99 Cents and the Worth of a Song

Published On January 31, 2024 
by Chase Tremaine
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[This is a reproduction of an article which was originally published on May 1, 2023.]

This past weekend (April 28, 2023) marked the twentieth anniversary of the public launch of the iTunes Store. You don’t need me to detail the ways that Napster, mp3s, the iPod, and the ability to purchase particular songs instead of entire albums changed the music industry forever… and that’s not exactly what this article is about, either. What I do wish to write about — a topic that I would like to process by way of writing about it — is how our cultural attitude shifted towards the value of a piece of music once every song became worth $0.99.

Naturally, I enter into this conversation not merely as a consumer and customer of recorded music but also as a creator of it. And I should state here that there is a clear economic difference between the value of a song at its creation versus the value of a song at its consumption; and the reason for that difference is because, unlike a piece of clothing or a professionally cooked meal, a recorded song is not meant to be consumed by a single person. When buying one of those aforementioned items, you are doing so with the intent of becoming its sole owner, such that by putting forth the amount of money that covers the cost of materials, the cost of production and labor, plus a reasonable profit margin and probably a sales tax, you then have the right to be the only person who will wear that shirt or eat that burger.

When you listen to a high-quality piece of recorded music, presumably in the form of a three-to-four minute mp3, you are listening to a product that likely cost somewhere between $1,000 and $50,000 to create. Baked within that dollar range is a multitude of tasks and potential costs: paying the producer (and if the producer’s work doesn’t include engineering and mixing, then you’ll have to pay those workers separately, too); if the producer doesn’t have a home studio or all the gear needed for your song, then you may have to rent studio space, microphones, etc.; paying studio/session musicians (unless the artist/band is able to play all the instruments needed); paying for the song to get mixed and mastered (every now and then, a producer will function as a one-stop-shop for production, mixing, and mastering, but traditionally, these three steps are all performed by three different people); creating the artwork, which may involve artists, photographers, graphic designers, or a combination of them; and distributing the song to music platforms (which thankfully is not expensive in the modern streaming era).

Do you want to work with the hotshot producer at the nicest studio in town? Do you want to surround yourself with A-lister musicians recording with top-dollar microphones and gear? Do you have an orchestral arrangement that you want performed by a local professional symphony? Do you want to fly Jeff Chris down from Indiana to get it mixed professionally? Then you can see how the bill for this one song can balloon up into five figures, and that’s a bill which, in most cases, gets placed upon the artist. Even when a major record label is fronting the costs, it’s treated as a loan that the artist is forced to pay back over time by the profits that are (hopefully) made by the sales, airplay, and placements received by the song.

Now let’s go back to burgers and shirts. When you’re on iTunes, there’s a reason you aren’t being charged $1,000 to purchase a song that cost $1,000 to create: simply put, it’s because the song isn’t a burger that you alone will eat or a shirt that you alone will wear — it’s because duplicates of the same exact mp3 file will be sold to as many people as possible in order to hopefully recoup that $1,000 (or in other cases, that $50,000).

This is a mindset shift that gets increasingly tricky the further you dive down into it. It’s tricky on a level of legality (digital piracy versus physical theft), and it’s tricky on a philosophical level, too. Consider this: when you purchased a cassette or a CD in the 80’s or 90’s, did you ever think that each song was worth its fraction of the purchase price? Sure, maybe you would look at two CDs marked at $15 each and choose to buy the one with 15 songs over the one with 12 songs in order to get more bang for your buck, but between those two CDs, did you ever think that songs on one were worth $1 each while the songs on the other were worth $1.25 each? I would imagine not! We didn’t think that way, for one, because we weren’t conditioned to think of it in such song-by-song terms. Also, we didn’t think that way because it simply wasn’t an accurate way to dissect our purchase: in both instances, you’d be buying identical CD-ROMs in identical jewel cases. The key differences would be the amount of data included on the CD (which could be exactly the same amount of data for 12 or 15 songs, dependent on the length) as well as paying for the packaging and inserts; for many CD collectors (especially nowadays), the true prize of the purchase isn’t even the disc itself but rather the lyric booklet, which in some instances could be worth the price of purchase alone.

