October 30, 2010 — Students, faculty and local musicians discussed the value of music at the College of Arts and Sciences ongoing D3 series, Dinner and Discussion at Drexel.
The discussion, organized by Dr. Devon Powers of the Department of Culture and Communication, and Darren Walters of Drexel’s Music Industry Program, drew so much student interest that some registrants were placed on a waiting list. Because of Walters’ connections in the Philadelphia music scene the discussion also featured Kristen Thomson of the Future of Music Coalition and Dave Hause, singer and guitarist for The Loved Ones, a well-known Philly-based punk rock band.
Dr. Powers began her opening remarks relating how the consumption of music changed from physical to digital as she worked as a music critic in the early 2000s.
In these embryonic stages of Internet music consumption, listeners could only download five or six songs during a workday, and those usually were not of bands and musicians the listeners were particularly interested in supporting. It was not uncommon for Powers, in her previous job, to approach the office’s resident downloader early in the morning requesting Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” with the expectation that the download would be finished by lunch.
However, as download speeds increased, more music became available to the listener than they could ever reasonably enjoy. Powers’ own music consumption habits changed.
“I became more of a musical grazer,” she said. “It was like a buffet.”
This incredible ease of access, Powers argued, started to devalue the music itself.
“If you don’t pay for it,” she asked. “Does it matter?”
Dr. Powers then drew parallels between the changing musical landscape of today and that of a century ago, when sheet music began to be published and player pianos were popular. The player piano in particular changed the way many people engaged with music—listening to it in recorded form rather than creating it themselves. The music became a mere commodity.
In Darren Walters’ opening remarks, he contrasted how people value artwork, like paintings or sculptures, with how people value music today. Painters who toil in their garages or other studios, he said, are able to sell their artwork at a boardwalk art show and set their own price without complaint. Yet despite the time, money and energy musicians spend creating a quality record, Walter argues, consumers instead often say: “Well, maybe I should get that for free.”
Kristen Thompson presented the results of a survey sent to attendees before the event that asked about their music consumption habits. The informal survey found that people spent $28.33 on recorded music in a given month, $55.65 on live music and $22.45 on other music-related merchandise. Survey participants also nearly unanimously agreed that $.99 was the fairest price for music. Riffing off this response, Walters suggested this was because iTunes says $.99 is the fairest price.
Thompson also explained that it was music that boosted the popularity of social networking and other media sites. MySpace became popular, she said, because of the many bands found on the network, while YouTube’s most popular videos are often music videos.
“Sometimes music is a test case to see if an Internet-based business model works,” she said.
Dave Hause expressed his difficulty in understanding how people can value music and support an artist’s work while still downloading it freely.
“You have to consider what a musician should be paid,” he said.
While many listeners indulge in these free (or cheap) downloads, he continued, it still costs money to make a record, tour and live. Even Hause, although part of a well-known rock outfit, still has to support himself working as a general contractor.
“Bands that you think are rich are probably not making what your parents are making,” he said.
Attendees broke into smaller groups for dinner, discussing these issues further with the help of Music Industry students who served as moderators. As the groups came together again for a wider discussion, students and faculty raised further questions: Do musicians deserve to earn a high enough income to support themselves and their families? Are there ways to support a musician other than paying for their music?
Some students argued that the music industry and a lack of quality music is to blame for the popularity of downloaded music. Often albums priced at $15 would contain only one or two good songs, they said, but to listen to those songs, they still had to buy the entire album.
“We grew up in a time when albums were not good,” said one student. “You don’t want to take that risk on a new artist.”
Downloading songs individually meant less risk for the listener and when there was less risk, there was also less disappointment.
Others believed that like the artist at the art fair, musicians have the right to set their own price.
“It should be up to the band to decide how much they charge,” said Ryan Mueller, a student in the Music Industry program.
While the evening did not provide any concrete solutions for the state of the industry, everyone agreed that music plays an integral role in a person’s life.
“A society without music is not a society that most of us would want to live in,” said Powers. “This doesn’t mean that the music industry, in its current form, has all the right answers, though—I think as a whole it has made a lot of mistakes and deserves much of the backlash it has received. But I think we need to find a solution to support something, economically and otherwise, that’s so valuable.”
D3 is an ongoing series of discussions on interdisciplinary topics sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences. D3 events, which are open to all Drexel undergraduate students, involve a brief lecture, panel discussion or film screening, an informal discussion, and dinner.
To learn more about the D3 series, please visit http://www.drexel.edu/coas/news/sem_meet_d3/.