The Real Cost of Pricing Music

Emma Dahl

Illustration by Lya Hernandez

Why is there a discrepancy in the cost of songs on iTunes? The price of individual songs used to be a fixed 99 cents across the board. But these days, some songs are $1.29, while others are 99 cents. Albums are inconsistently priced too. For example, Lady Gaga’s brand new album Art Pop is going for $14.99, while other albums of comparable release date and length are $9.99. What constitutes that inconsistency in price, and where does it come from? Why do music distributors fluctuate price as it suits them, regardless of how much the artist deserves?

I’m a believer in the fact that, in an ideal world, music should be created for the sake of expression, for the sake of art and for the sake of sharing. That’s what music is: emotional expression. What I’m saying is, any artful product should be made completely independent of the need for compensation. That way it’s purely art and not tainted by the need for money or appealing to a lot of people.

Obviously this is not the case. Musicians do what they do in order to make a living; we owe them for letting us listen to the music they create. There’s no doubt about that. What concerns me is not whether we pay musicians or not; that’s not in question. What does concern me is this discrepancy in pay and what it indicates.

Music prices from various distributors and labels seem to fluctuate with both time and popularity. When a given album first comes out, it’s  more expensive than it will be in three months. Why is the music worth less later once fewer people are listening to it? It shouldn’t be. The bitrate hasn’t decreased; the instrumentation and the vocals haven’t changed. Being listened to by more people doesn’t make your music sound better, nor does it improve the quality of the lyrics and composition.

Yes, it’s good business for a music distributor to up the price when music is more popular. But I don’t think the value of music should be determined by how many people listen to it; it’s determined by the quality of the music itself, by the way it affects its listeners. Maybe a given band’s music is objectively on par with other songs that cost $1.29. But since there aren’t enough people listening to them, they don’t earn the amount they deserve by that model, and that rubs me the wrong way.

Who gets exposed and who doesn’t shouldn’t rely on whether some music executive is feeling like featuring them on the front page of their website that day. How much money an artist makes shouldn’t be determined by how many people are listening to their album at a given time. Maybe the music industry should be less of a money-making enterprise and more of a catalyst of getting bands exposure, providing the public with access to a wide variety of genres and bands and not just the supergroups or the songs that appeal to the masses. Their drive to make a profit shouldn’t boil down to charging 30 extra cents for a song; perhaps instead, by making an effort to expose the public to a greater variety of bands, they can sell a broader range of music instead of a huge amount of pop songs by a single artist and still make the same profit.

It’s not up to me what kind of music people listen to or what they pay for it, but it’s important to remember that there’s a lot of great music out there, and its value isn’t reflected in its price. Its value shouldn’t be determined by its distributor. Instead, it should be ascribed by the listener and what he or she gets out of the experience of listening to it.