Putting a value on recorded music

I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.
— Vincent Van Gogh (Attributed)

There was a time when digital media was not so cheap as to be essentially free.  In 1979 my father brought home a Cromemco Z2D with a 10MB winchester hard disk. I believe that computer cost $10,000, which was quite a lot back then. Three years later I got a summer job writing assembly code for a new Cromemco graphics board, and my goal for the summer was use my employee privileges to purchase a brand-new 50MB SCSI hard disk at cost: $5000. It was in that context that I first heard about the join SONY/Philips project to develop a 700MB CD-ROM for digial audio music.

At more than 10MB/sec, a formatted 50MB hard drive was barely enough to hold a single 4-minute song at 44.1kHz/16 bit audio resolution, yielding a media cost of more than $1000/minute. By comparison, a 700MB CD-ROM priced at $18 yielded a media cost of just under 25 cents per minute. That’s a factor of 4000! If music were valued by the cost of the media, the CD-ROM was a revolutionary breakthrough in quality and value. I bought a SONY Discman as soon as they came out, Dire Strait’s Brothers in Arms, and thought I’d never look back.

Following its own version of Moore’s Law, the cost of disk storage dropped steadily every year. In 1997 IBM introduced the IBM Deskstar 16GP 16.8GB drive with Giant Magnetoresistive (GMR) heads with a media cost of 25 cents per megabyte. At that moment, the cost of CD-ROM storage and hard disk storage had equalized. But while the price of commercial CDs never budged, the cost of hard disk media continued to drop. Today a 1TB drive costs about $360, a cost of 0.036 cents per megabyte. If music were valued based on the cost of media, then music on CD-ROM was suddenly 694 times more expensive than music downloaded and stored on a commodity drive, and that’s assuming a full CD-ROM. A 60 minute CD-ROM would be closer to 856 times more expensive!

Clearly we know that music should not be valued by the cost of the storage media, just as Van Gogh’s artwork should not be valued based on the cost of his paints and canvas. But what do we tell the consumer who has seen the relative cost of media change by a factor of 2.8 million? And that’s before the typical 10x compression down to MP3! Do we say “nothing’s changed since 1982—keep buying what you’ve always bought?”

The dramatic change in media costs offers us an opportunity to re-value music, but to do so in a beneficial way for musicians (whose cost of living has gone up a factor of six, not down by six orders of magnitude). Rather than fighting the inexorable devaluation of the cost of media, we should embrace it and create a new forms of musical presentation.

I remember the shock and awe I experienced the first time I played Brothers in Arms through my Klipsch LaScala speakers. Digital silence and a sound that was clearly different than anything I’d heard coming from my LPs or cassette tapes. While the debate of analog vs. digital recording technology rages more intensely than ever, the debate we should be having is how we should re-write the bargain between musician and market so that both enjoy rather than suffer the consequences of new technology. And the Miraverse is the perfect place to explore just how this can best be done.

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