How Much Is Music Worth?

Yesterday, I waffled about the music collection that includes the 21 Nine Inch Nails records we’ve paid for. Today I’m going to talk about the one that was free. It also features a pretty awesome (presumably fan-made) video with NIN as the Village People!

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“You think 925 is a lot?” observed my colleague, discussing yesterday’s post. “We have 5,000 CDs.

OK, so that’s a lot.

“Well,” she explained, “They were only about five pounds each.”

Music these days is cheap. This is a good thing in many ways, because it makes music more accessible. Music fans have essentially divided themselves in two: those who buy music and those who don’t.

Back in the old days *creak*, you either bought a record – again, for around six pounds for a vinyl album – or you taped it off a friend. There were singles you bought and singles you taped off the radio. That was how you decided its value: you’d either put up with the crackling hiss of poor-quality audiocassette or shell out for the real thing. New music was discovered through the radio, cover-mount giveaways with magazines, or home-taped compilation cassettes.

Of course, the scale of the non-purchasing was small: on average, each album would be shared between two or three people – not the 20,000 you might get on a torrent site. If you taped an album, you’d at least give it a listen, not shove it on a CD somewhere and forget it existed.

That’s the trouble with these days. I remember the first time I did it. In the days before Napster et al, my husband’s friend had a huge hard-drive full of songs he had ripped from CDs, and invited us to load up a CD-R full of free music. I grabbed two albums and a ton of miscellaneous tracks.

I realised something very strange quite early on: that I wasn’t happy with my home-burned versions of the albums I liked. I wanted to have that sense of ownership that comes with buying a record: I bought them both almost right away. I also felt guilty about what I regarded as theft.

As for the miscellaneous tracks, stripped from the context of the albums to which they belonged – or to the lovingly-assembled tracklisting of a compilation tape – they felt literally worthless. I didn’t even bother to listen to them. I have played that CD-R twice in a full decade. Any of the tracks I gave a damn about, I just bought the album.

For some reason, I get on fine with digital downloads. I think it’s the pain of purchase. Not the hassle of purchase – Amazon’s one-click checkout system is a godsend, and the bane of drunken impulse-purchasers everywhere. (Kanye West? Really?) Nope, I mean the old-fashioned bittersweet transaction of parting with hard-earned cash to enjoy the fruits of another’s labour. My sweat buys your sweat.  (They really need to fix that aircon.) The thrill of online shopping is every bit as tangible as buying something in a store: the price of a cup of tea buys me a song; I can have an hour’s music for an hour’s (minimum) wage.

When you get something free that is not a personal gift, you don’t value it. It is, quite literally, worthless. Through this, we have utterly devalued music. Those who don’t buy music often download tens of thousands of tracks which they don’t bother to listen to and certainly don’t love. There’s no appreciation there. No value. They haven’t sacrificed even the tiniest bit to own it. For me, a music purchase is a choice I’ve made between that album and a video game; that album and a lipstick; that album and a new pair of shoes. My Skechers are so worn through that they’re tearing up my socks and blistering my soles, but my ears are happier than ever.

What’s really making me happy lately is Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 album, The Slip. It was given away as a free download – crucially labeled as “a gift” from Trent Reznor to reward his fans for their many years of devotion.

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