Value and price in experimental music

Just after I uploaded the last entry, there was a flurry of Facebook posts, mostly from one person complaining about the price of The Great Learning, and suggesting a price point of £3-5, especially because it is now in PDF format. These have been removed and forwarded to the people in charge of pricing where they will be considered properly. But it does raise a question: what constitute the value of a musical work? We’ve just added a couple of Michael Parsons’ pieces and John White’s Drinking and Hooting Machine to our Freebies page with the composers’ permission. You can also get pretty much all of Chris Hobbs’ text pieces on that page. All for free. Other pieces cost money.

How does the EMC price music? It depends upon the situation: whether we have control over the item or not. It may reflect the work that went into the composition or the production of the item. It may reflect the composer’s idea of where value lies. Chris Hobbs, for example, lowers his prices dramatically if he can send the customer a PDF, because it means that he doesn’t have to wrap up the item, address it and schlep down to the post office. Other composers prefer to create their own material; if so, they price it, we take a bit off the top, which is ploughed back into the EMC. The money pays for our domain name and host — after using free internet sites from supermarkets and the like, we’ve got something more stable, and more pricy —and for the cost of printing real pieces and other projects.

As we can see, some of the EMC composers put their value into other areas than price, at least on some of their pieces. But composers actually produce a product, and they sell it at the price they set to reflect not only its intrinsic value, but also the hours spent in crafting it. Cardew spent over three years on The Great Learning. It’s an orchestra piece in all senses of the word, except for its instrumentation. It’s incredibly carefully crafted and artistically beautiful, both in the physical notation of the score itself and in the artistry of the music that results from its performance. The Great Learning is certainly comparable to orchestra pieces by Stockhausen, whose current pdf price list can be found here: . Here you can see that most of Stockhausen’s orchestral pdfs are priced in three figures.

So here’s the thing, as they used to say on Buffy. Here’s a point that should include all music of all kinds, but I’ll limit it to Cardew and Stockhausen for simplicity’s sake. Is it legitimate to protest the price of Cardew scores and Stockhausen scores? Of course it is: it’s an argument about price point and accessibility. However, protesting the price of Cardew scores and not protesting the price of Stockhausen scores (or vice versa) is an argument about value: you ask for Cardew to be cheaper, but not Stockhausen (or vice versa) only if you think Stockhausen is greater than Cardew (or vice versa).

If you’d like to comment on and debate this issue, please reply below.


Author: Virginia

Virginia Anderson is a writer who messes with the EMC Blog. She specialises in the study of experimental, minimalist, and free improvisatory music. She also plays clarinet, and has recorded on Zanja, Advance, and Rastascan Recordings, specialising in new works for Eb clarinet and free improvisation.

4 thoughts on “Value and price in experimental music”

  1. Just a note on placing a value on Cardew vs Stockhausen. As I read Cardew’s critique of Stockhausen, it is these various kinds of false dilemmas of value that arise from the hypocrisy of the Cage/Stockausen strain of the avant-garde. The Great Learning could be free, not because it is of less value than Stockhausen, but because it is priceless and does not need the pretense of a luxury price to justify its performance. I am not trying to be polemical, the availability of the score in pdf online is a godsend at any price. I just think that one of the great potentialities of Cardew’s work was a radically transformative alternative to Stockhausen, not just a value enhancement. In closing, this debate is about putting your money/actions where your mouth is. The Great Learning should be free, and everyone who visits the EMC website should donate 10 pounds out of respect for what a labour of love a life in experimental music is. I am sure when we have one, we will be closer to the other.

    1. There are two things that I’d like to ask. 1) How do composers make a living — or even live — if they give their work away free? This is not ever mentioned in the visual arts (solid arts, like painting and sculpture), where the artwork is a commodity. As a matter of fact, I know at least one composer who is making his living now by making his scores into art works. He used to make his living through concerts and recordings of his works, but the money for these has dried up with the new digital trade in recordings and films. He makes scores to live and eat, and finally he’s being paid something near what his work is worth. That is the reality for the independent composer. Most of the composers who give their scores out free have jobs in education, so it is a barter system — compose for research status and promotion — so they aren’t composing for free. There are paybacks in this realm, too, because the most money is given to people whose music satisfies certain academic criteria. Some composers can be creative in this world, while others can’t. Some composers can write creatively for popular media (like film) and some cannot. There are those who work in crap non-music jobs and keep their creativity and inventiveness. Cardew was one of these people; he didn’t earn that much from his composition, or even as a performer, throughout his life. His time teaching at the Royal Academy of Music proved to be a constant battle against the conservatism and philistinism of the people in power at the Academy, so he couldn’t get a secure job there.But his work had value, and it still does.

