What’s It Worth?

During the summer of 1999 I spent an inordinate amount of time inside, hiding from the heat by playing a computer game called Total Annihilation and listening to Silverchair’s Neon Ballroom on repeat.

I learned about Silverchair when I saw the video for ‘Ana’s Song (Open Fire)’, a grinding confessional about singer Daniel Johns’ battle with anorexia, on MTV. As an increasingly angsty teenager who had been raised on melody-heavy pop, the song’s mix of balladic melody and raggedly pained vocals was intoxicating. A decade and a half later the song – and Johns’ vocal performance therein – remains compelling. Watching the video, however, is to transport yourself back to the very strange cultural strata of late-90s pop-rock.

Though I would discover in high school that a number of my friends were also Silverchair fans, most attributed their love of the band to 1995’s Frogstomp. By high school, though, some of my love for the band had faded and, in a world without Spotify or iTunes, I never got around to investing in Frogstomp. For eight years, Neon Ballroom was the only Silverchair album I owned. To this day I’ve never heard Frogstomp in its entirety.

During college I worked part-time at a library. My parents, bless their generous hearts, were still paying most of my bills. For the first time in my life, I had spending money that I had earned on my own. Every other Friday, on payday, I spent a significant portion of that money on CDs. On those Fridays when none of my favorite bands had new albums and Absolute Punk couldn’t provide a recommendation that seemed enticing, I would look for new material from bands that I had once loved. Late in the summer of 2007 I drove to Best Buy and purchased Silverchair’s Young Modern which had been released earlier that year to near-universally positive reviews. (The band had released Diorama in 2002; I’ve never had more than a passing acquaintance with that album.)

Young Modern is a vast departure from the sound that had made me love Silverchair in that long ago summer of 1999. The teenage angst is gone, replaced by a retro-chic spirit that would make Jeff Lynne proud. I understood the change. My teenage years had come to an end and like Silverchair, I was no longer in need of angst. Both Silverchair and I had grown up. But listening to Young Modern, as I did quite frequently after its purchase, I began to realize that Silverchair and I had grown in different directions.

I won’t deny that Young Modern is a well-crafted album, but it has little allure for me. Some of its whimsical pop songs have moments that I enjoy but none held my attention in any lasting way, save one. Enter ‘Straight Lines.’

‘Straight Lines’ sounds nothing like the Silverchair that I had first loved. It’s bouncy and poppy and, frankly, a hint simplistic. It is not a universally beloved song. One of my old Silverchair-loving friends once suggested that ‘Straight Lines’ might be the single worst song the band has ever written. It’s certainly far removed from Frogstomp. There’s none of the grating edge of Neon Ballroom. There’s no anguish or pain. The first quarter of the song is heavily reliant upon Johns’ falsetto rather than his wailing screams.

My love of ‘Straight Lines’ has little to do with my love of Neon Ballroom and even less to do with the rest of Young Modern. But, for some reason, ‘Straight Lines’ hooked me. It remains in my regular rotation.

Recently, at the behest of a trusted friend, I purchased Absent Sounds by From Indian Lakes. The album has a vaguely Copeland-ish vibe which should be appealing to me given my long-standing love of that band (the recommendation came with this in mind). And yet, for the most part, I’m not particularly excited about Absent Sounds. It’s an album that’s made little impact on me. Except for the opening track. ‘Come In This Light’ is an ambient rock masterwork. I could listen to that song for hours on end.

As with ‘Straight Lines’ and Young Modern, one excellent song validated my purchase of Absent Sounds. I have no regrets about shilling out $11.99 for an album whose value to me is, functionally, one song. I realize now that this has occurred on a number of occasions. There are times when one song on an otherwise forgettable album is so brilliant and enthralling that I’m glad to have spent $12 to bring it into my life even if that cost is significantly greater than what culture has come to accept a song is worth. More interestingly, I began to wonder: knowing how much I love these songs, how much would I pay for them now? How much would I have paid for ‘Straight Lines’ or ‘Come In This Light’?

Going one step further, I suppose the question really is: what is a song worth?

My initial intent for this post was to turn it into something of a game. I’d challenge myself by thinking of various songs and considering what monetary value I’d be willing to pay to keep them in my life. This game quickly spiraled out of control.

After estimating that I’d pay maybe $50 to keep Saves the Day’s ‘My Sweet Fracture’, something like $20 for Bad Books’ ‘The After Party’ and roughly 26 cents for the entirety of the last three Muse albums, I decided to try out some of my more beloved songs.

It did not go well.

By the time I had passed by ‘Straight Lines’ and ‘Come In This Light’ (roughly $75-100 each, if you’re curious) I took a chance on some of my all-time favorite tracks – songs like ‘The Hunter’ by Gatsbys American Dream and Third Eye Blind’s ‘Motorcycle Drive By’. After about 30 seconds of deliberation, I was ready to sell my house if that’s what it took to keep these songs. That’s a crazy thing to think. And yet I have loved those songs so deeply that they are a part of who I am as a person. How do you put a price on that?

Trying to stick to the game, I started throwing around crazy numbers, thousands of fake dollars going up in smoke to keep something that I already had. And I began to realize that the numbers that I was coming up with had a lot more to do with the amount of cash in my bank account than they did with the songs at hand. Five years ago, loving those songs no less, I would have come up with smaller figures. And if I was sitting on twice as much money as I am now (not an impressive feat, that) it seemed pretty damn likely that my song-values would increase accordingly. The monetary value that I was assigning songs, in other words, was entirely as great as I could afford to make it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to take this to its logical conclusion and say that my little thought experiment had shown what everyone always says about the art they love: it’s priceless.

There is no amount I would not pay to keep this album in my life.
But really, there is no amount I would not pay to keep this album in my life.

So now what? That’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. I’d be curious to learn how others fare at the song-value thought-game.

I also feel like this is a great psychological explanation for musical piracy. Capitalist western culture, if it’s taught us anything, has taught us that we should always look for the best possible value, the best possible deal. It’s part of the reason that people buy mondo value meals when they don’t need all the food: when it costs so little to get so much more, it’s too good to pass up. There’s a cultural obligation to get the best possible deal. When that attitude is applied to (easily pirated) music we end up with an opportunity for incredible savings: you can have a product so incredibly valuable that no dollar amount can acurately capture its worth and you can have it for free. That’s fucking crazy.

For better or worse, this is a reality of digitized media. Music is a commodity that is almost literally priceless and yet digital media has made music’s availability almost literally infinite. Apply the laws of supply and demand. For the value-seeking consumer: why would you pay any amount for something that is infinitely replenishable? And for the creator: how do you monetize something that can be endlessly supplied and over which you have almost no real control?

The music industry is slowly making adjustments to account for all of this, especially with the tier-B and tier-C artists who rely so heavily on merchandise sales. Limited run vinyl and crazy pre-order packages are being used to generate revenues in a channel that was once dominated by simple, flimsy compact discs. And hidden behind the coolness of the boxset or the sick design on the packaged shirt, I think that a part of the reason people buy these insane (and expensive) packages is that we love the bands and we want to support them.

Kickstarter and Indiegogo and especially Patreon are proving that we will pay for something that we love – even though we don’t have to – simply because we love it and we want it to continue to exist. And that’s a good thing. There is something extremely rewarding about supporting the artists that you love for no other reason than that you love them. It might not be priceless, but it sure as hell supports the creation of something that is.

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