The Value Of Music

Check, check … you with me? Okay, as the year is coming to an end — dramatic snare roll — I finally start writing on here about a brief conversation I head with a musician I really like. About games. And music. And the value of it.

The (not so) good ol’ times

Back in the days when we were still discovering new music through such strange “channels” as music television and buying records, my brother and I exchanged new CDs anytime we met. One album he introduced me to had a boy holding a buzz saw blade on the front and sounded exactly like that. Raw, beautiful, sometimes hard tunes with a voice that I imagined should belong to someone as “ethereal” as Jónsi. It combined expressions of angst and anger in a way previous facettes of rock in its widest definition had failed (and nu metal was just a few years past). To me, it felt like the emotional echo of Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie, and while my teenage years hero just disbanded ZWAN and set sails to embrace the future (that was lame, I admit it), I immediately fell in love with that sound. And that record in particular.

I’m talking about “Sleep and Release” of Aereogramme.

Fast forward to 2006, November (I think). I just finished my final tests for my Audio Engineer Diploma and passed out after two sips of beer. Regaining my senses and throwing up violently (I spare you the details) I felt like shit for several hours. But I had tickets for an Emilie Simon gig in Munich and did not want to miss out on that (I didn’t have the opportunity to se her live again until today). So I went there. The night after that was another concert I attended (probably Muse but not sure … doesn’t matter for this topic anyways). And the third night in a row I had plans to go to the Visions (German music magazine) Party, with Aereogramme playing in the fourth slot in the middle of the night.

Long story short: I was too exhausted and did not go. Aereogramme broke up a few months later and I missed to see a band that will never come back (unlike the Pumpkins or several other bands that were happy enough to sell a shitload of records). I felt guilty when I heard the news, mainly because (one of) the reason(s) for the break-up was more or less indirectly stated as failing economically. In a way that he band members couldn’t really make a living from what they were doing. And while I bought their records, not going to their gig made me feel bad. It felt like I haven’t given all I could to support them.

Different shades of success

One half of Aereogramme continued as the (officially?) still existing The Unwinding Hours who made two incredibly strong records (that you really, really should consider buying/streaming/listening to). One half of this half has lately become famous as part of CHVRCHES (completely different style of music, I like them as well … not sure about their new record though). The other half (and quarter of Aereogramme) is the guy with the fragile voice. The should-be-ethereal guy that entitled himself as “grumpy old Scot” once.

A couple of weeks ago he released his first solo record under the moniker “A Mote Of Dust”. Another album I can only wholeheartedly recommend. But to finally come back to the topic of this post: When he put his new record on sale he made use of the “pay what you want” feature on bandcamp that turned into “pay what you think it’s worth it” feature for me.

I paid a bit more than I would have for a regular album in a record store, on Amazon, or on iTunes, because I made one simple equation:

time spent while closely listening to the album equals time spent on a video game I like

I checked what I did pay for “The Witcher 3” and just did the same for the record. And I used the small free text field to explain exactly this, somehow because I thought just “overpaying” felt awkwardly like patronizing. (An extremly stupid thought by the way, but more on that — maybe — another time.)

I received a mail saying thanks for buying the record and appreciating the link to gaming since he himself is obviously an avid gamer (he finished Mass Effect 3 with all his squad members possible alive, which is one of the biggest things I achieved in life myself!). While this — again — doesn’t really matter, it made me think about the value of music again (and now I am finally on topic).

The ideal world entertainment consumption

Isn’t it contradictory to worry about the value and economical state of music and at the same time being a heavy Spotify user? I strongly believe in the idea of flat fees. Mainly because I think this kind of subscription model makes the most sense from a customer’s point of view. Why?

In an ideal world there is a certain ammount of entertainment usage that depends on cultural and economical circumstances. It varies in terms of the type of entertainment and the type of medium, but there is some sort of average level within a cultural setting. At the same time there should be a commercial value that equals this entertainment usage. Let’s say in the so-called “Western Hemisphere” (that is nowhere near a homogeneous cultural set of circumstances and rules in reality though) there is an average of 0.5 music streaming accounts and 0.25 video streaming account per capita under the given pricing and circumstances. This is the economical basis for the entertainment industry. People won’t pay more for something that is seen as a basic cultural aspect in our society. And I think this is finally a good thing. A lot healthier than the music industry of the nineties for example.

However, there are a lot of avid gamers, avid music listeners, avid readers, etc. that exceed this basic level of usage. And here is where the real value should be discussed. We need a model that makes sure to reward artists that engage people more than average in the consumption of their works. No matter if they are authors or musicians, Aereogramme or Rihanna (both on my heavy rotation by the way, I’m not going to just advocate “real underground music with high street cred”.

I would happily “overspend” on artists that add to my entertainment experience (EX(TM) ;-) ) in every way affordable for me. Bandcamp offers that option with the said feature, but why doesn’t Spotify? (I’m sure the answer is obvious, this was a rhetorical question.)

There are more questions than answers to this, yet. Fortunately I am lucky to work with someone that shares the same (or at least very similar) ideas on a start-up focussing on storytelling in any possible way (some lyrics tell better stories than books … shout out to Cedric Bixler-Zavala to just name one example … and this could be a way back to making sense of releasing and selling records as an opposing concept to focus on single tracks). We’re still at the beginning and of course there are business goals to meet and all that stuff that is somehow important next to supporting art. But when I come back to this post in a year’s time, I want to reconcile if we’re still on track.

So this is mainly a post for myself. Sorry to say that at the very end, but thanks for staying with me.