Do you pay for mp3s?

"The whole of economic theory is the theory of scarce resources. If milk is scarce, the price is up: this is economic theory. But it doesn't work for music; it doesn't work for information as a whole. If I have a pot of milk and give it to you, I don't have it any more. But if I give you a piece of information I still have it, I keep it. Which means that if I give something to you I create something new: abundance. And this means that economic theory doesn't work for information, when that information can be separated from its material support -- a CD, or whatever is the case today." (Jacques Attali: 2001)

Quoted from a speech by Jacques Attali, the author of Noise: The Political Economy of Music, given at a Cybersalon Net.Music conference at the ICA, London, May 2001.

Given we accept mp3s as information rather than treating them as material commodities, existing outside traditional economic theory, how do we go about selling them? Using traditional models of scarcity, supply and demand, clearly won't help us price music downloads, being freely copyable and distributable (despite music industry attempts to model mp3s as physical products by implementing DRM copy protection etc.). We can't price them according to the time and energy that went into them (is an album that took three years to create more expensive than one that took six months to create?) or rely on manufacturing costs to set a base price. So instead the likes of iTunes and other stores price mp3s how they see fit, in comparison to good old CDs. Is that fair? Isn't paying almost a quid a track a bit steep, seeing as though you're paying for something that doesn't exist? We can buy the proper CD for just a couple of quid more. Should we be paying much less for mp3s, or do we pay for the privilege and convenience of near instant delivery? After all, it's not as though we can sell them on once we're no longer interested in listening to them, as we can with our old CDs, tapes, vinyl etc., is it?

What do you think? I'd hope that we all still see it fit that we remunerate artists for their hard work in putting together an album, but as I see it, selling mp3s short-changes both the artist and listener. Surely the music industry wins once again if we accept the purchase of mp3s as just another media format (except a more disposable, ephemeral , lower quality format at that). I'd personally rather not create music that only exists in the fragile state as data on somebody's hard disk, but would want to produce a physical document of my music. Isn't selling mp3s simply a stopgap 'fight fire with fire' measure by the music industry to force a habit of purchasing mp3s onto consumers, clawing back mp3 sales to make up for the deficit in single sales, or is it the way all music will be sold in the future? I kind of feel as though illegal music file-trading has forced us down this avenue, and rather than celebrate mp3s as a novel, liberating future music format, it's managed to turn music into something meaningless, like sand falling between our fingers while we scratch our heads and try and put a price on it.

Perhaps in the future we'll enjoy 'free' music subscribed to as part of our internet connection service price, with a small fee trickling back to labels and artists (though this approach could be very dangerous, negating the need of innovation within the industry as labels continue to rely on the big names to rake it in). We might conclude that music downloads should be free and legal, and artists rely on performances alone to make money, relying on the scarcity and uniqueness of a live performance spectacle to create value. Or do we simply need to make mp3s a lot cheaper, and hope that listeners will find it just as convenient to buy music downloads as to head to the nearest torrent site?

But back to the question: do you pay for mp3s?

© 2002–2023 Christopher Leary
Header image: Understory cover art, by Guy Warley.