What is music worth?

I’m very behind on my blog postings, so don’t worry—you’re not reading my postings out of order. In October of this year, Radiohead put their album In Rainbows up for sale at whatever price you’re willing to pay. There was quite a flurry in the blogosphere, particularly from techcrunch.com, which argued that the pricing trend of commercial music is headed inevitably to absolute zero.

I had two thoughts about this. They are

  1. Good for Radiohead!
  2. What’s the definition of music?

I and so many others have been alarmed by the way that organizations like the RIAA argue loudly for absolute property rights while remaining utterly deaf to concerns of fairness or public benefit. At the root of copyright is not the interest of the rights holder but the interest of the public which is served by granting some rights to private parties as an incentive to contribute to the public good. There was a time in North Carolina when it was understood that the public good was served by employing people to grow, harvest, and sell tobacco. We now know that the public good is better served by not growing tobacco and putting the land to other use: organic food crops, feed crops, research and development campuses, and even housing developments and schools. In a digital era where channels of distribution no longer need the support of complex and expensive supply chains and logistics, is it proper to continue to force an internet world to obey vinyl rules? Where, exactly, is the public’s benefit being addressed in the wars over per-song pricing and internet downloads?

What Radiohead has done is to say “you, the public, are who we really care about. Instead of us dictating to you what’s fair, you tell us. We trust you.” And if the public decides, for whatever reason, that Radiohead’s music is of no benefit to them, then they can declare that message without fear of fine or imprisonment. Conversely, if the public does sense a benefit, they know what to do. And while official sales figures are not available, Wikipedia cites people paying an album price of £5 or about $10. Since the album itself contains 10 songs, that would average very close to the $0.99 per song that is common on the iTunes store, but a notable difference is that the price reflects a willingness to buy the entire album, in contrast to concerns that iTunes would reduce the value of an album to the value of its $0.99 single (whatever a single is). So the public understands their benefit and is willing to pay, which is great.

But the second question concerning the nature of music is even more interesting. Radiohead also chose to release physical media, presumably in a nice box. For £40 (or about $80) it should be a nice box! Seriously, Radiohead are approaching the reality that different people experience music differently. By offering radically different products at radically different price points, they serve the public good better. I have to admit that I stopped listening to popular music about 20 years ago, but I am intrigued enough by what Radiohead have done that I want to download it, listen to it, and decide whether I want the diskbox or no box. And if I really, really like it, maybe I’ll invite them to Manifold Recording to do their next album, on me.

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