Monday, August 25, 2014 at 11:08AM

It's not news that the music industry is in a bit of a slump right now. Some of you may bemoan the dearth of new, good music that's available, but I would suggest that you're just looking for your new music in the old places, which have become the wrong places. Industry muckety-mucks will bemoan the fact that no one in the recording industry is making money save for a few "pop" artists at the top of the musical pyramid, while at the same time a vast majority of music lovers are bemoaning the fact that mainstream music just isn't that good anymore. Changes in technology have caused a lot of disruption in the music industry, but the people who make and sell the music need to shoulder some of the blame – as do the consumers of music.

Rather than comment on the quality of music being marketed today, in this piece I want to comment on the value of music being made today – by comparing the value of music (and other staples) over the past fifty years.

 

Let's Start With Gasoline 

From 1950 to 1959, the average price of a gallon of gas in the U.S. was approximately $0.21/gallon. For comparison, adjusted for inflation, a gallon of gas in 1954 would cost $1.86 today (plus a guy in a nifty uniform would come out and wash your windshield and check your oil and he wouldn't even be on his cellphone at all (you people in New Jersey who can't pump their own gas know what I am talking about)). 

  • • In 1964 a gallon of gas was (on average) $0.33 ($2.54 in today's dollars)
  • • In 1974 a gallon of gas was $0.36 ($1.74 in today's dollars)
  • • In 1979 a gallon of gas was $0.99 ($3.25 in today's dollars)
  • • In 2000 a gallon of gas was $1.65 ($2.28 in today's dollars)

This morning I put gas in the commute-mobile and it cost me $3.49 ($3.49 in today's dollars).

 

Now Let's Talk About Water

In 1954 a gallon of water was either a) free or b) around $0.002 per gallon from your faucet.

  • • In 1964 water was either a) free or b) around $0.002 per gallon from your faucet
  • • In 1974 water was the same price as in 1964
  • • Being the most abundant thing on Earth, water in 1984 and 1994 was pretty much the same price as it was in 1954
  • • Today I can buy a 1.5 litre bottle of "Artisan" water from a well-known water company that is named after an island in the Pacific Ocean for $2.79

If we do the math, that $2.79 litre of water figures out to cost the thirsty consumer $6.96 per gallon.

 

Moving On To Coffee

A standard cup of coffee equals around 5 ounces, so a cup of coffee today is even more of a bargain than it was previously, but the price of coffee has not generally deflated like the price of music has. That being said, compared to water and gasoline, a gallon of coffee will run you right around $16.00.

  • • Average price for a 5 oz. cuppa in 1954 = $0.10 / cup ($0.89 in today's dollars)
  • • Average price of Joe (5 oz.) in 1964 = $0.15 / cup ($1.15 in today's dollars)
  • • Average price of a (5 oz.) cup in 1984 = $0.75 / cup ($1.72 in today's dollars)
  • • Average price for a (5 oz.) cup at the diner down the street yesterday = $1.25
  • • Average price for an 8oz cup of coffee at the 7/11 near the office just a few hours ago: $1.00 (or $0.62 per 5 oz.)

 

Let's Talk About Music

For the sake of argument, the following figures assume you are not downloading your music illegally (or stealing it otherwise). If you are downloading your music illegally, then just replace the listed cost with either **free** or $0.00 for purposes of comparison.

  • • 45 RPM single in 1964 = $0.49 ($3.77 in today's dollars)
  • • 45 RPM single in 1974 = $0.69 ($3.33 in today's dollars)
  • • 45 RPM single in 1984 = $1.29 ($2.96 in today's dollars)
  • • CD single in 1994 = $1.99 ($3.20 in today's dollars)
  • • MP3 single in 2014 = $.99 or almost 3 times less than in 1964

 

As fas as live music goes, in 1975 I had second row seats to Lynyrd Skynyrd at Asbury Park Convention Hall and the ticket cost me $5.50 (I have the stub), or $24.36 in today's dollars. In 1979 I saw Van Halen at the same venue from a few rows farther back and it cost me $9.50 which I though was outrageous for a band only on its second U.S. tour. That $9.50 would run me $31.18 today, which I probably wouldn't complain about for the David Lee Roth version, but would complain about vociferously for the Sammy Hagar version.

I just took a spin over to Ticketmaster and looked for two tickets to Aerosmith who are playing on August 31 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. A pair of tickets on the floor would set me back $218.65 each. Luckily my wife really doesn't like Aerosmith so I'm off the hook, but for comparison those two tickets would have cost me (a lonely, awkward teenager with little prospects and no driver's license) $66.63 each in what few 1975 dollars I had, back in 1975. 

In case you're more of a visual type, I have included this handy chart showing the comparative prices, in 2014 dollars of the staples I've been talking about in this piece. Staples Prices

Storage and digital playback technology has done wonderful things for music lovers, but like everything else, those technological improvements came with a downside: The price of music has generally deflated as the ubiquitousness of music has increased. Good (and bad) music is everywhere which is a good thing, but music has also lost its value to us as consumers, which is a bad thing. I am not saying that we don't love our music, I'm saying that we don't place value on our music commensurate with how improtant it is to us.

 

I recently had a discussion with a musician of some renown who told me of an encounter he had with a fan: The fan told the musician "I support you, I buy your albums, I don't steal them," which comes across as if the fan is performing some heroic, valiant act by purchasing things he is consuming and enjoying. Pirated music has always been with us, but the difference today is everyone can be a pirate and it's apparently also easier to rationalize being a pirate now.

 

The writers and performers, the engineers who make the recordings, the people who design and build the equipment we listen to music on, the distributors, and the consumer who buys the music, are all in this together. "This" being the life-long desire to listen to music that soothes us, excites us, makes us think and makes us feel. The "Golden Age" of pop music (1964 to 1994) has come and gone and the way we listen to, and find, our music is changing, but the intrinsic value of music in our lives will never change. We're just in a period of rapid evolution that has put the value of music somewhat out of skew in our daily lives. 

 

Maybe less "artisan" water and more actual musical artists in our daily lives will remind us what we have lost since the end of that so-called Golden Age. In the chart below, it's easy to see that music is an inter-dependent commodity: if one part of the cycle drops off, the entire cycle ends. If music becomes so expensive the consumer can't afford to buy it, the cycle ends. Likewise, if writers and performers can no longer afford to write and perform, the cycle ends as well.  

Music Cycle