In short, there was a value to buying a physical product that you got to take home as your own, which does not apply to the purchasing of a digital copy of an mp3. (And let’s not even get into the complexities of whether you truly own those digital copies, whether your iTunes purchases would still be accessible if the iTunes application ever disappeared, and so on.) The value of owning your favorite albums on vinyl goes far beyond the simple math of dividing the cost by the album’s length in minutes, especially if that vinyl has a unique color variant or the sleeve is autographed or it contains exclusive liner notes or you purchased it at an unforgettable concert, forever tying the physical product to a fond memory. In all of these instances, you paid money to obtain a physical product, and it’s an exchange of goods that makes economic sense. Now when we move this conversation into the realm of purchasing non-physical goods, what changes?

As expressed earlier, I’m not coming into this conversation with the mindset that I’ve got it all figured out. But when I pondered this question, I came up with the following list of observations regarding the industry shift caused by the launch of the iTunes store:

  • Post-iTunes, we universally see the worth of a standard-length digital song as 99 cents, regardless of the quality, regardless of the demand, and regardless of the cost that went into the creation of the song. We have also retroactively projected that price model back onto the older models of selling music. For example, if I see a ten-song CD priced at only $6, it’s a steal, whereas if I see a 6-song CD priced at $10, I feel scandalized by the hike-up.
  • If we think of CDs, vinyl records, etc. in terms of the worth-per-song, we end up devaluing the rest of the physical product.
  • We often reject the notion that a song should be worth more than a dollar (except, perhaps, in extreme circumstances where a song is longer than 10 minutes or an album is released as one big song).
  • Singular songs became financially and artistically detached from their parent albums, where users could purchase whichever songs they wanted to. This is great news for extremely picky listeners or for people making a mixtape on a budget, and it’s also good news when a radio single is legitimately the best song on an album. However, for any artists who take their craft seriously, the radio singles are supposed to be the “hook” to get people interested in hearing the rest of the album, which in many cases will lean into more experimental and less radio-friendly songwriting than what is featured in the single. This created a shift in the music industry where the single could be treated as an end in itself rather than as a hook, and I imagine this is a large factor in the slow disappearance of deep cuts in favor of every song on an album sounding like a single or single contender. (The new version we’re seeing of this trend is where artists release half if not most of their albums as singles on streaming services prior to the release of the full album, such that, if you’ve been following along, a “new” album might feature only one or two songs that you haven’t already heard.)
  • In the iTunes era specifically, we became trained to judge songs by their 30-second clips. Maybe this inclination existed pre-iTunes, particularly in the context of channel-surfing between radio stations, but this practice does a massive disservice to artists who compose dynamic songs that twist and turn and evolve over their run times. (I say this as an artist who puts a lot of attention into crafting my song endings, and it’s a sad reality that most listeners have judged my songs before hearing how they end.)
  • Perhaps most importantly, the “song” has become an item of minimal economic value, with a permanent dollar amount affixed to the idea of a song. In the past, it was the album that cost money — the physical product that required an equivalent exchange of goods — but now we think of specific songs in terms of their worth in cents rather than their intangible worth as either a singular piece of art or as one part of a larger work of art.

For additional context around my personal perspective on this issue, I think I can confidently say that I have a unique angle on the monetary value of a song. Back in 2015, before the idea of “song shops” was popularized by companies like Songfinch and Songlorious (in fact, before those companies even existed), I was attempting to start a business where I would write and record custom songs for people. They could be in any topic and in any style: you name the genre or the artist reference points, and I would make sure to align my songwriting within that framework. Thanks to a few savvy podcast ads, I was off to a solid start in 2015, with enough song requests to keep me busy, but there was a catch: my offer to podcast listeners was that I would write them the song for free, record a cheap live demo of the song, and then only require payments for the song if they wanted a fully-produced recording of it. I was also lowballing the price at a mere $50, hoping this would help get people in the door to begin with, then I could theoretically increase the price to something more fair and sustainable once I was working more off of references rather than ads.

