TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
So I read this quote from Vince Gill, and it got me thinking. What is the monetary value of a song?
Opinions on this topic seem to vary widely. Looking for a bit of background research, I was surprised to see this essay. Arguing from a strictly business-based perspective, Chris Randall, guitarist from Sister Machine Gun, owner of a record label, and founder of a recording plug-in device, claims that music has no inherent monetary value. What a fan pays for is not so much the sounds themselves, but the memories that we connect with those sounds and the feelings that come with them.
Ok. Sure. But, no monetary value? If we are going to look at music purely as a business, how much does it cost to create a song? Well, that depends on many factors. I know many people who create their own songs using computers and software in their own home. These songs can then be shared on Youtube or distributed on some kind of material device like a flash drive or CD. This is a cheap way to create music, giving it a positive point on the Vince Gill side of the equation, but with a few notable exceptions, it lacks the ability to reach the masses in any meaningful way, thus decreasing the value from Randall’s perspective.
How much does a professional recording cost? Again, many factors come into play, but once we’ve taken into account renting a studio, renting instruments ad recording gear, paying session musicians, engineers, producers, creating packaging, mixing, mastering, duplication, distribution, marketing…. It ain’t cheap, so perhaps Gill is right and Randall not so much. How many copies at $0.99 a pop does it take to recoup the costs? A lot. The financial gamble of creating a song and hoping it will catch on and become so successful as to overcome the cost if its own creation is treacherous. Which brings with it certain problems…
Let’s say I work for a record label, and I hear a new band (let’s call them Band A) with a really creative, experimental new sound. I like it, but how do I know how others will respond? Now, if I hear another band (oh, I don’t know… how about Band B?) whose sound is remarkably similar to, say, Taylor Swift. They have the look, the approach, the sound, everything needed to be a huge hit with the legion of Taylor Swift fans out there. Who will I sign?
With millions of dollars at stake, the safer route is to sign Band B, but the more artistic route is to sign Band A. Band B will no doubt bring money and prestige, with little hope for furthering the cause of musical growth. Meanwhile, Band A offers artistic satisfaction, but with a risk should they fail to turn a profit.
If we look at certain styles of music that seem to get caught in stylistic ruts (country, R&B, and rap come to mind), you can begin to see how the business of music gets in the way of the art of music.
Wherein lies the solution? Well, independent record labels offered an interesting alternative in the late 1980s through the beginning of the new millennium. Independent labels took a few steps out of the process: they signed, recorded, and produced the work of lesser-known artists, but then left the expense of distribution and marketing up to the big labels. If a song hit with audiences, cool, everybody wins. If not, there was less money at stake, so the gamble was not as risky. Indie labels also tended to be located in areas outside of the mainstream music industry (think Sub-Pop in the late 1980s and early 90s in Seattle, Merge in Chapel Hill, NC, or DB Records in Atlanta), allowing them access to underground, localized trends that have yet to gain the attention of those in bigger cities. Without these labels, there would have been no Nirvana, Arcade Fire, or B-52s, and how sad would that be?
But, in recent years, the internet has changed things a lot – bringing us back to Vince Gill’s initial complaint. The web has made the creation and sharing of music something open to just about anyone with the equipment and the patience to compose, write, perform, edit, and upload their music. Chuck Klosterman identifies this trend as “the democratization of music,” which he claims brings with it “the limitless palette upon which artists can now operate.” (https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20111116/10283516791/world-where-recorded-music-no-longer-has-monetary-value-artist-is-king.shtml) If finances are no longer an issue, the floodgates to endless creative experimentation should be flung open!
But is that what happened? What are some of the most familiar songs released via the internet?
Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain”?
Rebecca Black’s “Friday”? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfVsfOSbJY0)
PSY’s “Gangam Style”? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CH1XGdu-hzQ)
If this is what the freedom of the internet has brought us, I almost prefer the cages of the past.
So, again, we must ask ourselves, what is the solution? If even indie labels are no longer financially viable and the internet only allows crap to float to the top, where is there room for musical experimentation and creativity that will be heard among the roar of big-business darlings, American Idol contestants, and internet flashes-in-the-pan?
Perhaps it is best for truly innovative artists to continue to dwell in obscurity, surrounded by a small but loyal collection of underground fans. If financial success requires that a musician sacrifice his or her creative vision in order to fit some kind of preconceived notion of “what works,” then it may be better not to chase that avenue, but instead to strive for artistic integrity. It’s a harder road, but I suspect many would believe it to be worth it. What do you think? Which is more important: financial success or creativity? Is one possible without the other?
One of my favorite artists from back when we lived in Nashville was Kim Richey. Kim has worked in the industry for at least twenty years. She’s an amazing songwriter, singer, guitarist, and performer. She’s released seven studio albums, and her songs have been recorded by the likes of Radney Foster, the Dixie Chicks, Trisha Yearwood, Brooks & Dunn, and many others. Nonetheless, few people have heard her music.
Described at various times as country, pop, and Americana, her style is difficult to pin down. What inevitably comes across from her music, however, is a wry sense of humor, a passion for great songs, and a deeply emotional center.
The first album of Kim’s that I heard was Bitter Sweet, recorded in 1997. My husband was working on his internship in recording technology in the studio where the album was being completed, and he came home raving about this woman and her music. At first I was skeptical, but as soon as it began, I found myself swept up in his enthusiasm.
Bitter Sweet is available on CD and cassette (!) from Amazon, and it can be heard streaming on Spotify and Tidal. It really is a marvelous album, and I hope you’ll give it a listen and tell me what you think!
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.