The concept of zero took ages for societies to recognize—let alone understand—and it’s been a stumbling block in economics recently, especially for the music industry. Those who think about economics in terms of scarcity get upset when abundance pushes price down towards zero (as we’ve seen with digital audio files), as if the economic equation was broken (even though it isn’t).
But artists and other creators hit a different stumbling block than economists: zero is a problem because they feel like their art is worthless.
They aren’t hung up on scarcity. They’re hung up on “devaluation.”
The thing is, value and price are not the same. Price is monetary value, but value is so much more than money. Price gets driven down to marginal cost, but value factors into the demand side of the equation. Expensive things aren’t necessarily valuable, and valuable things aren’t necessarily expensive. I value oxygen a lot, but it seems silly to pay for the air I breathe.
Songwriters who get hung up on “devaluation” confuse recordings with music. They equate the two. A recording is not the song, it’s just an instance of it, and a digital audio file is just an instance of the recording. Equating these reduces music to recordings, to files. As important as recordings are, there’s so much more to music! When you think of a song, do you think of the recording, or a memory you had connecting with the music? Do you think of the file and how much it cost, or the emotions and relationships that the music conjures up? The recordings are just a means through which we experience the music. Songwriters (of all people!) should know that the value in music is so much more than the price of a recording. It’s not devaluing music to give it away for free, but it can increase its value by allowing more people to connect with it, to know, love and understand it—to value it. It’s through that experience that music is valued, not price!
Ironically, the underlying concern ends up being economic—how will we make money? A price of zero for digital audio files doesn’t mean that no one values songwriters, or that no one is willing to spend money on music and keep them in business. The trick is to flip the economic equation, and think of it as a cost of zero, and then you realize that the trick is to use as much of those abundant goods as possible—sharing digital audio files makes the music more valuable and leads to more opportunities for monetization. When you give music away and connect with an audience, the opportunity for monetization is in the associated scarcities—access, containers, community, merchandise, relationships, unique goods, the creation of new music, etc.—by giving people a reason to buy. Getting distracted by “devaluation” prevents you from seeing the opportunity—the necessity—to experiment with new business models.
Can we please stop complaining that free means devalued?
Blaise Alleyne is a songwriter who plays violin for lots of other songwriters. He’s also a programmer, a writer, and an advocate for free culture. Previous versions of this post have appeared at blaise.ca/blog and on Techdirt.