Here’s how that panned out: I wrote a bunch of songs for free, many of which I believed to be of high quality — customers often told me that they loved the song, or that their friends really enjoyed it, or that the spouses cried when they heard the song for the first time — yet despite the quality, tailored to highly specific lyrical details and musical preferences, very few customers turned around to pay for the produced versions. If memory serves me correctly, of the ten songs I wrote from responses to my first podcast ad, only two people paid to have their songs recorded in full. So out of all the work that went into writing ten songs and fully recording two of them, I made $100.

Later that year, my pricing model became unsustainable to the point where I needed to increase my baseline price from $50 to $100. When I did this, business came to a sudden halt. I ran out of my savings, got another job, and the song shop received no new business for the final few months of 2015. In 2016, I moved to Nashville, and during my first year there, I attempted to revive the song shop by test driving a new pricing model: pay-what-you-want. The results were, needless to say, notable. A close friend from college paid $200 for an engagement present for his brother and sister-in-law-to-be. This was a super fun project for me, since I was friends with the people I was writing the song about, but an interesting element of this project was that, with $200 on the table, I could afford to reinvest some of that money toward working with a professional who could produce, mix, and master the song much better than I could on my own; as a result, I paid a producer $100 to work on the song, meanwhile I kept the other 50% of the payment for my work writing and performing the song. Another example came through meeting one of my brother’s co-workers, who was desperately in need of a birthday present for her best friend. She agreed to pay me $100 for a one-day-turnaround, so I went home and, that night, wrote and recorded a pop-rap song about their friendship that became the most fun song I ever created for the song shop.

My third and final example from the pay-what-you-want era of the song shop is the key story when I think about the “worth” of a song. At my church, a married couple decided to hire me to create a birthday gift for their daughter. I was about as close with the parents as I was with their twenty-something kids, so it was a cool opportunity, and if I’m being honest, I was excited by the prospect of making some good money from a musical gig (especially since I was still working a minimum-wage job at the time). I put a lot of care into the song, making sure to get the lyrics perfect, and I spent more time than usual on the production and mixing. I continued finessing it until the eleventh hour, then burned it onto a CD to bring with me to the birthday party. I dropped the CD into a basket next to all the birthday cards, and the mom remembered that she still needed to pay me for the song. Doing the math in my head, I figured that I’d worked on writing and recording the song for at least ten hours. Multiplying ten hours by the minimum wage equaled about $75, but I was hoping that this well-to-do parent and friend would far exceed that minimum expectation. She walked back a minute later with a check. Handing it to me, I tried to keep my composure when I saw that it was written out for only twenty dollars.

I placed the decision to determine a song’s worth in the hands of an economic consumer, and I didn’t like the response I received. To the mother’s credit, she had no idea that I’d spent ten hours working on the song, and giving her this info would’ve given her undue pressure to pay more money than “pay-what-you-want” suggests. And from the perspective of someone who had been using the iTunes store for over a decade, she just paid 20x more for a song that she usually would. She most likely didn’t consider the idea that most songs can perpetually profit from multiple customers, whereas this song would likely never be heard by anyone else (let alone purchased), which should theoretically place a “song shop” project in the category of a hamburger or a T-shirt (where you’re paying for the materials, production, and labor).

I’m trying to wrap up this song shop tangent, but there’s one last observation that seems important and pertinent: as you can probably tell, the difficulties of running the song shop came largely from how hard it was to price what I was selling. At the time, there was no industry precedent for how much a custom song should be worth; back then, the only existing comparison was buying songs written by famous and established musicians. You could pay me $50 to make a song in the style of The Academy Is…, or you could pay $500 for a song that was actually written and performed by the singer from The Academy Is… However, once companies started popping up offering something similar to what my song shop offered, a precedent was created and the official nature of the “song shop” model provided a massive face-lift to the industry-recognized worth of custom songs. For example, if you buy a song from one of the artists on Songfinch, you’ll pay a minimum of $200, with upgrades and surcharges galore. It makes me both jealous and angry that these companies successfully charge so much for their services (not to mention, you’re usually buying a mini-song, where buying an extra verse might cost you over $50 extra), but I’ll save my complaints and concerns about these companies for another occasion.

