Selling Albums for $1 Will Not Devalue the 'Art' of Music -- It Will Get More People Buying It

Categories: Tech
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Former Warner Music U.K. executive Rob Dickins set off a heated debate when he argued last week that digital albums should be sold very, very cheap. (Dickins suggested a price tag of about one British pound; let's just use $1 for simplicity.)

His idea was simply that if you sell albums cheap enough, no one will bother pirating them. At $10, or even $7, one consciously chooses whether to download an album, or which of several desired albums to buy. But at $1 or perhaps $3, Dickins argued, fans won't even bother Googling for a way to steal one. "You'd just say, 'I like R.E.M.,' and you'd buy it," Dickins said, according to the BBC.

So is he crazy?

I think not. If 80 percent of music downloads are pirated right now, it seems that any way for musicians and labels to get revenue out of that --- while increasing the volume of sales -- would be worthwhile. We've seen what happens when Amazon offers downloads of hot new albums at $4 -- just imagine what would happen if the next The Suburbs or High Violet went for just a buck.

Several have argued that selling an album for less than a cup of coffee or a bottle of water would devalue the art of music. But people -- at least, young people who don't buy much music anyway -- don't judge the artistic value of music by what it costs. If they did, they would look down on artists who give away free MP3s and whose albums were obtainable on file-sharing sites. They don't.

The devaluing-the-art argument misses two other important points: First, coffee and water bottles can't be downloaded quickly and anonymously at no cost, while digital music can. Second, paying $3 or $4 for a tangible good (i.e., a cup of coffee you watched a person make especially for you) seems intrinsically reasonable in this day and age, even, I would guess, to a 13-year-old. But paying $10 to download a digital file that's a copy of a copy of a copy -- all of them made at no additional cost -- somehow doesn't.

I'm not saying musicians shouldn't be paid for their work. Selling digital albums for $1 or $3 would not stop superfans from paying $10 or $20 or even $50 for elaborately packaged CD or other hard-copy releases. Vinyl lovers will still pay cash money for virgin 180-gram translucent red plastic with big art. And even the $1 digital album, if it made piracy less attractive and increased sales volumes, could bring artists more revenues than they're currently getting.

Judging by the reaction Dickins got, the $1 digital album is probably just a fantasy at this point. And, as some wise commenters have pointed out, that particular price poses some problems with royalty calculations.

Still, I'd argue that he has the right idea. The music industry isn't going to be able to stop free music via widespread online piracy. It's going to have to compete against it -- and dirt cheap downloads may be the best way.

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