Why (not) pay for music?

N: Have you heard the new album by James Blake?

M: Yeah, I bought it off iTunes a few days ago.

N: You bought it?

M: Ya!

N:  You couldn’t find the torrent?

M: I didn’t look for it actually. I think it’s only fair….

N: But why would you buy music?

When I look back on all the events that have had an impact on my life, discovering torrents is definitely quite far up the list. All the music I ever wanted was suddenly just a click away and I didn’t have to spend a single rupee! Soon the habit turned into an obsession. I would torrent entire discographies of bands that I liked and rip hundreds of gigabytes from friends irrespective of what it was that I was taking. I became a hoarder. To this day most of the music on my hard drives remains in neatly categorized folders that I have never listened to. All that mattered was that I had it and that I needed more.

What was worse was I had the “perfect excuse”- I lived in India and had an eclectic taste in music most of which I couldn’t access. You either asked a relative or friend to buy your CD’s abroad or you ripped it off the Internet. Since the former was either too expensive or infrequent, I resorted to the easier option. There was nothing more satisfying than waking up to that little green bar on your screen saying ‘download complete.’

Then, in 2007, Radiohead released their album ‘In Rainbows’ and put it up for digital download. You paid either what you wanted or what you could afford. Since this was one of my favourite bands at the time, some friends and I got hold of a parents’ credit card and bought the album for 5 dollars. While I have to admit that buying an MP3 is not as exciting as buying a CD, it did feel good.

That was when it suddenly occurred to me, that being a full time musician means you work like any other person with a 9-5 job. Until then I had never really thought about how these musicians, whom I had idolized for so long, were actually regular people; people who had needs just like the rest of us. This is when it hit me. If I wanted to keep listening to the music I love, I needed to think about what it takes for someone to make music.

Let’s take a second to think about it. If you were an aspiring musician, you would need to buy decent gear, rent a proper rehearsal room, record your music at a good studio, organize a tour, organize radio airplay time, get into festivals, or maybe even shoot a music video. All of this requires time, effort and, most of all, money.

When I began asking my friends why they didn’t feel the need to pay for music, I was met with hostility, laughter or a glassy eyed stare. So I began to compile a list of reasons why people don’t buy music:

  • I don’t know how to.
  • They earn enough money through gigs anyway.
  •  It’s too expensive.
  • I don’t have a credit card!
  • But I don’t understand, why would you buy music?!
  • Music is supposed to be free!

Let’s leave out the more outlandish reasons and analyze the ones we can. Musicians can and do make money off live performances. Allen Farmelo, an audio engineer and artist, addresses the issue this way: “Aside from being a dubious claim at best, any income is income and can make a difference. Each artist has some ratio of income from live show tickets, record sales, merch, and licensing.” But how many up and coming independent musicians, such as, electro artist Teddy Boy Kill, get a chance to play enough shows to make ends meet?

As to music being expensive, record labels don’t exclusively dictate the price we pay for music anymore. With the advent of the Internet, the music industry has seen a significant shift away from traditional record labels towards self promotion and production. Sites like Bandcamp, Soundcloud etc. provide musicians with just such a platform where they can promote and price their music in exactly the way they want. There is no middleman and you pay the musician what he/she is due.

Take iTunes for instance. While the system does have its pros and cons, buying music online has never been easier. What’s even better is that they have reworked their price structure to suit the Indian market. Most singles are priced at Rs.15 as opposed to the 99 cents (Rs.59) you would pay at the international store.

The days of buying an entire album for just one song are now over. At iTunes, as well as other online music stores like OkListen, IndiEarth etc. you can buy individual tracks. If it’s one song you want the musician will still get a commission from your purchase.

Which brings us to the credit card dispute. It was and still is the case where the majority of us do not have access to a credit card. While it used to be the case where having a credit card was the only way to purchase music online, this is no longer a valid argument. With the advent of online banking, PayPal and virtual credit cards we in India can now buy music online from across the world.

So why is paying 15 rupees for a song still so hard? When you delve deeper you realize that buying music has become this unthinkable act. Somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten why we started doing it in the first place. Take a good long look at how much you spend on coffee on a weekly basis. Rs.100 for an album seems like pocket change.

The Internet is a glorious place for musicians and music lovers alike. More and more artists are reaching out to wider audiences and music lovers are spoilt for choice. Some of these musicians pursue their art full time and others don’t. Either way its time we realised that making music isn’t easy. Like every other job it takes time, effort and love and for that we need to start paying our dues.

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