Free Doesn't Mean Devalued

from the more-to-life-than-money dept

The concept of zero took ages for societies to recognize, let alone understand. Mike has explained before how it's been a stumbling block in economics for some libertarian and "free market" types more recently. People who think about economics in terms of scarcity get upset when abundance pushes price down towards zero, as if the economic equation were broken. But if you flip the equation and think of it as a cost of zero, you realize that the trick is to use as much of those abundant goods as possible, adding value to complementary scarcities for which you can charge. Zero doesn't break economics, it just requires a different approach.

But artists and other creators hit a different stumbling block than libertarians (libertarian artists aside...). 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." We've heard it from journalists. I hear it most often from fellow songwriters. The economic theory makes them feel as though their work is just viewed as some sort of cheap commodity. The thing is, value and price are not the same. Price is monetary value, but value is so much more than money. Price is what 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 each minute, given the abundant supply.

More importantly, 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, people and experiences 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 the songwriting profession, or that no one is willing to spend money on music and keep songwriters in business. 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 hung up on "devaluation" is a distraction from the opportunity -- the necessity -- to experiment with new business models.

So, can we please stop complaining that free means devalued?

Filed Under: free, music, value

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Nov 2009 @ 2:51pm

    Oh Blaise, the boss will be so glad that you had the extra cup of koolaid.

    Sadly, the value of music currently is mostly maintained by the existing system, and not by the "future is free" system. If we reach a point where all music is free and there is no more retail market, the value will quickly come down to match the market price.

    We could end up with a marketplace with millions of average bands and average artists turning out average music, bringing the average of all music down to the level of that horrible garage band next door that practices too late when you are trying to sleep.

    Value and price are not directly related, but they are connected in an elastic sort of a way. If price goes way up, it naturally will pull value up with it (trailing indicator). In the same manner, if value is lost, price is dragged down as a result. With the price at zero, the elastic is taut, pulling very hard at the value of music in people's minds.

    You cannot maintain both high value and no price for very long. They are almost entirely mutually exclusive.

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