The fact that the music industry was much healthier in the preceding decades does not sit well with folks who have adopted the worldview that free music, detatched from the shackles of cold capitalism, sounds better and survives better.
I have recently read a few articles which claim that “the price of CDs was inflated in the 90s.” Prices may have increased slightly during the 80s and 90s, but at most should be small complaints. Paying for music is noble; it’s fun, it creates value, and all things considered, it’s always worth it.
Our new culture continues on thin ice. As we tiptoe into the 21st century stubbornly defending our newfound internet-trumps-all philosophy, we’re forced to deny the evidence as it yells to us from the shore, desperately waving. We’re forced to justify certain inconvenient realities. How exactly did those primitive, apelike beings in the 80s and 90s luck out with such an “overly-healthy” music industry? The most fantastic and apalling explanation I’ve run across is that CDs were “overpiced” in the 80s and 90s.
I’m confused by this worldview. Let’s compare even “inflated” album prices to other examples of cultural brain-food: films and video games.
A movie costs twelve to twenty bucks. It’s hit or miss, and yet we gladly pay it. Of course we do – films are something of great value to us and our complicated, content-hungry, imaginative brains. There’s no replay value when you see a film in the theater – show’s over. Movies on other mediums such as streaming or DVD have varying replay value (I’ve seen The original Tron and Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life uncountable times) but generally once you’ve seen a movie, you’ve seen a movie.
Mainstream video game prices have started to approach sixty bucks or even more. The experience is also quite a risk, with the quality of games ranging on an enormous spectrum from doo-doo to life-changing. The replay value is generally much higher than film, but with notable exceptions (Dark Souls, anyone?) I find myself petering out with a new game after a couple days to a few weeks.
When buying CDs was a common activity one would expect to pay around twelve to fifteen bucks (maybe close to twenty in some cases) for an album. But a great album, as we’ve all experienced, is a gift that keeps on giving. I have records I can pick up and put on now, even after years and years, and still enjoy like sex and drugs had a baby. Afer hours and hours with Cake’s Fashion Nugget, miles and miles in the car with Radiohead’s The Bends, years and years with The Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds, I still can’t get enough. I’ve spent more time listening to Frank Black’s Teenager Of The Year than the guy probably spent writing the damn thing. Sometimes the water gets deeper and deeper. With each new friend I get to experience the album again through new ears. It’s a magical, spiritual, empowering, theraputic, and social experience unlike any other and it cost me a measly 20 bucks.
The risk with buying an album was lower, too – you generally had sampled a song or two, whether on the radio or elsewhere, or you knew the artist already. That’s not to say I haven’t bought plenty of stinkers – but again, that’s not some kind of justification for not paying for something. That’s how art works. It’s a risk, and you’re paying for the experience. You’re paying for the love of music. You’re paying to involve yourself in something creative, mysterious, and maybe even challenging.
I don’t want to over-emphasize the specifics of pricing vs. risk and reward though. With art, those arguments tend to be nebulous. The point is this: it confuses me to see people arguing against paying for music when we gladly fork over the cash for any other form of cultural exchange.
I’ve been open to the new methodology of digital music – in fact, I recently read an interview from 2010 where I seemed much more positive and hopeful about this new internet world.
But I am more and more skeptical as the evidence rolls in. The value of the music industry has been cut in half since 2000, despite more avenues for music than ever. I see a stronger 1%, taking up more of the airways, not less. I see a weak, struggling, and dying “middle class” of musicians, not a stronger and more varied one. Remember genres? Metal? Ska? Everything has conformed into a strange social anthem – a mix of electronic, dance, pop, and commercial rock that sounds repulsive to anyone still awake.
But no one seems to be awake.
The only “controversial” voices in music are people like Dave Grohl – as much as I dig the man, I think that points to the problem – why are the only relevant musical voices left over 40? Why are the only movers and shakers bands I was listening to when I was 12 years old? That shouldn’t be the case, folks.
Buying albums is fun. It’s our vote. It’s the most fun act of goodwill you can participate in. It’s rewarding. And in my opinion, it’s the only way we can sustain a music culture that creates these beautiful collections of songs, from unique, creative artists. It’s the best way to support teams of musicians, producers and engineers who make truly great albums possible.
Enough! Enough of this entitled justification of getting what we want for free. Enough of this idea that albums have become super cheap to make. It isn’t as true as you think – trust me, if you value my own experience at all. Also, more important than the costs of production are the costs of sustaining human beings through production, sometimes for a year or more. Buying records needs to become culturally relevant again – how? I’m not sure. But it’s the only way to bring back a vibrant universe of varied musicians, a “middle class” if you will – where the focus is a little more on innovation, poetic honestly, artistic integrity. Not a huge pop star, or a lousy wannabe, but a skilled, committed artist, facilitated by a team of technical experts, creating a sonic world for you to take with you as you go through life – always loving you, always bringing out the hidden magic from the seams.