This brings us back to the question of this whole article, doesn’t it? What is the worth of a song? If the answer to that question is designated solely by a dollar amount, then we can now say that a single song is sometimes worth upwards of $1,000, whether from the perspective of how much it cost to create or from the perspective of someone buying an exclusive, personalized novelty song, made either by an artist they love or by someone who makes custom songs professionally. The dichotomy here is fascinating, since there’s still zero correlation between how much you pay and how “good” the song is. With the personalized song, there’s an underlying expectation that the song will be very special to you or to whomever the song is being written for; yet at the same time, there’s a minuscule chance that this custom song will ever compare to your favorite song by your favorite artist that you purchased for just $1. Isn’t it wild that you can hypothetically pay $1,000 to own a song that belongs to you and you alone, and yet there could still be songs that mean even more to you? Wouldn’t the latter songs then be worth more than a grand each, even though they’re available for everyone to stream virtually for free?

I think I’ve finally come to a conclusion. It took a lot of rambling, a lot of thinking, and a handful of different writing spurts [I’ve been working on this article off-and-on for the past week], but one answer has solidified in my head as I’ve continued processing this question over and over: the worth of a song can never be measured monetarily, and the further we are able to get away from thinking of art using monetary and economic terms, the better. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that art is more of a cultural product than a commercial one, and the intersection of those two categories can be detrimental to the quality and the interpersonal worth of the art.

To be sure, not all music can qualify as “art” in the pretentious sense of the word; we all know that some songs are made like they’re coming from a factory or assembly line, and some music is created with an entirely commercial purpose. The most obvious example is when a song is written for a TV advertisement. For a songwriter or producer, getting a sync placement within a commercial is probably the most money that they’ll ever make for a single song; music for ad spots from big companies and corporations frequently run in the realm of five-digit payouts. How ironic is that? A songwriter could receive the most money from a song that’s created for the least artful purpose. In some situations, you could argue that there’s an inverse relationship between a song’s worth as a commercial product and a song’s worth as a piece of art.

The difficulty there arises from the necessity that artists be paid for their work, which can certainly be tricky when our priority is for art to remain pure. So many bands and artists in my lifetime have been accused of “selling out” after making career moves that appear from the outside to be more concerned with financial viability rather than artistic integrity, as if fans don’t want their favorite bands to make a decent living. The pursuit of money via art is a dangerous one that doesn’t always pay out and rarely (if ever) leaves the art untainted. The ideal goal would be for artists to make whatever they want to, without thinking about the financial return on each creation during the creative process. There are certainly ways to accomplish this: some artists find charitable support through benefactors; a popular paradigm in the realm of film directors is “one for you, one for me,” where filmmakers will switch back and forth between making big studio projects and smaller passion projects; the bulk of artists start off funding their project with a financially dependable occupation, some of whom will continue working such jobs perpetually; and many professionals are simply able to live in the balance between art and commerce without noticeably jeopardizing the quality and authenticity of their output, which is usually in situations where an artist found fans or communities that understand and fully support the artist’s vision.

Where does that leave me as an artist? If you’re familiar with some of my recent writings, then you might know exactly where I’m headed with this; on the Bandcamp page for my latest album, I wrote an essay about the importance of local art, of artists whose ambitions are geared toward benefiting their immediate communities rather than seeking the biggest audiences (and thus the biggest profits) possible. That essay was the final result of four or five drafts, where I kept scrapping my work and starting over in search of the right words to accompany the album; those earlier drafts were more concerned with a concept called the “gift economy,” which refers to the practice of providing people with goods or services without requiring payment or exchange in return. It’s a concept that has fascinated me and resonated with me in recent years. (For anyone interested in more about the “gift economy,” episode 5 of the Art Within Podcast did a great job covering the topic, and the hosts recommended a book titled The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde, which I plan to start reading soon).

