the frankfurt school

Let’s talk about what Johnny Greenwood was talking about. What exactly is music worth?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. In the past my friends have mentioned that they will download an album and if they like it they’ll go out and buy it, or go to a concert. Radiohead has shaken this whole thing up by giving us a little bit of the in between. It forces us to consider exactly what it is we’re paying for, and what we think of it. The unfortunate thing is that we are forced to evaluate what we are purchasing before we have the chance to fully experience it. iTunes has a set purchase price (which is still lower than distributors) but only offers a snippet upon which to base your purchasing decision. Illegal downloading is going to remain a huge problem until the marginal cost of production is equal to the profit achievable by producing that unit. Computers and the internet make this a difficult task because they make the marginal cost of production almost nil.

Radiohead’s name-your-own-price move has set the whole economics of it on its head. Instead of grumbling about the price, or committing a “crime” (I really hate calling it that), consumers must carefully ponder the enjoyment they anticipate receiving from the purchase of this commodity. More than this, though, Radiohead has challenged the very commodification of music as an art form by allowing us to have the album for free if we so choose. With media so easily commodifiable, this is a risky move, and should scare the shit out of any record industry exec.

Music was the first successfully commodified media. With the invention of the phonograph, suddenly it became possible to transport recorded audio very easily, and to create it inexpensively, and hence to sell it for a reasonable price. Other recorded audio was popular as well, but none has endured in the same way that music has. Perhaps this has to do with the ineffability of music (though I’ll reserve that topic for a later date). Music has always been on the cutting edge of economic development, and that has never been more true than now. As I’ve learned from my beloved professor Joshie Juice (who you can find linked on the right) eventually music will be so accessible that just listening to it will be free, and almost everyone will be a producer. Music software has already made it ridiculously easy to make a half decent piece of crap song, and it will only continue to be easier. Once everyone becomes a producer, the market will become more and more fragmented until it practically doesn’t even exist. This is not the death of music, but the ascent of music into the realm of what I’m going to call uber-art. I’ll work on a proper definition for the next post.


  1. Hey clay … nice meeting you just now. Jeez … this whole thing about paying for music … man … it’s a conundrum for sure. I think 99 cents a song is the way it should all go. When i was a “kid,” 45 rpm singles went for 99 cents and you got an A and a B side … lots of times they were both hot and if you liked the artist, well, they were hot no matter what anybody else thought. Albums (12 songs max) were $4.95 or so. Now if we adjust for inflation from 1960 to now … well … I wonder what that translates to. I would LOVE it if our next album found its way into the mainstream … not the mainstream mainstream, but that great river of possiblities where people actually would pay 99 cents for one of your songs, and if 1,000 people would, well, it adds up. I think “pay what you want” is a very cool idea … as longs as somebody pays SOMETHING.

    best /// chriswing /// STB

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