Paying for music

Published 09/30/2015

By Michael Holt

Should we pay for music? When is it OK to download songs for free? How much money should we put in a tip jar? How can musicians make a living when so much music is now available at no cost?

These are some of the questions I’m looking at in a book I’m writing called Eating Music: How to Reverse the Commodification of Music and Restore its Sacred Place in Our Lives.

The basic message of the book is that our culture has gradually devalued music, in terms of what we’re willing to pay for it, and also in how we relate with, listen to, and create and perform it. The book is called Eating Music because it’s trying to do for music what the Slow Food and Locavore movements are doing for eating: get us to slow down and become more conscious, engaged, respectful, healthy, and local in our consumption. To focus on creating high quality, fulfilling, and communal experiences, instead of a high quantity of shallow, solitary experiences.

One of the leaders of these new food movements, Michael Pollan, suggests that we “pay more, eat less.” The idea is that if we pay for high-quality, local, organic ingredients from farmers’ markets, we’ll end up with more deeply satisfying experiences and not feel a need to overeat.

I think the same is true for music. The more time, money, effort, love, passion, and care we put into our music consumption, the more satisfying our musical experiences will become. And the less we over-stimulate ourselves with music, the more valuable it will become to us, and the more often we’ll be willing to pay for it.

Here are some of my basic ideas about paying for music. I’ve been following all these practices myself for years, with great benefit. I offer these suggestions only as examples of things you could do, hoping some will inspire you.

1. Don’t access too much free music online.
The more we consume of anything, the less special it becomes to us. It’s great that so much diverse music is available now at the touch of a button, yet how much do we really need? Do we take the time to really listen to all we have, and develop a deep relationship with it? Maybe we’d be happier if we reduced our consumption of online, virtual experiences.

2. When possible, get music from artists’ own websites.
With many online services, the artist often gets less than one cent per song! However, if you buy through the artist’s website, they will get a full dollar (or whatever price they ask you for, which is often less.) That’s a huge difference for the extra seconds it will cost you in time. And then you become a more active consumer, rather than just accepting the music and financial arrangements those big companies offer you.

3. Get whole albums, listen to whole albums, and pay for them.
When I do download music, I usually get a whole album, because a) if I’m pretty sure I’ll love one song, I’ll probably at least like the whole album; and b) it’s respectful to artists, who often intend their songs to be enjoyed together.

Listening to whole albums is a way to slow down my listening, my overall consumption level, and my life. And when I first get a new album, I always listen all the way through at least once.

Unless the artist is intentionally giving their album away, I pay for it, rather than trying to find it free somewhere else, for three reasons. a) When we receive something of value, payment is one way to express gratitude, which is important in making any experience feel meaningful, connected, and complete. b) Since most of what I download is by less successful artists, paying for it feels important. c) Because I don’t download often, I can afford to do it.

4. Enjoy local, independent culture and music.
Especially if you live in a city, you’d be amazed how much great music is made close to home, and connecting to it can feel more meaningful than consuming stuff made by distant artists you’ll never meet. I listen frequently to live, local music, have discovered lots of bands and artists I really love, and now know most of them on a first-name basis. If I put money into the tip jar or buy an album, it all goes straight to the artists.

5. When payment is by voluntary donation, base your payments on how much the music actually moves you.
There are some instances when our choice isn’t whether or not to pay for music, but how much to pay, such as when a performer passes the hat. And because of changes in internet norms and the economy, I believe we’ll be seeing more and more of these kinds of voluntary payment situations in the years ahead.

However, because of the current prevalence of price standardization in our culture, we’re not in the habit of assessing the quality of experiences, or translating such assessments into a price. Yet it’s a very empowering thing to do.

When given the chance, I believe our payment for music should be an honest response to it, based on how moved we feel. Music is a part of our culture and our society, both of which will improve if we respond honestly to them. If we support music which doesn’t inspire us, the artists who made it will end up misinformed about what people like, and not doing their best, and the quality of our culture will suffer. However, if we pay more money for performers who actually move us, those artists will be encouraged and enabled, and their work will end up reaching more people.

So don’t pay a certain amount just because others are doing it, to be polite, because it’s the “suggested donation,” or because you think you should “support the artist.” Make an honest assessment of how valuable the experience actually feels to you, and then follow your intuition about a dollar amount that expresses it. The amount that’s right for you depends on your means. A five-dollar donation from a struggling student can mean just as much to an artist as $20 from an established professional. If you’re like me, a number will just pop into your head when it’s time to pay: go with that!

6. Pay after you’ve listened, not before.
In order to assess an experience, you must first have it. So when possible, withhold payment until you’ve heard all the music. Approach the donation bowl at the end of the concert, not the beginning.

 7. Also respond non-monetarily.
More important than whether, or how much we pay for music, is that we respond in some way, give some kind of feedback. We live in a culture of non-response, in which we’re afraid to express both negative feelings and heartfelt gratitude to each other. Part of the reason for this is the monetization of almost every aspect of life. Everything has its price, so we’re out of practice in giving any kind of more personal response than money.

Yet the more fully you respond to an artist, the more you enter in an actual relationship with her, and the more mutually beneficial that relationship will become.

Money really just expresses quantity – more or less. Yet music can evoke a huge range of experiences, not just positive or negative, including genuine curiosity. So respond not only with your wallet – but also with your words, your physical involvement, your questions, your presence. At live performances you can ask questions, share thoughts and feelings, and make requests. Most performers really appreciate knowing they are not just playing into a void, but for engaged, responsive people. You can also respond to recorded music: find the artists online and send them a detailed message about how you were affected. It’ll mean a lot to them.

If compensation is optional, it doesn’t always have to be money. Give what feels genuine to you, what comes from your heart. I’ve been “payed” in all kinds of wonderful ways for my music, from the pies a fan brought my band at a show in North Carolina; to a lovely little note a teacher gave me after one of my albums deeply touched her; to the vegetables I’ve been given for playing farmers’ markets; to the time a young student wanted to buy an album, had no money, ran to her dorm, and ran back with a little painting of a pink elephant she’d made. That painting still hangs on my wall, and means more to me than any $15 I’ve ever been handed.

Responding with words and other non-monetary gifts restores meaning, vitality, and even sacredness to exchanges and relationships that have been emptied of these qualities by an excessively monetized culture. We are reminded that certain people and experiences give us real value, and that we have the power to really give something back.

About Michael Holt

After decades of playing in concert halls, rock clubs, festivals, bars, dives, and cafes, Michael Holt became frustrated with the lack of true intimacy and engagement in commercial venues. Then he started playing in people's living rooms, and found the human connection he was craving. His passion for helping people link more directly with music led him to co-found Catweazle Toronto, a no-microphones open stage; The Piano Salon, a monthly house concert series; and the Toronto Festival of House Culture, an annual weekend of music, food, arts, and conversations in people's homes. The SOCAN blog will occasionally feature selections from his forthcoming book, Eating Music: Ten Ways to Reverse the Commodification of Music and Restore its Sacred Place in Our Lives. Michael loves and plays all kinds of music from classical to indie-pop.

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