Dan Le Sac Writes

Dan Le Sac Writes: What is an album worth?

By | Published on Thursday 2 April 2015

There has been a lot of talk about fairness for musicians and songwriters in the last few years. And again this week as a certain rapper and his gang of pop mates made some bold statements about how they were going to make it all fairer. But what is fair? What, ultimately, is an album actually worth to artists and consumers alike? Dan Le Sac ponders this question.


Right here, at the very start of this article, before you really know what it is about, I’m going to mention Tidal. Sorry. But fear not, I’m not planning to dump another article into the ever-growing crap pile of opinion pieces about this service. I’m just using it as a jumping off point, and as a way of making something I’ve been thinking about for ages ‘current’.

A big selling point of the new Tidal is that it will be “fairer” to artists. Of course it will be some time before we see whether that claim turns out to be true. Plus we don’t really now what Jay-Z et al consider to be fair. Though with all those artist “owners”, it must be partly true, right?

But the word “fair” is subjective when it comes to money. Take Spotify. You’ll find plenty of artists who believe getting paid a fraction of a penny per stream is unfair, but if you look at the whole, the fact that Spotify pays around 70% of its total revenue back to rights holders – labels/artists etc – is fair. Running servers, PR, app development and so on are all costly things.

So instead of being “that” artist grumbling about how much he gets paid for this or that, I want to ask, at a time when someone can stream a whole album and the rights holder only earns around 10p for it, what is an album actually worth? Again “worth” is a subjective term, but in this case I’m talking about cold hard cash.

In 1993, a chubby boy who wore ripped purple jeans from Mr Buyrite with his pristine Cherry-red DMs, and who looked a little too much like his mum, purchased a copy of Joy Division’s ‘Closer’ for £11.99 from his local Virgin Megastore. I know what you’re thinking, he was indeed a “cool dude”, and he was definitely a hit with the ladies, no matter what anyone who went to school with me… I mean HIM, says. I think the jig is up.

Since that day, in 22 years I’ve listened to that record somewhere around 650 times, a third of those in the first year! So with a little mathematics it is clear that I have robbed the music industry blind by essentially paying 1.8p per listen. I say “the music industry”, because who knows what the band themselves saw? Factory Records did famously generous deals with its artists, but would still be keeping at least half the money. Most labels would take considerably more. But that’s an issue for another day, my point here is that if the modern streaming model is anything to go by, I have underpaid for ‘Closer’.

If we roll forward three years though, with marginally improved style and a noticeably ‘Damon Albarn’ haircut, a slimmer, more confident yet misguided me wandered into that very same Virgin Megastore and bought Hole’s ‘Live Through This’ for £13.99. I remember this because I justified the price by convincing myself it would impress a certain girl, and by “impress” I mean I was aiming to impress her into doing things teenagers do when naked. My total lifetime listens to this record are two, so per listen I paid £6.99, a ridiculous 70 times more than the current going rate for streaming an album. Basically, Courtney Love’s Hole owe me big time. Tee-hee.

So to the point, and if you hadn’t guessed yet, I’m not actually about to try to quantify the financial worth of an album. But I will say this, it is my belief that the music industry only works as a whole, and the traditional “owning music” model works for the industry because when we pay a tenner for an album we love, we also pay lots of tenners for the albums we don’t, but this balances out in the end. All those tenners pile up and get used to fund more records, any one of which could be the next record we love.

Sadly streaming doesn’t do this. We may pay the artists we love more over time, but those records we only listen to once or twice will only ever contribute a few coppers to releasing something new. That’s not to mention that a cap on that income is put into place by monthly subscriptions too.

Now, I am being a little ridiculous by using my own musical history as an example. For the average music consumer, the record they give hundreds of listens to is James Blunt, and that two-listen record is likely Joy Division. And it is true that the streaming model is certainly more honest, and in a sense is therefore fairer to the consumer. But owning music is egalitarian, each individual album sold contributes equally no matter how good or bad, popular or not.

And if we were worried about accountants holding sway of the industry when each album was created equal, imagine what they’ll do when they see the pennies a wonderful band like, say, The Errors contribute in comparison to Justin “fan-spitter” Bieber.

Streaming has its place, for the discovery and availability of music it is unmatched, but it can only be part of the future, not all of it.

So what’s an album you love worth? Every damn penny you can pay if you ever want to fall in love again.