What is the value of music?

To pursue and master a technical craft shouldn’t be taken lightly.  Anyone who works hard and strives for his or her goals should be celebrated.  Musicians in particular should stand up for themselves and reinstate their self-esteem, because there is still money to make and careers to be had. I should know, as I’m a full time professional musician.  But the industry has changed significantly and one must adapt to survive. 

The fact is financial value is determined by demand.  Music was once extremely valuable, but the combination of changing technology and cultural trends, industry politics and the avalanche of forgettable music released in recent years, has caused music to lose its currency.  Therefore the only real value that remains is personal. 

There was a time when most people only owned a limited amount of music, they chose carefully when buying it and ended up knowing all the songs and lyrics intimately.  They would become fans, buy more albums, attend live concerts, buy t-shirts and even join the fan club.  

I used to count how many weeks it would take me to save up enough money to buy a new record or cassette based on how much my allowance was. Two dollars a week meant saving for 10 weeks.  When my allowance finally increased to $5, I could buy an album a month. I felt rich.

There was a time where it was hard to find some albums.  You had to hunt high and low and sometimes order them in from overseas. Like baseball cards, people were proud of their collections.  If someone had an album you wanted, you envied them.  Some people bartered and some people stole.  Now most music is available at our fingertips, free whenever we want it.  And yet we don’t seem to really want it anymore.

Once when I was young I saw a story on the news about countries facing economic problems and I asked my mother why they don’t just print more money.  She explained that the more money a country prints, the less it’s worth.  This got me thinking about the concept of value and how it’s determined by demand, availability and perception. I considered gold and realised if someone developed an effective form of alchemy and gold became readily available, it would lose its value overnight.

The obvious comparison is the effect the internet has had on music. It’s an exhausted subject, but there’s no denying piracy took its toll. Many also agree that for those who legitimately buy music online, the lack of the tactile experience from buying a hard copy takes the magic out of the purchase.  And now we have the questionable and controversial streaming model, which to me resembles a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  It’s a potent subject that’s provoking a lot of heated debate over a mechanism that earns artists next to nothing.  All cents and no sense.

The music industry seems to have lost it’s self esteem and is now accepting and even embracing these things it wouldn’t have dreamed of tolerating in the past.

While the music industry collapses, music output has increased, over-saturating an already saturated market.  In the early days records were hard to make.  Few had access to studios and record companies served a purpose in covering upfront costs and bringing the album to market.  If an artist had made a record, their career had to have already progressed to a certain point for the opportunity to arise. This process served as a kind of quality control.  These days technology means anyone can make and release an album.

With the industry becoming more political and commercial, the music we’re exposed to is no longer a reflection of public listening trends.  Instead it’s the result of people with agendas, making decisions about what’s presented to us, included on playlists, tours and the like.  It’s now down to who you know and what strings you can pull.  For example, I recently heard about a New Zealand artist who’s wealthy father paid a promoter $50,000 in return for them being booked on a reasonably high profile summer tour.  Regardless of whether the artist is any good, they’re now included in all the marketing and playing to sizable audiences, who no doubt innocently assume they must be really talented and be doing very well to have been booked. 

Mean while, reality TV shows (that would be more aptly called ‘game shows’) give the impression that being a musician simply involves telling your tear-jerking back story and singing in tune with just-add-water soul.  Of course this is far removed from the life, work and struggle of a real musician.

I believe all of this has cheapened the impression people have of what real musicians do and while society pours money, energy, support and borderline religious adoration on sports stars and TV celebrities, musicians are expected to jump through hoops for loose change.

Interestingly people seem to be more complacent about music in general.  I often ask people what they’re into.  In the past I would get very clear answers about what they did and didn’t like.  This would sometimes spark heated debates as people overflowed with passionate opinions and excited enthusiasm.  These days when I ask the same question, I mostly hear ‘I don’t know… I have a playlist… thousands of songs… I’m not really sure…’

Music has lost is value, the way people perceive the music artist has changed, the market is saturated, people no longer see any point in paying for music and many don’t even seem to know what music they like.

The cold hard truth is natural selection will figure it out.  Where there is demand, business will follow.  Idealism and sentiment are not going to turn back the clock or change the minds of millions.  Instead, I say you can’t change the world, but you can change your world.  

I’m not against technology and progress by any means. Progress is a good thing and very important.  I simply think the modern world requires us to approach things differently, to get the most out of life.  The challenge these days is not about access, it’s about controlling your intake to heighten your experience.  Oxygen is everywhere but only concentrated oxygen gives you a high.  

I still love listening to vinyl, not just because it sounds better, but because of the whole experience.  The time it takes to select an album, get the record out, place it on the machine and guide the needle, adds to the suspense and excitement.  There is a commitment that follows; if I want to skip a song or change the record, I have to stop what I’m doing and make the effort to go and do so.  Because of this I usually listen to and get to know the whole album including tracks I might have otherwise skipped.  

Of course I also listen to music on my phone and computer.  In doing so, I would often forget what I had and sometimes only listen to albums once or twice. So I made a playlist that only includes a limited number of albums; the music I’m currently listening to. This is the playlist I always go to.  When I’m done with an album I delete it from the playlist.  When I buy a new album I add it.  Since I started doing this I’ve been really getting to know the albums and enjoying them far more. All of this heightens my experience.  

And call me crazy but I still buy music and I love it.  Paying for music makes me appreciate and cherish it more. 
It needs to be said, musicians are amazing people. I don’t mean the reality show winners, the pin up pop stars or the thousands of amateurs with recording software and a Facebook page.  I mean the people who make music their life, who pursue and hone their craft, who turn blank pages into works that move and inspire and get an audience on their feet. Those who load and unload gear time and time again, playing rubbish venues, fending off drunk aggressive punters, dodgy managers and venue owners, navigating the arrogant, failing and sometimes corrupt music industry, trying to ignore critics (professional and amateur) and the rock n roll stereotypes others often measure them against, while trying to make a living despite the industry’s decline… and who still after all of that, find the energy to lean in to the mic and give it everything. 

What does it mean to you?  How can you best experience it?  You’ve got to find your own way to love music, play it, feel it, explore it, pursue it, cherish it…… it’s up to you. 

Danny McCrum is a musician based in Auckland, New Zealand. You can listen to his work here.

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