In this month's edition of Esquire, Andy Langer asks, What is Music Worth? In his article, he suggests that by raising the price of albums we'll force artists to give us higher quality tunes. His theory is based on the fact that artists like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles continuely sell well even though their albums are sold at full retail prices. Here it is in his words:
Admittedly, raising prices on music will sting. It might even suck outright. But the free ride is over. And a price hike could indeed unite us, raising the stakes for everyone. It's good ol'-fashioned Darwinism. We'd simply raise prices on every record across the board and see what survives. And this much is clear: Paying more for music will mean we're bringing fewer bad albums into our homes, because this is a plan that effectively taxes shitty taste. Fans of Celine Dion have every right to keep her in business, but they'll have to pay extra to do it.
At this point, the idea is totally and completely ridiculous. He does make a concession though.
To encourage us to take a chance on new artists, upstarts would be exempt from the hike for their first two records or their first 100,000 albums sold, whichever comes first.
That helps, because I was concerned about the effect his plan would have had on unproved artists, but I'm still miffed. I just can't understand how raising prices will improve quality. There are bands out there where it might take three our four records before they come up with something the public wants. Despite your personal opinion, take Vertical Horizon as an example. They release three albums of acoustic folk-rock, then switch up their sound (or sell out, depending on who you talk to) for their fourth record and sell a couple million copies. Under this proposed plan, that record wouldn't have been released.
Additionally, you are keeping out new fans of established bands. If I had never heard the Morissey before, but I wanted to buy his new album when it comes out later this year, I'd be forced to shell out $22 to find out about him.
I would consider following Langer's plan if you gave it a twist. Imagine if each shopper had to pay more for each record by a particular artist, regardless of which record he/she buys. I'd say that each album you buy goes up $2, starting at $10. So, if I'm interested in R.E.M., I can buy Automatic for the People for $10 and then go back and buy Document for $12 if I liked the first one. There would be a cap of, say, $18 an album. Granted, this would require some sort of record-buyer registry, but it would be great in a perfect world. My one rule is that for each subsequent record sold, the artist gets a higher percentage of the royalties. This way, if a label wants to exploit an artist by releasing greatest hits records or b-side compilations, they have to pay the artist more to do so.
The benefit of my plan is that you're still forcing a long-time fan to pay more for your album, but you're not making that decision based on album sales or on no basis at all. In other words, you are not allowing album sales to dictate whether a record is of high quality.
I appreciate that Andy Langer recognized there is a problem with the industry's attitude towards new bands, but I don't think raising prices across the board will help anyone. His plan is a populist one, yet he criticizes artists based on his personal critiques of their merit (i.e. Celine Dion). Essentially, he thinks raising prices will cut the crap, but it'll just give us fewer options that aren't necessarily better. Neither of our solutions are perfect, but I commend him for raising the question.