On the value of music

Addictions come in all sorts of strange packages. Seemingly harmless habits can twist into compulsions that yank away the reigns and drive you down dark roads, leaving your sanity blurred in the background.

My addiction is going to weekend seminars.

I can frame it in all sorts of positive ways; it’s right here in town, it’s not that much money, it’s a chance to meet people, it’s an investment in my education, yadda yadda. Whenever I sign up, when I walk into the conference hall, when I shake my first stranger’s hand and hear the presenter’s first words of welcome, I feel the same rush.

But as I sat this morning in day 3 of a random real estate investing workshop I found from a Facebook ad, clutching at my second cup of coffee and squinting at the slides through eyes rimmed with smudges of mascara from last night’s show, I couldn’t help but wonder if this hobby was beginning to negatively impact my health and well-being.

That said, I’m very happy and grateful that I didn’t have this realization before today – because this particular seminar was incredible. Big picture concepts, as the trainer kept reminding us when the audience would erupt with enthusiastic questions. It was great to catch a glimpse of a game where playing by the rules results in a faster path to freedom and fun.

Eventually I let my sleep-deprived mind wander away from commercial real estate valuations and back to the land of the imaginary; to songs, stories, and the assortment of other intangibles I’ve valued. Overvalued, as time tends to keep showing me. Hindsight knows visions that stay unfixed are never more than mist. Maybe that’s a song, too.

The adage that real estate always goes up in value stems from the simple observation of “well, they’re not making any more land.” But who can predict the future when it comes to a song? What’s the value of an idea that costs nothing but time to create, and promises nothing but dreams as a return? What’s the value of a recipe, especially in a world where gourmet musical meals are increasingly easy to cook up in your basement or to steal out of a dumpster?

There are music industry experts who have their guesses:

Ways the Music Industry Can Change for the Better.

Projecting Trends: The On-Demand Economy in Music.

How Streaming is Changing Music Consumption.

39% of Americans Don’t Care That Piracy Hurts Content Creators.

Well, I’m hardly an industry expert. Pretending to call myself that sends a shudder down my spine. But am I an expert music lover, undoubtedly; 28 years in the making.

As a user of music, my experiences have been pretty standard. As a child, I strategically taped songs off the radio and cut them together as the soundtrack to my shadow puppet plays. I bugged my dad to make cassette copies of my mom’s albums and CDs so I could listen to them on my Walkman, until I finally got a Discman for Christmas. As a teenager, I exchanged 45 minutes of “so” with friends over MSN chat while waiting for our shared mp3s to finish transferring. I learned songs on piano by printing the free sample first page from Musicnotes.com and faking the rest by ear. I owned somewhere in the ballpark of 400 CDs and scoured eBay for indie releases and rare singles that almost always proved to be fakes.

Now, I spend $9.99/mo to stream every song in the world. If Apple Music was $99.99/mo, I’d still pay it, happily.

My experiences as a music creator may be a little less normal. I’ve always thought of myself as a songwriter, even when most of my songs were parodies of TV theme songs about pickles or the intramural soccer teams that played at recess. I used a bootlegged copy of Finale 2006 for all my notation needs at church youth services. In college, I arranged a Nine Inch Nails song on Creative Commons as my major SATB work, rather than choosing a public domain folk song. When my heavy metal band wanted to put an Iron Maiden cover on our EP, we did it by the book, with a proper mechanical license. We self-funded recording, manufacturing, marketing, and touring with our day jobs, and we ended things with a little money in the bank to split between us. Two years later, my pop rock band tried the same strategy with better songs and a more mainstream appeal, but less luck. I couldn’t get people to download a free song on a business card, let alone a 99¢ mp3.

Now, I play a gig where people regularly lay down $20 bills to order up a piano-vocal rendition of “Shut Up and Dance” or “Baby Got Back”, or worse. Sometimes it’s “Trap Queen.” More often than not it’s “Piano Man”.

Why is hearing this song worth $20 to someone out there? How could any song be worth that?

I’ve pondered this for quite some time now, and you know what the really amazing part is? I think the answer is literally inside “Piano Man”.

He says Son, can you play me a memory?

I’m not really sure how it goes

But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete

When I wore a younger man’s clothes.

We’ve all heard lots on how music connects with long-term memory. These memories may be private and intensely specific, but a great pop song takes your personal experience and connects it to the experiences of others, as Steven Page talks about in his awesome Ted Talk hereSharing music helps us feel understood, and thanks to the magic of imaginary context, we get to experience this connection even if the performance comes out as a bastardized, barely recognizable skeleton of the true song (a very fortunate fact for me and my poor attempts to cover Kelly Clarkson).

Half the charm of playing at Howl at the Moon is that I get to be a human jukebox, helping people travel back in time and commune with strangers through song requests. The other half is that I get to send my fingers and my voice into the future, creating moments that will turn into tomorrow’s memories. To me, that’s what the “unforgettable night out” is all about.

And for me, that’s priceless. What about you?  KM

One thought on “On the Value of Music

  1. Jason Ellison says:

    Brilliant stuff here, Kim. Keep writing it!

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