We're paying less for recorded music than we were two decades ago, but we're still inclined to complain about it. Is there any truly rational basis for saying that music is too expensive in Australia?
When I first started purchasing albums in the (very) early 1980s, they typically cost around $8 or so. Over the course of that decade, I bought a lot of cassettes and some vinyl, and prices rose. I used to hunt down stuff on special whenever possible, but even so I'd often pay full price: $3 for a new release single (that is, $1.50 a track), $6 for a 12", and between $12 and $15 for an entire album, which might well only consist of eight songs.
As the 1990s arrived, a new release now cost around $20. Having entered the workforce, I spent much of that decade buying CDs in ridiculous numbers, and when the new millennium arrived I was quite comfortable paying $30 or so for a new album, and up to $10 for a CD single if it had enough tracks on it or I was hunting down a rare B-side.
If this pattern had continued, I'd have expected to be paying $40 an album by now. But I'm not. For new releases which are major chart performers, I don't usually expect to pay more than $20, and even then that's only because I like physical releases. It's only when I'm buying something obscure that I might pay $28 or so. And while these prices are absolute, what I earn has gone up, reflecting inflation.
Even so, it turns out I'm possibly still overpaying. According to the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA), roughly 23 million CDs were sold in Australia last year, with a total wholesale value of $252 million. That means a wholesale price of around $11, which could translate to a sale price of anywhere between $12 and $20, depending on how desperate the retailer is for business.
I mention all this because in last week's discussion of the circumstances under which digital piracy might be condoned, one argument that came up was that content is too expensive -- the "I'd pay if it was more reasonable" argument. Here's trk arguing that point in terms of music:
A little while ago I got a Bigpond Music voucher for $15.00 so I thought I’d give this ‘legal music’ thing a whirl. I decided to buy Powderfinger’s album “Fingerprints”… which $15.00 just covers (the first ‘wtf?’ of legal music acquisition – why the high cost?)
In terms of music retailing history that doesn't stack up. Given the average price of a CD is now lower than what I was typically paying a decade and a half ago, I can't quite see where the sense of outrage is coming from. Similarly, the price of a digital track might well be a relative rip-off in Australia, but per-song cost has still barely shifted in a quarter of a century, between the $1.50 a side I paid for singles back in the day and the $1.69 many tracks shift on iTunes for now.
Yes, I know: a digital release doesn't involve physical manufacturing, so the price shouldn't necessarily be the same. But the last time I checked, inflation was still a reality when it came to the cost of most goods. Music, it seems, is an interesting exception.
Change is a constant when it comes to entertainment, so we shouldn't expect the patterns to be constant, and we shouldn't be surprised that selling tracks and albums is not the cash bonanza it used to be. No doubt the unit price and sales of sheet music are very different now to the first half of the twentieth century, where generating your own music at the piano was a much more reliable means of entertainment for the well-off, and publishing rights to popular tunes were what mattered.
The music industry shifted from that approach to selling recorded music, and it will shift -- with much complaining, no doubt -- to whatever model works when protecting recorded music is all but impossible. In the meantime, I'm off to hunt down some cheap CDs.
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