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The value of music

Mar 23, 2015

I was asked this morning to fill in a questionnaire which had been compiled by a student researching ways in which value could be re-inserted to music for consumers. The questions were as you might expect: How do you consume music? Do you regularly pay for music? and similar. But then it took an odd turn – I found myself considering “the point at which recorded music became valuable to me” and not having a clue what my interrogator was driving at. This was, of course, a reflection of my own predilection for questioning questioners: I’ve been told before to “just answer as best I can and allow the researcher to define the significance of my answers” but I just can’t answer a question if I don’t see why I think it’s being asked.

So that question has been on my mind all day now. I was faced with twenty-two possible answers to choose from, including “music is not valuable for me in general” and “when I stream and download it for free”. None of them seemed to fit. The implication seemed to be that music, or art in general, wasn’t inherently valuable. That it needed to be validated by a process which – judging by the options I was given to answer the question – involved a numeric transaction quite apart from its qualities and had nothing to do with its auteur(s).

I also found myself asking whether this question would have been more or less relevant 10-20 years ago when my passion for consuming music was perhaps at its peak. I’m old enough to remember actively engaging with music as a consumer before I’d even heard of the internet or made the shift from cassettes to CDs. At that time – around the mid 90s – I had a very clear sense of the value of, say, an album. I knew how much dinner money I would need in my pocket to walk out of a shop with a tape or a disc and, as a result, I knew how many school meals I had to skip in the fortnight preceding the release of a new album from a band I liked (it was all the school meals). Perhaps the point at which recordings acquired value for me was clearer once than it is today.

I’m not sure it’s that simple. Our questioner, by concentrating on recorded music and the various formats in which it can be experienced, muddies the waters at least for me. Back when I knew the value of a CD I don’t think it represented to me the value of music itself in any way. For a start, although I find both subjects important, I cannot conflate my opinions on music with those I hold on various playback formats. I have my favourite albums and I know how I prefer to hear and handle them but that relationship is secondary to the one which exists between me and the noises they contain. Secondly, it doesn’t accord sufficient importance (in my view) to the rituals attached to consuming music.

As a teenager I put up posters, grew my hair long and made sure I played music loud enough to provoke appropriate reactions from my parents. Today I match crockery to vinyl. If you choose a teapot of the correct size, the quantity of cups of overpriced Japanese tea it will dispense before it needs refilling corresponds to a drinking time of more or less one side of a 12” vinyl LP. It makes for a somewhat ceremonious listening experience, plus you get to refill it and enjoy the more delicate second infusion whilst listening to the B-side.

Fifteen-year-old me would have laughed at me now of course. He was a proud and fully paid-up member of a subculture: a delighted victim of the system, who would never be so bourgeois as to drink tea from a pot. He starved for his art, whether he needed to or not, because there was a point to be made and an identity to be aligned with.

It was (and still is) impossible for these things not to form part of my personal sense of the value of music as a whole. For me, the immersive experience of connecting music, album sleeve, poster, gig and t-shirt was not only a fundamental part of my relationship with music but of my identity and that of my friends. It was worth the money, at least in part, because of the metaculture attached to it. It cost me a lot to acquire music and to engage with it in the way I felt I needed to and I have no doubt that that was one of the things which made it so valuable to me.

None of this mattered to me back then of course. I just got on with it. If I had stopped to think about it like this, it would have evaporated immediately. Certainly, I couldn’t have defined a point at which the value suddenly appeared. If you asked me now though, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you that I thought the value of a record was present before I even became aware of or engaged with it. But what creates that value is another thing altogether, hard to identify in the abstract. It is rare for the creative impulse, talent and hard work of artists and producers to be explicitly in question in discussions of this type. More interesting, perhaps, are the instincts of the consumer to ally themselves with whatever their tastes represent. When I was a teenage heavy metal fan, people knew it to look at me and I liked that. At times it was as valuable for me to be seen clutching a record by a certain band as it was to listen to it and, if I’m honest, I can’t say that I didn’t learn to love some bands back then simply because I felt that I should.

