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All Music Equal? Valuing Music in a One-Price-Fits-All World

Introduction: Nice Market Section

Set to one side of the record store, the niche market section evoked a hallowed awe.  Wearing my tattered black wool jumper, with Sonic Youth Daydream Nation T-Shirt protruding halfway to my knees, and trashed black jeans, my Doc Martens clunked across the threshold.  


Jazz wafted in the air.  The man behind the counter eyed me with a weary contempt.  Faking it, I worked my fingers across the various CDs carefully, and occasionally pulled a CD from the rack and nodded to myself knowingly.  The man began to shuffle his feet impatiently.  My act was not fooling him. “What gave it away?”, I wondered to myself, as I untangled a rogue jumper strand that had snagged on one of the CD racks.


It was then, that my eyes set upon it, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Soundtrack” by Ennio Morricone.  I plucked up the CD. To my surprise, the man behind the counter smiled and remarked that it was a great soundtrack.  I agreed with far too much enthusiasm.  Luckily, my enthusiasm soon waned when I noticed the niche market price. 


Record Store


Chapter One: All Music is Equal

The one-price-fits-all age of streaming has become instrumental in the shaping of our collective perception of the value of music.  For less than the price of one CD per month, we now have an entire world of music at our disposal.  


On the face of it, framing all music as equal should serve to liberate music-makers from outdated notions of artistic hierarchy.  And while it can be considered commendable to assert all music has equal value, the assertion makes no allowance for the contrasting amounts of labor, training, and experience required to make different types of music.  Is all music really equal?


Orchestra


Chapter Two:  In the Eye of the Beholder

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.


While I do believe all artistic endeavors have value in of themselves, and any assessment of their quality, depends entirely on audience taste (their beholder), it does not necessarily follow that their value in terms of financial remuneration should be determined by the same (their beholder).  Parents may well find their children’s music recitals more engaging and worthwhile than orchestral concerts performed by professionally trained musicians, but that does not mean the two should be treated equally in terms of financial recognition.


Man and Woman with Headphones


Chapter Three: Levels of Expertise

Comparing the perceived value of different music is a sticky business and highly likely to offend.  With that in mind, let me state clearly and categorically, I make no assessment as to the ultimate value of a piece of music.  I am merely venturing the argument that, like over trades, not all jobs are equal in terms of time, training, and labor.  We freely accept other trades, from electrician to coder, have different levels of expertise and the economics of their respective industries reflect that.  Surely, it is credible to suggest the same should be true of those who make music?


In our modern world, with the help of AI-powered search algorithms, pitch, and tempo adjustments, coherent musical pieces can be cooked up on loop and sample websites in a short number of hours.  In turn, AI-assisted mix and master plugins make light work of bringing a track up to the, all too often, generic standards of streaming.  The result is an unmatchable degree of productivity for the more musician/performance centric genres.


Modern Music Studio


Chapter Four: Equal is not always Fair

In the age of streaming, the time, training, and labor involved in creating a jazz quartet piece is equal to that of a loop based Lo-Fi HipHop track.  And while many people may well prefer the Lo-Fi HipHop track over the jazz quartet, is that sufficient to argue that both should be equal in terms of financial recognition?


If streaming will not/can not make a distinction of value, does that argue for more musician/performance centric music-makers to step away from streaming platforms and concentrate their efforts on sites, like Bandcamp, where a distinction of value can be made?


By its nature, all music-makers on the grassroots are working to numbers that do not allow for the economy of scale.  For grassroots artists, setting a higher sticker price is central to achieving financial viability.  Does it then follow, the same argument be made more right across the grassroots independent scene?


Jazz Musicians


Conclusion: Observation

In truth, this is not so much of a conclusion, but rather an observation.  Establishing a value for any piece of art/entertainment is a highly problematic act.  Even within the limited parameters of our discussion here today, a credible argument can be made that production-centric tracks can take longer and require more care and attention than musician/performance-centric tracks.  


Equally, it is unclear as to how the streaming model would allow for distinctions in price from one artist to another.  Perhaps all we can do is make the observation, this is a fundamental flaw in the streaming model.  What individual music-makers choose to make of that, is very much up to them.


Streaming


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