The cost of listening

As far as I understand it, “inflation” refers to the general increase in prices that happens with time. Across most of the western world, everything becomes a little more expensive, year by year. Earnings climb steadily in accordance, and we all end up a happy bundle of capitalists.

So why, then, has the cost of music buying consistently fallen over the last few years? These are admittedly a little out of date, but here are the numbers for the UK from 2001 to 2010:

Year Average CD Retail Price Average Single CD Retail Price Average Double CD Retail Price Average Album Retail Price
2001 £ 10.84 £ 10.18 £ 13.32 £ 10.77
2002 £ 10.64 £ 9.85 £ 13.37 £ 10.60
2003 £ 10.21 £ 9.48 £ 12.89 £ 10.20
2004 £ 10.00 £ 9.25 £ 12.60 £ 10.02
2005 £ 9.75 £ 9.12 £ 12.20 £ 9.81
2006 £ 8.97 £ 8.34 £ 11.14 £ 8.91
2007 £ 8.65 £ 8.00 £ 10.66 £ 8.47
2008 £ 8.10 £ 7.53 £ 9.91 £ 7.97
2009 £ 7.88 £ 7.15 £ 9.86 £ 7.65
2010 £ 7.55 £ 7.03 £ 9.29 £ 7.32

(Source: BPI)

Well, that’s a nice trend, isn’t it? Not only do we earn a little more each year, but legally buying music also costs us a little less. At £7.32 per album, we’re getting a pretty good deal. Technically, the artists aren’t – apparently they only get £1 for each album we buy.

What’s particularly disappointing about the above table ending in 2010 is that it doesn’t really reflect what’s happened in the digital era. Whereas previously we were able to get the occasional extremely good deal (my first Amazon purchase was Kraftwerk‘s The Man-Machine, for £1.62 on CD), that is considerably rarer with downloads. The offers are only ever really available in the first couple of weeks of sale, and after that they keep their price point for good. After all, with no requirement to shift stock, why should they ever be discounted?

None of this is really anybody’s fault, as in this instance the music business is merely acting as any business would. What is interesting to me is that the perceived value of music seems to be falling. People still complain – just as they always have – that music is too expensive, and yet the table above shows nearly a third of the price being knocked off an album in a decade. (Incidentally, I’m not sure offhand whether the above table accounts for inflation or not, so let’s sidestep that aspect for now.)

Is this partly a result of illegal downloading, whereby, as I discussed just a couple of weeks ago, people have learnt to expect everything for free? Very probably, yes. In fact, it’s difficult to draw a conclusion about whether this is a good or bad thing – live concerts have ballooned in price as their popularity has exploded over the last couple of decades, so why shouldn’t studio recordings also become cheaper – and more competitive – for consumers?

If you listen to music via streaming services, such as iTunes Radio, Pandora, or Spotify, it becomes cheaper still – in many cases, free. But while I see the future of digital music to be in streaming rather than outdated concepts of ownership, there is an enormous downside to this trend. While artists may make relatively little from CD sales, they make absolutely nothing from most streaming services, earning mere fractions of pennies per listen.

Reading the article linked above, you have to conclude that you agree. Streaming is a great way to listen to music (assuming you’re not the sort of person who obsesses about FLAC files, anyway), but it only really seems to make any money for the companies who provide the services. Artists get nothing; even the poor labels get nothing. But, as that article suggests, they never got anything from home taping or CD swapping either.

So where does this leave us? What, in the end, is the cost of listening? Ultimately it’s impossible to quantify, but it would be nice to see the proceeds go direct to the artist rather than to middlemen.

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One thought on “The cost of listening

  1. Pingback: The Day the Music Died | Music for stowaways

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