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Pricing songs

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Thursday, May 4, 2006

Sure, it’s not a important as the price of oil or anything, but the price of downloadable songs attracts a great deal of attention from economists. Lots of entrancing economic issues are at play: potential breeches of antitrust laws, variable pricing schemes, intellectual property rights, online marketing models, and so on. I know—really fascinating. I’m always interested in perspectives on pop music that disregard arbitrary aesthetic declarations and subcultural posturing, so I’m intrigued by this kind of stuff that demystifies the music and reveals it to be another commodity, like pork bellies or platinum bars. That must seem somewhat perverse; people are generally interested precisely in having their music mystified by non-musical qualities—the way it can make you feel avant-garde, or part of a community, or can seem to speak directly to your emotional crisis, or can transport you out of isolation and into the zeitgeist. But I’ve felt shackled and undermined by a preoccupation with pop music, continually overrating its significance to my life and spending an inordinate time collecting it, cataloging it, classifying it, pontificating about it, and hell, even sometimes listening to it. I still feel like I’m too much in its thrall—probably always will be—so I seize on these occasions when it intersects with an interest that seems less frivolous. If it doesn’t demystify it and free me entirely, it least it gives me a better reason to be obsessing over it.


Today I came across to separate columns that touched on song pricing. In The New York Times University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee writes about the legislature in France attempting to force iTunes to sell songs that are playable on any portable player. Not surprisingly, Goolsbee disapproves: “In their fervor to free listeners from the shackles of their iPod, French politicians have abandoned one of the guiding principles of antitrust economics: penalize companies that harm consumers, not the ones that succeed by building better products.” In his estimation, the iTunes online store is itself the product as much as the iPod—what is most pointedly not the product here is the music the iTunes M4a song containers contain. It’s almost as if the music itself is an externality to the technology that makes the online song market function. In this case, music is just a pretense for monetizing digital rights management. That often seems the case with pop music product—it’s an excuse for some other thing, a proxy—for subcultures or “cool” or for live performances or for the sex appeal of a particular idol or whatever. It’s rare that a song has value in and of itself, removed from a context where it is motivating some other behavior, performing some kind of substitution. Goolsbee notes the ITunes store has succeeded where others have failed because of its “simplicity”, which suggests that part of what one buys with the song is the ease and convenience of its acquisition—iTunes is marketing and capitalizing on impulsiveness (like all good consumer industries should, and isn’t that good for the social body? More impulsive people?) I’ve been reading Ritzer’s Enchanting a Disenchanted World, which is all about the “means of consumption”—the environments that enable us to consumer, and consumer more, and enjoy it in ways we wouldn’t have thought possible—and perhaps iTunes music store is an online example of a “cathedral of consumption”, a retail environment embued with pseudo-spiritual qualities and capable of elevating consumers through shopping. The song is an excuse to use iTunes, to have an iPod, to participate in this great thing that everyone talks about and experience for oneself the convenience, the selection, the intuitive interface, the uncanny recommendations, and so on.


The other piece I came across was this item from Stephen Dubner, one of the Freakonomics authors, about Canadian singer Jane Siberry selling her own songs online for whatever price people decide to pay. You can take them for free, pay what most others pay, pay a suggested price, or listen to a song a few times, and then pay what you think it deserves. (It’s much like a restaurant that opened in the East Village where there were no prices on the menu and you paid what you thought was appropriate). Dubner hails this as giving consumers pricing power and providing incentives for them to pay other than the threat of prosecution. It conjures in my mind a kind of stock market in songs, where their prices vary by their popularity, and by the investments of others in them. (Maybe songs should be released like shares, and exchanged like stocks on a trading floor; then we’d know what artists the public really values. Then we would see where the real talent is. So say the free-market true believers anyway.) I think the lesson to take away from Siberry’s website is that hard-core fans are truly grateful for the musicians they like, and are happy to pay for music when they have a sense it’s going directly to them and not to support a parasitic legion of promoters and distributors and homogenizers and whatnot in an industry out to rationalize our tastes into a uniform mush. If more aritists were to eschew major labels, they would have fans who’d happily pay for their music on a homespun website; unfortunately these would be the three people who have ever heard of them.

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