      I’m afraid your proposal is overly Romantic and unrealistic. Some time ago, I asked people to notify the EMC when they downloaded the free pieces, so I could give the composers some idea of the interest their work had generated: a kind of ‘royalty’ of interest and, perhaps, thank yous. All it would have taken was a simple email, saying ‘I got the Michael Parsons piece!’ or something like that. I have got no more than a handful of these, while the analytics for the freebie pages show that a whole lot more people have looked at them, if they haven’t downloaded them. I can’t see how more people would donate 10 pounds, nor how I could reward the composers in the way they should be rewarded.

      2) How do you put Cage in the same ‘strain of the avant garde’ as Stockhausen? Read Silence and some of Cage’s other writings, plus Tilbury’s biography of Cardew, and above all, Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. But I’d recommend this to everyone.

  2. Thank you for the post, and the opportunity to respond. The question of business models in the digital age is very complex, and the forces shift drastically based on a lot of variables: strategies that work for experimental music may not work for other musics and vice versa. I don’t pretend to have solutions, but I have ideas that might be worth trying.

    On the question of value, I still say that equating value and price doesn’t work. Value is something decided by the buyer that does not necessarily equate to £££ in a quantifiable way. There is economics research to suggest that how much we spend affects the perceived value of an object, but in the case of art objects that bind an idea (in the way that scores or recordings bind “music”) are more problematic as what we pay for (a shiny disc or some paper) is not the thing we want, it’s merely an access point. Value as “work put into producing the object” is not meaningful: I’ve written plenty of pieces that required hundreds of hours of work, at minimum wage that makes a 100hr piece “worth” £631, if there was only one object: should I price it by gauging how many I need to sell in order to “recoup”? But if I’m selling it as a score then I’m selling duplicates, so does the price go down? and even then the score is not actually the object, hearing the music is the object, or is it? What am I actually selling? The value of this score will be different for different people, the best I can do is price it at a figure that I think the market will bear, somewhere between all the possible values that my market will apply.

    There is a market of buyers who can spend £35 on a score, professionals, libraries, collectors, etc. though most of these buyers will be more interested in a physical copy, and will happily pay for it. However I believe that there’s another market such as students, and other people who simply can’t afford to spend £35 on one score, who would gladly pay for a PDF if it was priced in a bracket they could afford. I would go further and suggest that following the models of Bandcamp and App Stores may ultimately be more profitable than only selling to the limited number of high-spending buyers. Bandcamp allows pay-what-you-like pricing, and their research shows that a significant amount of the time people pay more than you’d expect, because these customers translate their own value of the music into a price they think is fair, it’s about opening the object up to different market valuations. App stores work on a volume market, pricing so low that the cost is imperceptible, allied with one-click purchasing this makes the buyer not think about the cost. Of the two strategies, Bandcamp’s model works better for niche genres such as experimental music, volume sales may not work in such a rarefied market, but it’s worth remembering that a lot of universities teach these pieces, it’s not a huge market for sure but it’s not to be sniffed at.

    The point you make above about Hobbs “dramatically” reducing his price for PDFs is precisely the argument made in the initial FB comment about The Great Learning. Less production overheads allows them to be offered for less. I appreciate that the pricing of The Great Learning is out of EMC’s hands, that’s a moot point.

    As for Stockhausen, I don’t understand how Stockhausen even got into a conversation about the price of a Cardew PDF score, that’s a strawman argument. Should I also go to Stockhausen Verlag and complain about Cardew score prices…? My valuation of Stockhausen scores is utterly irrelevant to my valuation of Cardew’s, as much of my valuation of some Brie in the market is not relevant to either. Besides, I’m pretty sure the Stockhausen score price list you link to above is for physical scores, not PDFs: I emailed Stockhausen Verlag to clarify, perhaps I just missed something, but they do refer specifically to postal charges on the order page. I also suggested to Stockhausen Verlag that if they did offer PDF scores then perhaps they, like Chris Hobbs, would lower the price dramatically, especially as this might offer students a chance to purchase the scores, and open up an under-served market.

    1. You’ve made your point on Facebook. Several times. I moved the topic here, because it didn’t fit in with Facebook. Here are my answers, in short.

      1. I don’t care about economics, nor does the EMC. If it did we’d be selling anti-aging serum or iPods.

      2. We don’t price this item. Nor do we disagree with the price that was set for it. That’s not our business.

      3. If you think something is worth buying, you can buy it. It’s up to you: Cardew, Stockhausen, Eric Whitacre, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. If you don’t like the price, then don’t. That’s price and value.

      The EMC tries hard not to lose money, but it also doesn’t make any money. None. I helped Chris Hobbs to set this up because we like the music and like chatting about the music with people. It’s fun and rewarding. Adversarial debate is not fun. Now, I’m off to have fun writing about minimalism.

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