I remember that there was one shop in Bristol in the 90s where you could buy band t-shirts, obscure albums, and patches for your mum to sew onto your denim jacket. It was in a back street up some stairs and, if you hadn’t been initiated by someone in the know, then you would never have found it. You had to really want to go there. Now I could walk into a high street fashion outlet, buy a Ramones t-shirt and wear it without having a clue who the Ramones were.

If at fifteen you had told me that I could have free access to all the music in the world all the time, I would have loved that idea. The democracy of dissemination and the unlimited access to something that I had very little money to spend on – and a virulent addiction to – would have done nothing but excite me. The possibility of discovering so much more than I already knew might have been too much for my tiny overactive heart but I wonder now if that very privilege is something which shifts the point at which music acquires value for us. Had I been granted that magic power, would the very fact that I could use it whenever and as much as I wanted have been enough to make it less important? Perhaps I would have felt like it would always be there; that there was no rush and that therefore less effort was needed from me.

There’s something quite sobering about only being able to offer yourself access to an average of twelve new songs every four to six weeks, especially if those twelve songs have to be by the same artist and are designed to work as a whole. You have very little choice but to get involved once you’ve made that commitment, and if you choose the record because of the value it already holds for you on levels beyond the noises it contains, then you tend to feel a stronger desire to connect with it. I bought several records as a teenager that remain amongst my favourites now but which I had to listen to over and over to learn to like. On some level, I was offering artists the chance to challenge me and reaping the reward.

That was the effect of limitation on my experience, causing me to engage actively or not at all. But that is changing all the time. The official charts company announced in June of this year that streaming would now count towards their statistics: a logical move given that back in January Music Week reported that streaming’s share of the market in 2013 was up 34% on 2012 while sales of albums and singles, even digital, were down. Streaming’s growing popularity seems to be what has kept the industry’s commercial value more or less level (down just -0.5% between 2012 and 2013) but it’s long been no secret that streaming is by far the least beneficial way for artists to disseminate music.

The industry appears to be encouraging and rewarding a culture of instant gratification which we, at one point, hoped would offer an open platform for music from a wider variety of commercial positions. But one has to ask what effect this will have on the culture of music consumption and on the ability of independent or more challenging artists to make music which requires some commitment from listeners.

With YouTube’s recent decision to block content from independent artists and labels who don’t sign up to their new service, it could be argued that opportunities for non-commercial or independent artists to present in this way are being limited rather than made available. It’s hard, too, to argue that the trend in consumption isn’t creating opportunities for a greater number than ever of unconnected parties to monetise the commodity of easily accessed music. With artists being unable to specify any preference or opinion on the advertisements which are added to their content on streaming and video sites, the choice seems to have become either to watch someone else make money from your output or to not offer it at all.

The value of music, whether recorded or not, is destined to change with culture and technology but for me can’t be disconnected from a wider experience of identity and ritual. To attempt to define a point at which that value is accrued in order to help reassign it, seems to me a proscriptive approach to an evolving phenomenon. People will inevitably consume in whichever way makes sense to them because their own sense of value is being met through that process. If my fears about the future – in which the music we have access to becomes increasingly generic and unchallenging – are grounded and matter to enough people, then we will doubtless see the industry re-align itself again to allow for that. For now, it seems the patterns of consumption suggest a situation in which a large proportion of the monetary value of the music industry is ascribed to things which generate revenue for parties other than artists: ad revenue, playback devices, re-issued t-shirts and mobile data plans, but not music itself. In some respects, this might be nothing new but the affiliations and extensions we make from music now seem more distanced from the identity of artists and listeners than they may have been in the recent past. I suspect that sales figures on The Ramones’ recorded output remain unaffected by the second wave of success their t-shirts are enjoying even if that does include streaming and download activity.

The point, then, at which music becomes valuable to me? It’s a complicated question and, whilst it throws up many considerations with regard to layers of value as well as questions of identity and culture, I’m not sure how to express it concisely enough to put next to a tick-box. The only one of those I felt I could honestly check simply read “I don’t know”.

Mat Martin

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