The Role Of 'Perceived Value' In Music Is Small And Fading Fast

from the music-aint-gucci dept

anothercultland points us to a post over at Digital Music News (obnoxiously entitled "Want More People to Care About Your Music? Then Charge for It…") which, though massively overstated and oversimplified, actually gets at a point I've been thinking about for a while now. The basic premise is that the power of "perceived value" can make charging for music a better proposition than giving it away for free, based largely on a comment from an indie artist:
The music industry isn't the best at studying pricing (that's for sure), but there's evidence that price tags actually increase overall interest and demand for your music - whether that results in a paid transaction or not. Here's a comment from a seriously DIY artist in the trenches, Steady Fingers, who experienced something unexpected.
"But it's funny that even when I used to give away [my music] for free, there wasn't much traffic nor many downloads, almost nothing. Then we decided that we should put it up for sale so that we might be able to recoup some of the money spent on making the music videos (when it's your brother making the videos, I still consider it DIY.) Anyway, as soon as people saw that the music was up for sale, the website and other related social media gizmos received much more attention. Also, people began looking for ways to download it for free, which isn't always a bad sign."
Welcome to the strange world of 'perceived value,' a murky science that enables all sorts of obscene markups - whether at Starbucks, Gucci, or the Apple Store. But the basic idea is this: the simple presence of an elevated price tag - or a price tag at all - is often enough to convince someone that this product has worth.

There is actually some truth to this idea, but only under specific circumstances and with a whole lot of caveats. Perceived value is a real thing, and it can be pretty powerful—but there are significant limitations on how it can be applied to an infinite good like digital content. A good (non-musical) example is self-published Kindle novels: for an author just starting out, it's actually probably a good idea to charge $0.99 instead of making it free, because of the way Amazon separates the lists of free and paid books. Of course, as authors like Joe Konrath have discovered, books at $0.99 make a lot more money than books at $2.99—so the limitations of perceived value come into force quite quickly. In app stores, paid apps may once have held some clout over free ones—but now many of the top grossing apps are free and ad-supported, and the perceived value of a price tag to download has all but disappeared.

And it's disappearing everywhere, as the lines between professional and amateur get weaker all across the media spectrum. I buy a lot of $5 and $10 albums on Bandcamp, and I also download a lot more free ones—and I can't really remember which is which. For indie music, price is a poor indicator of quality. Besides, pretty much all music can be streamed first in a "try before you buy" fashion now, so any perceived value is quickly supplanted by an actual evaluation of the product. Just as with books in the Kindle store, there may be certain venues in which adding a price tag offers some advantage, but that can only go so far and it could always disappear in an instant.

Beyond that, and perhaps most importantly, there is nothing that says you can't charge for your music and also give it away for free. Or, at the very least, charge for it but accept (or better yet embrace) piracy. When payment becomes optional for fans and prospective fans, then they see it as an affirmative choice to support the artist, and many will make that choice. Dan Bull sold enough copies of his Sharing is Caring single to hit the pop charts, and a lot of the attention came not from the fact that he was charging money, but from the fact that he was also giving it away for free (as he does with all of his music). By offering an option to buy and an option to download for free, you get the best of both worlds: the power of perceived value in those few cases where it counts, and the attention of the growing number of people who don't view content that way anymore.


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  1. icon
    TtfnJohn (profile), 15 Jun 2012 @ 11:27am

    Re: A simple Analogy

    "Clean" mountain air can be as smelly as what's at is foot a and and often is. If there's a pulp mill down there you'll smell it at 10,000 ft just like you will at 600ft. Maybe not as strong a stench but a stench.

    If there's a forest fire you'll still be choking on the smoke all the way up.

    Of course, there is an elevation where the stenches dissipate if no other reason that the air thinning.

    And as for that pristine mountain stream water your favourite brewski is made of, if you believe the ads it's still sterilized before the beer is made just like the ugly water flowing through downtown streams.

    And that bottled water you're drinking? A few days ago it came out of the bottling plant's tap.

    Yet people pay for air fresheners with the scent of clean mountain air, pay obscene prices for the bottled water they can get from their tap and dryer sheets with no end of outside scents.

    The value these people ascribe to these things isn't always about the price, though high prices are expected for bottled water. In the end what I'm saying is that price and value are two different things.

    I may pay more for U2 record than I would for Metric one but I'll value the Metric record more than U2 because I like them better.

    Incidentally value != valuable. Value is an emotional response not a rational one. I may, and do, value a couple of my old, dog eared, beat up books more than I do gold but that doesn't change the fact that gold is more valuable due to its scarcity. A small charge for a song/video doesn't make it more valuable though it will imply more value than a freebie to a new fan or someone just discovering an act. We're conditioned to consider free music as bad music due to the fact that for decades the first discounted LP or CD were the truly awful recordings. That that doesn't necessarily apply in the Internet age doesn't change years of conditioning. For some of us the small charge implies a value, rightly or wrongly. Keeping in mind that value and valuable are NOT the same thing.

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