In 2008, I helped start a business called “Quidplayer”, which built a nifty little widget for artists to post on their websites. The Quidplayer is a music player that allows fans to pick their own price for the music they download from artists. It was a fairly revolutionary idea at the time (I had only heard of Radiohead taking that approach, never a smaller-time artist). These days, because of the success of Bandcamp and similar businesses, I’m happy to say it’s becoming more commonplace.
I’ve now adopted Bandcamp on my website, allowing fans to download tracks from the Buoy album for any price they choose. I’m planning to release the new record, Idiot Heart, in the same way. Additionally, for the past year, I’ve been inviting fans to choose their own price for my physical CDs at my shows.
This approach has gotten mixed reviews from fans. Some people are instantly in favor of it, others are downright incredulous. I’d like to let you in on where the idea came from, and why I’m now 100% sold on it.
The fan experience
Before I was a musician, I was a music fan. I still am! Music that moves me is worth more to me than almost anything else in the world. I would eat gruel every day for the rest of my life, or live in a tin hut, before I would give up good music. Music that doesn’t move me, on the other hand, is worth nothing to me. So how can two songs, one totally inspiring and one completely boring, both be worth $.99?
My answer is, they aren’t.
Not everybody has the same taste, but I will wager that everybody who loves music has a similar experience. If you really love an artist, if their music gets inside you and wreaks glorious havoc, destroying and rebuilding your interpretation of the world, making you laugh and cry and reconsider things, their art is worth an infinite amount of money to you.
Something big happened in the music world about a hundred years ago. Vinyl records were invented. Suddenly, record labels could record musicians, and distribute their music to jukeboxes, and later, directly to music fans and radio stations.
Imagine the enormity of this! Before 1910, a musician was a working person who traveled from town to town, performing their music live, in the same room with their fans. A fan was a person who saw that artist, enjoyed their performance, and planned to see them again the next time they came through town.
Recording changed the face of music in countless ways. The most shocking and new and important way, I submit, what that it turned a song – previously an experience, unsellable and unquantifiable - into an object which could be bought and sold.
With that one little idea, the recording industry was born. You can’t have an industry without a product, and you can’t make a product out of a musical performance unless you stamp it onto a piece of plastic. Now, a hundred years later, the music-buying public seems to think that a song is more or less the same as a pen, or an iPod, or an ice cream cone: it’s a thing, and it’s worth a fixed amount of money.
This, my friends, is lunacy. Songs are magic. Money is just money.
It seems to me that the big mistake – the very biggest mistake in the history of the music industry – was not highly paid record executives, or unfair royalty distribution, or Napster, or iTunes. It was the faulty premise on which the whole empire was built: pretending, in the first place, that a song could be bought or sold.
So, here in the 21st century, as I make my songs and sing them into microphones, as so many others did before me, I’m challenging that premise. If you hear my music, and you like it, and you want to take it home with you, don’t ask me what it’s worth.
To me, it’s worth everything. It’s worth every failed love affair I wrote about. It’s worth the debts, and the late nights, and the incessant station wagon traveling. It’s worth every ounce of heartache that went into conceiving, writing, singing, and recording it. It’s worth all the money I’ve ever made, and ever spent, and ever will.
The question is: what’s it worth to you?