Updated: Aug 29, 2022
If you have ever found yourself in a political debate coworker, a philosophical discussion with a friend, an emotional conversation with a loved one or had to discipline your child, then you know that language matters. The words you speak have power. Sometimes a whole conversation can veer sideways suddenly because of an ill chosen word, or perhaps two people can miss each other completely even though they are using the same word with a two different definitions. Language matters, so how does the language we use around music shape how we value it?
Since music made its way on the internet, the landscape of music has been up for grabs. Each site has tried to make its pitch for how to quantify it or categorize it. I’m not talking the description of style, but how to approach its value.
Napster was the front runner of internet music and you could “pirate” music. The internet gave birth to music that the consumer did not have to pay for. Suddenly it was free and every kid with a modem was happy.
With iTunes you “purchase” an album and own it digitally for 9.99, whereas a song was .99. Later the price of a song was adjusted to .69, .99 or 1.29 depending on the popularity of the song. Suddenly albums were able to be dissected and cherry picked for a fraction of the price.
Noisetrade was a popular site a few years ago and introduced us to the “pay what you want model.” Being that I have to pay for something I haven’t yet heard yet, I used this site to discover new bands. I never felt comfortable paying for something that I didn’t know if I would like. I also wouldn’t feel comfortable paying over what iTunes was charging so that meant that I would pay less than the 9.99 sticker price if I was feeling generous. Noisetrade started using the term “tip the artist” in the pay what you want model. This proves my theory of paying less than full price for an album because a tip is a small percentage (usually 15-20%) of a service/good. So if the album is worth $10 then I’m going to tip around $1.5-2 instead.
Kickstarter came onto the scene and used the term “backer.” This meant that you were fronting money for the artist to create something, however the model had tiered pricing. This meant people were actually preordering at different bundled prices. People fell great about helping create something, but the musician tended to get left running a mini promotional marketing company to fulfill all the keychain, mug and t-shirt orders that came helped make their goal. Bands have often overestimated how much they’d make, or how much time it would take to fulfill all the “perks” that got them the extra $5 they netted.
Bandcamp has the ability for the artist to “name the price” or let the buyer “name the price.” When a band names a price, say $10 an album, the purchaser is still given the option to pay above and beyond the price. Inherent in that suggestion is a nod to the question, “How much do you value this art?” For some the answer varies, maybe its your favorite band warranting twice the sticker price. But when the buyer is in charge of naming the price, a lot of the time the answer is zero and the album becomes a free download. As of the time of this article, people have responded well to this model. The site boasts of taking in 597 Million on the site, with 17.5 million in the last 30 days alone. What has helped the sales has been the fact that every couple of Fridays Bandcamp is waiving any fees they would normally take so that artists can take in the full amount of the sales. This has meant more money for the artists and so artists have been driving fans to buy from their bandcamp site.
Patreon’s language is “membership level,” like a gym that is exclusive and comes with promises. I get what I pay for in my membership. I’m signing up for the $2 a month tier or the $10 a month tier based on what perks I want to see from my artist. I want to see my artist succeed, but I also want it when I want it - something monthly divvied out.
Apple Music and Spotify “stream.” Whether you are on Spotify’s add supported free tier or their paid model you are really only supporting the platform. The artist is getting .0044 for each song streamed from Spotify and .0060 for the same song on Apple Music. That means you would need to stream 682 songs from the same artist to put $3 in their pocket if you are listening to Spotify.
Then there is FEEDtheMUSIC’s language of “donate.” FTM is the first site dedicated to pure support. Music isn’t even on the site because the inherent question of the organization is “How much do you value the artist?” The only reason to visit the site is to bring support and encoruagement. The understanding is the that the current music model is broken, music is not an “industry,” it’s an art form. Art needs to be supported financially by those that find it beautiful and an artists truest supporters will find themselves signing up to help their artists in a monthly or yearly fashion. Every donation is tax deductible and is a gift to the artist. Nothing is promised, we do this to keep the artist going. (Not to say that they can’t thank you by sending you songs, a note or a hug). With each donation we can know that the future of that artist is bright because they will live to sing another song, play another concert, record another record. At this point you are no longer a fan, but a collaborator - someone who is making the music possible.