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. identicon
    FarePlay, 15 Jun 2012 @ 12:35pm

    Perceived Value

    The real discussion needs to be about illegal file sharing, both as a decimator of revenue and the message it conveys. Talk about becoming unimportant, illegal downloading makes your work valueless.

    In this country, the primary response has come from the industry, the RIAA and MPAA, who have both spent hundreds of millions of dollars on legislation and enforcement, which has worked to the advantage of illegal file sharers. Particularly after the RIAA made a serious miscalculation early on in going after individuals, not service providers.

    There has not been a concerted effort to sway "popular" opinion by focussing on the real issues that people can relate to; tens of thousands of working class people can't earn a living, because millions of people who illegally download have no idea about the impact of their actions.

    People who choose to not support artists and download music and film illegally really only have one valid reason; because they can.

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