People pay hundreds of pounds to see musicians perform live, but mere pennies to stream recorded music. As digital technology has made recorded music almost valueless, I argue that the value of live experience has become ever greater. This article outlines different types of value created in music, and suggests the opportunities for entrepreneurs exploiting live human experiences have never been better.
Stuart Barr is an EdTech entrepreneur and conductor. He was Musical Director & Producer to the legendary artiste Dame Shirley Bassey for 6 years, conducting her from the Oscars to her farewell Album Road album. He’s a past president of the British Voice Association and former Chair of the London Youth Choir, and recently took his MBA in the Creative Industries at Cambridge University.
People pay hundreds of pounds to see the likes of Ed Sheeran, Florence & the Machine, Adele or Streisand live. Yet, only a few decades ago, the Musicians’ Union started campaigning to “Keep Music Live”, out of concern that recorded music was getting so good that live music would die out. What then is the true value of music?
In half a generation, the tour has gone from promoting the album, to the album promoting the tour. Commentators often attack the likes of Spotifyfor how little they pay artistes (1) (2). However, long-tail income could well be more valuable in the long-run. Furthermore, they are not to blame for the paradigm shift away from recorded income: something else is going on here of far greater importance. Digital’s biggest impact on culture is that through devaluing remote experience through commoditisation, it’s increased the value of live human interaction.
The music streaming revolution has commoditised not recorded music, but the listening experienceof recorded music. It is music without either physical ownership or tangibility. It’s cheap: very cheap. Spotify Premium and Apple Music costs you no more than 2p per waking hour. Or you can let advertising pay for it, through Spotify regular or YouTube.
There has been a backlash of course: the vinyl renaissance giving 12% annual growth in a declining recorded music market. (3) Other than the inherent analogue distortion, which bathes the sound in a fake warm glow, why would people spend premium prices paying for a vinyl album that degrades the moment you start to play it? The answer lies in its tangibility. A CD takes up just 142 x 125 mm, and thereby strains your eyesight to get any meaningful contact with your favourite artiste. But a 12” vinyl album gets you nine times the real estate: enough for poster-sized idol-worship of iconic images, and sleeve notes that you can curl up on the sofa with a drink to read. The humble 12” goes beyond mere self-indulgence though. It comes with built-in enviability. Rather than tucking them away, they can be displayed visibly: either to share or as a sign of one-upmanship. The value is high too: the average vinyl album retails for £20.31, its CD little brother averages just £8.37(4). The difference in manufacturing and logistics is minimal. This is not a market driven by set mark-ups. It is the premium Value of Tangibility.
Looking at live performance, the average price of a ticket to see an artiste outstripped inflation by an average of 27% over the past 20 years. However, prices to see superstars in the Taylor Swift and Streisand category have more than doubled (5).What is driving this? Have the quality of venues increased? Only marginally. Has the technical experienced increased? Slightly. Has the length of a performance increased? No, it’s fallen. Have venues decreased in size? No, they’ve grown bigger, in theory meaning the prices should have fallen. Even if production values have increased, there is little pressure to keep costs low, because there is no alternative. If it’s Stormzy you want to see, you go to see Stormzy, not another grime artiste because you felt the technical values of the performance would be better. It is theValue of Unique Content.
Another way to judge value is in terms of how rare it is. Physical product is infinitely replicable, and can be sold through many different channels, so market forces keep a degree of checking on prices. However, a ticket to see Madonna has the face value the production company places on it. You can buy it for a higher price on the black market when it’s sold out, but almost never for a lower price. Why? Because the experience is rare. The artiste only performs on a few dates in a year that you can get to. Again, there is no substitute: you don’t go to see a cut-price rapper because Stormzy is too expensive. It is theValue of Rarity.
And finally we come to value that performing live creates. Two things are at play: the jeopardy of the performance, and the shared human experience both of being around others and being with the artiste.
An artiste going through the auto-pilot motions of a pre-programmed set (possibly lip-synching) would still have the same values mentioned above. However, the value is increased when it feels like the performance is a gladiatorial battle – of nerves, of physical stamina, of vocal dexterity – which can only be conquered by a supreme human being (your icon). It makes you want to be there to witness this supreme battle. Any multitude of things could go wrong. Audiences love it when performers have to cope when the unexpected happens: from musical mistakes, to getting unexpected responses from the audience. It is theValue of Jeopardy.
To separate out the value of shared experience, imagine being in a concert where you were the only audience member. You’d feel special, but would it set your heart racing as much as being surrounded by thousands of others cheering? An emphatic no. There is something primal in the shared experience: communal worship of an idol through music and dance. It is the socialisation of music that creates the Value of Shared Experience.
Another aspect of shared experience is the communal power to affect the performance exerted by thousands of people when they applaud, cheer and sing along. If a supreme performer sets up the right conditions, the audience may even ovate so wildly and for so long that they literally stop the show. In such a showstopper, the power of the performance is relinquished from the stage to the audience, and the performer cannot continue until the audience have decided that they can, in a seemingly unending orgasm of pleasure. Having been in this position so many times with Dame Shirley Bassey, I can vouch for this being the most extraordinary of human experiences as a performer, when you relinquish control to the audience: only they can decide when you continue. The power has shifted momentarily from stage to audience in a showstopper: the Value of Power.
Returning to the imaginary state of being the only person present when your favourite artiste performs, there is of course a specialness that you’d feel as a result, even if it’d lack the value of shared experience. The trick of truly great performers is in making thousands of people feel like the performance is just for them. It’s this final paradox of performance that gives us the greatest value creator: the paradoxicalValue of Replicable Uniqueness. Ultimately, you feel more human because you’ve received something special that could only have been received had you have been there.
To flip this around, why isn’t there the same value when viewing on e.g. tv or even through a VR headset? If you captured what you saw if you were at a concert, it’d be from a single viewpoint, mostly peering to see something tiny from a great distance, with occasional looking around the audience. To broadcast a performance like this would be almost valueless as the artiste would be so small on the screen, and the viewer has no autonomy of what to look at. Good tv direction gets around this by trying to give a curated experience and offers close-up action, often in dazzlingly-quick changing shots that you wouldn’t see in person. However, whilst this adds minor value of close-up views, the lack of autonomy and nature of quick-changing viewpoints make it a wholly artificial experience, and therefore has almost none of the values mentioned above.
Digital experiences create commoditisation of captured experiences, but they lack the rarity, jeopardy, shared experience, power and replicable uniqueness. And those values are what turns something worth pennies on a streamed album into something worth hundreds of pounds.
I argue that that there is a “digital ceiling”, whereby technology can be used to replicated experiences, but in the process it increasingly commoditises the experience, and consequently makes us value what it is to be human all the more. All the above makes up the (irreplaceable) Value of Live Human Interaction. The entrepreneurs and artistes who can supply this have therefore never been in a better position to generate value for audiences. There is money in making people feel more human in a digital age!