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The Value of Music

Mobo has an article on why Taylor Swift pulled her albums from Spotify. Her argument echoes U2’s, which is that music is important and rare art, and thus should be paid for (as opposed to being available for free). Essentially, she wants more money for people to hear her music.

I’m not sure how I feel about that argument in general. Certainly if a musician wants to make people party more for their music, it’s their right to do so (although I do get annoyed hearing people who make millions of dollars complaining about how they aren’t getting all the money they possibly can). But I was bothered by one point made in the article, quoting Aloe Blacc (who co-wrote Avicii’s song “Wake Me Up”):

But the irony of the situation is that our music is actually being enjoyed by more people in more places and played across more platforms (largely now digital) than ever before. Our work clearly does have value, of course, or else it would not be in such high demand. So why aren’t songwriters compensated more fairly in the marketplace?

This question is reflecting an ignorance of economics that I often see in the media-industrial complex. In reference to pirated movies, for example, the MPAA points to how many copies of a movie were pirated and claims an amount of lost revenue based on that. But the economic reality is that products become more popular when the price is lower–in other words, demand is not independent of price. For pirated movies, the demand at the pirated price (i.e. free) represents just about the highest possible demand for those movies. Raise the price just a little bit, and the demand will fall off significantly.

The same goes for Aloe’s comment that “Our work clearly does have value, of course, or else it would not be in such high demand.” The reason the music is in such high demand right now is because the price is so low. If the price goes up, demand is going to fall. And that will demonstrate the true value of the music: if demand falls only slightly when the price is raised, then the music has value. If it falls a lot, it has less value. But it’s not accurate to point at the demand level for the point where the music is free and claim value based on that.

As an aside, I’m offended by U2 claiming that music is sacred and therefore should be paid for, or Taylor Swift saying that music is art and therefore should be paid for. Such expressions cheapen concepts like “holiness” and “art” to being nothing more than vehicles for becoming rich. There’s no inherent reason that holiness or art should cost money, as both are dealing with aspects of humanity that transcend common greed. If millionaires want to complain that they’re not getting as much money as they could, that’s one thing, but they should not hijack concepts that lie at the core of our humanity to do so. It smacks of the sale of indulgences that inspired Martin Luther to renounce the Holy Catholic Church.

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