Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stevie 99 Part One

"But if there's a rare Charlie Patton recording out there that's worth hearing, I'm perfectly happy to wait until it's available to download from iTunes for 99 cents." -- Main Figurehead

What is the value of a song?

While MF was plying his trade with Rykodisc way back when, I was a desk jockey at Tower Records. One of my chores was to master all things music pricing, specifically from and among suppliers, wholesale-to-retail margin, and between our competitors. I picked up a lot of inside baseball arcana. For instance, Columbia/Epic was aggressive about cutting prices on its older catalog while the Warner/Elektra/Atlantic group never met a fare increase it didn't like. In order to survive, music specialty retailers operating high street and mall shops had to net at least $4.50 on the average $10 wholesale CD while maintaining year-over-year same-store sales increases. And Best Buy was one of the first coffin nails in the packaged music business that they, too, now find unsustainable.

Sentimentality aside, one notable price shift came with the introduction of the CD. At the time, top-tier LPs and cassettes wholesaled for about $5.75. From the start, CDs were priced almost two-thirds higher, and eventually climbed another third after that. At the time, I wondered whether economies of scale would bring the prices back down, and when they didn't I decried the labels' and distributors' avarice. Looking back, though, the shift seems less unreasonable. The CD represented a quantum leap in product quality, and the market was willing to bear this value-added surcharge (if you will), which fueled the last great music boom.

Over time, of course, the much-discussed perfect storm gathered itself together and blew the perceived value of music right out of the water.

So. Turn the scrapbook page to the present day, and what do we see? 99 cents per digital song file as the de facto standard. Now, one could argue that a buck a song is where CD retail pricing ended up, assuming a CD's sweet spot became $10, with album lengths eventually coming back down to the 40-45 minute range, or the equivalent of 10 average-length tracks.

What we have witnessed, however, is another stealth price increase. And this one seems ever-less defensible. While some might argue that Apple is doing the thankless but crucial job of propping up perceived value, I'm here to say that Mr. Jobs has been wrong from the get-go and has been doing a disservice to the indsutry and the music lover for years.

More on the subject next week.


Let's hoist a few at the 3-Dot Lounge...

Lately I've been in some discussions about cover songs. What constitutes a great cover? Reinvention? Popularity? The ability to make another's material your own? One thought that has stuck is The Beatles were (and are) the most difficult popular act to cover. I mean, fine for the hired hand with a mike and a guitar to blend 'Yesterday' in with his Eagles and Neil Young set-list. But to record a Beatles cover for posterity? Why bother? And yet, I know of no one who has mangled 'Across the Universe.' That song seems to work no matter who assays it...

One test of a music critic is a willingness to assail the unassailable if necessary (for instance, one day I'll work up the gumption to describe in detail the depth and breadth of the abyss of boredom into which I fall whenever I am subjected to The Band). So, I'll just come out and say it: Rosanne, I love you to death, but your critic-proof release of country standards your daddy loved '(The List)' has so much reverence for its own material as to be an instant museum piece devoid of life, best put straight on the shelf and looked at...

Lest it seem that cranky pants are my only clean garments, I am heartened to see John Gorka in the Cedar lineup for November. I've been a fan for years; he roped me in almost 20 years ago with 'Jack's Crows.' As one who was ticketed for the life of the farmer before it became apparent that small family ag operations were ticketed for oblivion, I have a particular soft spot for this song of his.

1 comment:

Princess said...

Cranky pants are often my only clean garments!