This week Lady Gaga solidified her position as the biggest pop star on the planet when her new album Born This Way opened at number one on the US album charts with a massive 1.1 million copies sold in its first week – the biggest one-week sales for any album since 2005. Given Gaga’s rabid fanbase and the hype surrounding the record, it was inevitable that it would open big. But her numbers have doubtless been significantly inflated by the fact that almost 450,000 of those sales came from Amazon.com, where digital copies of the album were priced at a mere 99 cents.
In defence if Gaga and her record company, this decision hasn’t come from them. Amazon have taken the risky move of selling the album at a huge loss to draw in new buyers and to publiscise their new cloud music service, in an attempt to put them ahead of their competitors at Itunes. It’s a huge gamble, reported to have cost Amazon almost $3.2 million, but if it secures them a larger market share then it may well turn out to be a smart move.
My concern, however – in addition to my inner chart geek bemoaning the fact that we’ll never know how much Gaga would have sold without the benefit of unprecedented discounting – is the message that this sends out to music fans. Over 400,000 people now feel that it is acceptable to buy a fourteen-track album by a major recording artist for less than the price of a bottle of water. How many of these will now be willing to pay full price for their music in the future?
At least they paid something, one might argue, and this is true. But I suspect that few people are likely to pay for something they have no qualms about procuring for free. Therefore the buyers will largely represent hardcore fans who would have bought it anyway, and undecided people who took advantage of a serious bargain. The vast majority of people who routinely illegally download their music probably did so with Born This Way regardless.
Gaga herself has muddied the waters even further by openly supporting the devaluation of her creation. When asked if she felt the album was worth more than 99 cents she replied, “No. I absolutely do not, especially for MP3s and digital music. It’s invisible. It’s in space.” I imagine this made the people who paid a higher price for the album from Amazon’s competitors feel really special.
Convincing people that they have a responsibility to pay a fair price for what they can easily get for free has for a long time been one of the most challenging issues facing the music industry. A common counter-argument is that music industry fat-cats and pampered pop stars have had it too good for too long, and denying them a few dollars in royalties is essentially a modern day act of Robin Hood-ism.
The problem is that Gaga, with her apparent diregard for making money is that, well, she already has rather a lot of it. Having sold over 15 million copies of her first two albums, toured the globe and packed her videos with expensive product placements, she could continue to tour, record and live comfortably if she gave all of her subsequent music away for free. And as we know all too well, the people at the top of the industry food chain are never the first to feel the pinch when the money stops rolling in.
The people who suffer most from music piracy are the people who depend on the royalties produced by record sales – usually the songwriters and the vast majority of recording artists who don’t operate on a similar level of global megastardom to Gaga.
What is a fair price for a digital release then? It should certainly be less than a physical CD, because you’re getting less, and it costs less to produce. But it has still cost the time and effort of the aforementioned producers, session musicians, songwriters and other professionals who have been involved in its creation. Money made from the blockbuster sales of A-list artists can be ploughed into less commercial, more interesting music.
In a perfect world every artist would have the same opportunities to record at a high level and to make their voices heard. We don’t live in that world and the model on which the music industry currently operates is far from perfect. But whether it’s by attending a concert or buying an album, as consumers we have a responsibility to support the artists we love in some way that makes being a professional musician a financially viable pursuit. If Gaga, having made her millions, wishes to pay for her future recordings out of her own pocket and give them away for free, that’s her prerogative. The vast majority of the artists I love don’t have that luxury. By undermining the value of recorded music for a short term gain, Gaga and Amazon are doing them a grave disservice.