Without digging deeper into gift economies right now, I’ll summarize by saying that I’ve been increasingly attracted to giving my music away for free (alongside becoming increasingly disillusioned and disgusted by trying too hard to make money off of music). In 2022, I decided that I would give away all of my albums for free on Bandcamp. Since 2020, I’ve also been giving copies of my debut album Unfall away for free. Granted, it’s been easier to give those CDs away because they’ve been paid for from the start, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign which funded the printing of the CDs in bulk. This year, I paid out-of-pocket to have double-CDs produced which include my second and third albums packaged together. The cost of having the double album printed and shipped to me came out to about $5 each, so I would ideally like to charge at least $5 per copy, but I’m at a point where I simply dislike asking for money, so I’ve recently been giving those CDs to people for free, too.

The timing of writing this article is odd (if not serendipitous): the primary obstacle keeping me from finishing and publishing this has been my attendance at a three-day songwriting conference, i.e., a big networking seminar for songwriters who are interested in making a career out of their passion for making music. During one of the Q&A sessions with an industry pro, I voiced these feelings of wanting to keep money out of my art, of being okay with having a day-job, and of being content with a smaller, local scope for the music I make. Later that day, a friend of mine confronted me about what I said, specifically about saying that I’ve been moving away from asking people to pay for my music. With zero clue that I’d recently been writing about this exact topic, she asked me, “Think about this: is your song worth someone’s money? If you’re not asking for money, aren’t you telling people that it’s not worth their money?”

I appreciate my friend’s questions, her intentions, and her willingness to confront me on this topic. I pondered her question, but since these exact questions had already been bouncing around my head, I was able to respond quickly by stating, “No, I don’t think I’m devaluing my music, because I’m not asking for people’s money, but I am saying that I think my music is worth their time, and I think their time is worth more than their money. I would rather people give me 40 minutes to hear my new album in full than to pay me $10 for a CD that they might never listen to.” And isn’t time what all of us artists really want anyway? We don’t want people to buy our song once, we want them to listen to it over and over. Looking at my favorite music from the past few years, the obvious standout is the Japanese rock band Cinema Staff and their album Kaitei. A single from the album titled “Polar Night” released about two years ago, and according to my last.fm account, I’ve listened to that song 72 times. “Polar Night” is 4 minutes and 13 seconds long, which means that over these past two years, I’ve spent 5 whole hours listening to just that one song. (The whole album sits closer to 42 hours of listening.)

That’s the worth of a song: your time. If it’s a good song, it will receive your time again on a revisit. Maybe you’ll give it space within your head to remember the lyrics or you’ll give it your voice when you sing along. If it’s a great song, you might cherish it, coming back again and again, allowing it to shape your mind and your affections. Maybe you only heard the song one time in a live setting, but you keep returning to the memory of how you felt while the music flowed over you. The best of songs become part of who you are, which is exactly what art is meant to do. It’s not meant to sell something to you. It’s not meant to take from you. It’s meant to make you. Our favorite songs make us who we are, and there’s no dollar sign that can be put on that.

P.S. That’s the end of the essay, but I do wish to add one final caveat. Nothing in this essay is meant to disparage the people who make a living off of art or who wish to do so. The aforementioned conference that I attended (Music Makers Bootcamp, hosted by Full Circle Music) was a lovely and helpful event put together by an awesome team, and I know for a fact that so many people were there with good, wholesome intentions of trying to make it in the music industry. This essay was written to explore my own convictions on the topic, but I do not presuppose that my convictions need to be universal, and I certainly don’t think all of the issues in the art and entertainment industries would suddenly disappear if we subsidized everything. I believe there are people who should be working within the entertainment industry as it currently exists, just as there will be people trying to change the industry and others working outside of it altogether. I am currently leaning towards that last group, of functioning without the structures of the music industry paying my salary. There may come a day when I learn how to balance creating music for both artistic and commercial purposes, and there are already many people with good hearts doing good work within the realms of music business, making a living directly through writing high-quality music. I hope those people are able to find value in my thoughts and observations, and if anyone would like to pick up a conversation around any of these topics, you can contact me or comment below.

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