Ahead of the Curve

About a month ago I paid £90 for an album that I already own two copies of and which was first released nearly 40 years ago.

I’ll let that sink in for a few seconds.

3…

2…

1…

Back with me?

Why do I queue up for four hours in the rain on Record Store Day; why do I pay a lot of money for music I often already own; and just, well … why!?

I was fortunate that I had been given money as a Christmas gift, and I wanted to spend it on something that befitted a gift. But it doesn’t answer the question of why I bought that record for a third time when, for example, I could buy five new LPs worth of fresh new music. A week or so ago I went for a beer with a new acquaintance that I’d met at a regular Music Managers Forum meeting. He mentioned a book called The Curve: Turning Followers Into Superfans by Nicholas Lovell and it all started to fall into place. This is the story of why I bought that box set.

In a previous blog 7/10 ain’t bad I had a pop at Spotify and other streaming services. I was bemoaning the miserly revenue they generate for 90% of artists compared to other income streams where the listener doesn’t actually own the music. But I was looking at it the wrong way and The Curve argues the following:

Firstly, folk will always find a way to get stuff for free. They always have. They always will. Who remembers the 1980s anti-piracy campaign “Home taping is killing music and it’s illegal” skull and crossbones motif on every new LP? (Risibly, the cause for concern was the cassette player). Home taping wasn’t killing music, it enabled fans who had already bought the LP to listen to it on the move, initially portable cassette players and soon after the Sony Walkman. Granted we taped music and lent it to pals too, but then we used to swap LPs too before that campaign (and afterwards).

Music fans usually have to listen to new stuff before parting with cash. (There are exceptions. Not very often, but sometimes I will buy something on spec simply because I like the cover). Today many people find new music through streaming – to all intents and purposes it’s either free or virtually free, and I admit it’s a great way to find new music. Is it killing music? To the artist or distributor it costs virtually nothing to provide a song digitally. I’ll come back to this later.

The second of The Curve’s points is that people will pay for physical products they like, and on occasion they will pay an awful lot of money. In summary, people do this because they like owning something that’s special, that looks and feels quality, and has elements that are exclusive. It’s why people will pay thousands of pounds for a watch that says the same time (give or take a second) as a Casio that costs £7.99 from Argos. It’s not the information that’s important – because the time is the time – it’s what they want the watch to say about them and their personality, and it makes them feel good. And, yes, that it appears that they can afford it.

So a box set gives people a sense of owning something that says a bit about themselves. My £90 was spent on New Order’s Movement box set which has a DVD of live New Order performances from the era, a CD of alternative recordings and a remastered copy of the album on both CD and vinyl. And a book! A hardback book! … that has loads of great photos of things like the equipment the band used. This is information that a fan needs to know.

But to come back to the point – is streaming killing music? No, it’s not, the key is to embrace the ‘free’. So artists might actively encourage fans and others to listen for free, game designers might encourage gamers to play for free, authors might encourage readers to read their books for free, because if a relatively small number of people really, REALLY like it, they will pay a lot for those tasteful hardback copies of books, or LP box sets, or in-game purchases*. Pareto Law; most of the income will come from a small number of fans. What’s more, the more people that are interested in something (whether they pay or not) the more money people will pay.

* I’m reminded of the time Clur played a free (or virtually free) game Smurfs Village, and with the help of purchased in-game add-ons built a wonderful Smurf village with any number of buildings, characters, crops, and so on. It was beautifully designed. I won’t tell you what she said she paid. But I agreed with her that it looked superb!

But ethically, is it right? It’s only folk who have the money to buy these things that can afford them. Are they any more ‘super’ than any other fan? I think I’m at ease with this. Anyone who wants to listen to the music can, free, and indeed are actively encouraged to do so (unlike the ‘Home taping’ campaign). Anyone who wants to own the music can also do so, fairly inexpensively too as there are usually options to download or buy cheaper CDs.

But ultimately artists need to make money to be able to live, first and foremost, and then create new music for people to enjoy. They can’t do that if they don’t earn an income. So that’s why we have Record Store Day special editions, box sets of 40-year old music. Because people will pay good money to own them, and it generates income for artists to then use it, hopefully, to make new music for people to enjoy.

Remastered reissued repackaged records, ready-made to reel you in.

There, see what I did? I justified to myself paying ninety quid for a record I already own two copies of.

And I feel good about buying it.

2 thoughts on “Ahead of the Curve

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