilly, that’s for damn sure.
And what about Spotify users who aren’t casual consumers, just poor ones? Or to put it another way, the 8 years I spent nothing on my favourite artists because I didn’t have the money would have been an income stream of at least some description had Spotify or an equivalent existed at the time. The idea that you would definitely buy an album because it’s not on Spotify is plain fallacy. If you don’t have money to spare on music, you don’t have money to spare on music, period.
All I’m saying is that this constant push-pull behind the scenes (staggered release dates, streaming or no streaming?, let’s charge £350 for a hi-and-bye before my sold out 4 nights at a 17,000 capacity arena with ticket prices set at £50 average before fees) does a massive disservice to the people who do value music over everything, when, and forgive me for being naïve, this should be the easiest time in history to be a music fan. Why is the industry so fixated on chasing an indifferent demographic and trying to cram them into a one-size-fits-all box when the technology exists to cater to everyone at every interest level?
Basically, everyone had better start sitting down and acting right and working this stuff out, because the lid is off and you can’t put it back on. Stop trying to find a set price for music and a set way to consume it and start trying to find the best way to make sure you’re getting the right money from the right people. In 2015, I should be able to consume media like a buffet, not a set meal. Tailoring (Tayloring?) is the future.