Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: Music and the death of value

Like Limp Bizkit did on their 2000 opus, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, Mopping Up Culture Vomit is changing its name to reflect Charge-Shot!!!'s decade-end retrospective. Don't worry; it will only be marginally more relevant.

We're all aware that record companies are fucked, that independent record stores are all but extinct, and that CDs have become quaint throwbacks to a bygone era ("You bought a CD? What are you, Amish?"). Music fans have spent the latter half of the decade justifying their music-consumption habits largely in terms of guilt ("I just use it as a sampling tool. I usually buy albums I really like...seriously"). But I think people have missed out on what their new music "buying" habits say about their appreciation of music.

So you don't really pay for music anymore. That the record labels are pissed at you is fairly clear. After all, most of the cost of an album goes towards paying the record label. The label pays for the album to be recorded, and it expects to get a healthy return on its investment.

This profit structure has made artists a bit more ambivalent towards the whole "not paying for music" thing. Some argue that they never really made much on record sales anyway, and the real money has always been in touring and merch sales. Others can't stand it, either because they, uh, like money or because they don't want fans hearing unfinished versions of their songs (I always thought the latter complaint was bullshit). But it is probably a lil' bit of both.

Artists seem to have adapted to the new paradigm. They've eagerly taken advantage of legal music sites like MySpace as promotional tools, and most artists have accepted that many of their new fans have never bought one of their records (new stage banter: "How many of you downloaded the new record?").

The rise of downloaded music can probably also account for increased sales of records that might never have not have found an audience in the old world. Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, after all, sold a fuckload of copies even after it was passed around on the internet for months before its commercial release. Would the Arcade Fire really have debuted in the top ten before the online era? Animal Collective?

The bigguns (those artists that relied primarily on conventional, label-backed promotion rather than word of mouth) have probably seen their bottom line drop off a bit. I don't know if it's that much harder for Madonna to put gas in her plane; we haven't talked since her and Guy got a divorce.

And you, the consumer, have eagerly stopped paying for shit. Free is good, after all, and downloading is convenient. But what does that mean about how you view your own music?

I don't think most people think about it. They paid for their music in the past, and now they don't have to.

Most have a vague sense that what they're doing is "wrong," at least by conventional moral standards. They sometimes attempt to push a mostly incoherent argument that justifies their actions, and they're encouraged by some artists' rebellion against the labels. But the fact that they spend so much time arguing over its rightness probably indicates that they know, deep down, that there's something wrong about what they're doing; you don't spend time arguing your case for your right to, say, buy a car. Unless it's an SUV, of course.

The arguments against downloading music are well-documented but not particularly effective at doing anything but make you feel guilty ("don't you feel bad for the artist?") or scared ("the RIAA is going to fuck you in the ass"). To put it differently, there aren't many effective arguments for buying music.

Try this one on for size:

In the paying-for-shit era, the music-buying public unconsciously valued their music. We had to get in their car, drive to the record store, and exchange promissory notes for goods (you know, buy shit). So we valued it accordingly. I still remember buying my first two Radiohead albums and how much I listened to them; I paid for them, and I wanted to get my money's worth.

But when we don't pay for stuff, we don't value it. We didn't sacrifice anything to obtain it, so we don't care all that much about it. It can sit on our hard drive forever, and who really gives a shit if we get around to listening to it? And we, naturally, take for granted that which appears to be free (cue no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch arguments).

The decade in music, for me, is the decade in which we stopped valuing music. It became less valuable than water; after all, we have a vague idea that dumping shit in the lake isn't all that good for us.

And that's heartbreaking for everyone involved. It means less money for the record labels and (arguably) the artists, but I don't think it's any better for us. It's just cheaper.

Whether or not you think music is truly free of value in this era depends on your definition of value. Does meaning equate with value? Can we value anything that requires nothing other than consumption? Is music priceless? Or worthless?

But because we so quickly (and thoughtlessly) stopped paying for music, a scarier question arises: did we ever value music to begin with?