How Much Does It Cost If It’s Free?

“How Much Does It Cost If It is Free?” That’s what renowned artist right’s advocate Col. Tom Parker always threatened to title his autobiography. Catchy. But he never wrote it. He was too busy managing Elvis, for a cut that grew over the years to 50 percent of all Elvis’ earnings–in some areas, it was rumored to be as high as 80 percent.

Fun fact: The Colonel’s real name was actually Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. He was born in the Netherlands. Some people think he was from Sweden, but they are probably just confusing him with Spotify. (An honest mistake, but Spotify would never give an artist that generous a cut.)

Still though, it is a good rhetorical question. One that deserves an answer… How much does it cost if it is free? It reminds me of something a friend once told me that he learned in prison: “The cheapest way to pay for something is with money.”

Wise words in this age of allegedly free music.

Before we take a look at how you pay for music if you don’t pay with money, though, let’s take a look at the actual money, because it is surprising how much you need to enjoy all this free music.

For starters, what are you listening to the music on? Despite what they pay people to make them, an iPod is not cheap. Shuffle: $50. Nano: $150. Classic: $250. Touch: $300 or $400. Neither is an iPhone ($200 to $400). And if you’re streaming all this “free” music from “free” platforms like Spotify or Pandora, you are going to need some kind of service as well. Basic home internet with Comcast is about $40 to $50 per month. A 2 GB mobile data plan with AT&T is going to run about $80 per month and a 4 GB plan is $110 per month–with a two-year contract. Plus taxes and fees.

Yeah, I know, sometimes you get the phone for free with the contract and I guess you could just stream music over wifi at some corporate coffee shop all day. Point taken, cost cutter.

But actual money aside–what else are you paying with? You pay with you. Even if you don’t think your personal information is all that valuable, Pandora, Spotify and Google’s All Access sure do. In fact, it seems like that may be one of the main reasons they exist.

Check out this article on Google All Access: “Google’s music service could fail to capture market share from the big players and still be a success. That’s because delivering music and new accounts is yet another way for Google to amass personal, intimate details about its hundreds of millions of users — information that enables it to better target ads.”

Guess how much of Google’s $50 billion in revenue last year came from advertising? 95 percent.

Or as the New York Times puts it: “Listen to Pandora and It Listens Back.”

“Pandora has collected song preference and other details about more than 200 million registered users, and those people have expressed their song likes and dislikes by pressing the site’s thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons more than 35 billion times. Because Pandora needs to understand the type of device a listener is using in order to deliver songs in a playable format, its system also knows whether people are tuning in from their cars, from iPhones or Android phones or from desktops.

So it seems only logical for the company to start seeking correlations between users’ listening habits and the kinds of ads they might be most receptive to.”

The article goes on to quote Eric Bieschke, Pandora’s “Chief Scientist”:

“It’s becoming quite apparent to us that the world of playing the perfect music to people and the world of playing perfect advertising to them are strikingly similar…The advantage of using our own in-house data is that we have it down to the individual level, to the specific person who is using Pandora. We take all of these signals and look at correlations that lead us to come up with magical insights about somebody.” 

Magical insights! Wow. Isn’t the Internet amazing? But insights into what exactly? From the Times story:

People’s music, movie or book choices may reveal much more than commercial likes and dislikes. Certain product or cultural preferences can give glimpses into consumers’ political beliefs, religious faith, sexual orientation or other intimate issues. That means many organizations now are not merely collecting details about where we go and what we buy, but are also making inferences about who we are.

“I would guess, looking at music choices, you could probably predict with high accuracy a person’s worldview,” says Vitaly Shmatikov, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies computer security and privacy. “You might be able to predict people’s stance on issues like gun control or the environment because there are bands and music tracks that do express strong positions.”

Pandora, for one, has a political ad-targeting system that has been used in presidential and congressional campaigns, and even a few for governor. It can deconstruct users’ song preferences to predict their political party of choice. (The company does not analyze listeners’ attitudes to individual political issues like abortion or fracking.)

During the next federal election cycle, for instance, Pandora users tuning into country music acts, stand-up comedians or Christian bands might hear or see ads for Republican candidates for Congress. Others listening to hip-hop tunes, or to classical acts like the Berlin Philharmonic, might hear ads for Democrats.

Because Pandora users provide their ZIP codes when they register, Mr. Bieschke says, “we can play ads only for the specific districts political campaigns want to target,” and “we can use their music to predict users’ political affiliations.” 

Valuable insights indeed.

In 2013, out of $427.1 million in revenue, Pandora generated $375.2 million from advertising. (Imagine how much additional user information Spotify and Facebook receive through the integration of their platforms.)

Spotify has seven different ad formats: Audio, Display, Homepage Takeover, Branded Playlist, Lightbox and Advertiser Page. And here’s some advice for how brands can use them, such as, “Add to the listener’s experience by integrating marketing messaging into their Spotify ecosystem.” And, “Encourage listeners to build playlists around your brand.”

But the one that sums it up most succinctly is this: “Leverage users’ musical passion points and positive affiliation with music to accentuate your brand’s message.”

Because that is what it is really all about.

Music, as much and maybe even more than any other art form, can inspire pure, deep and powerful emotional connections and associations. Advertising and marketing–whose role in the experience of listening to music has become completely commonplace and accepted now, under the incredibly insidious and disingenuous ruse of “compensating artists”–is completely parasitic to that connection.

Advertisers are so drawn to these platforms not only because how we interact and respond to music reveals to them more than we ever would willingly or consciously–but also because it provides them the ability to feed off the genuine feelings that music creates in listeners and forge an association and emotional connection to a brand. Like a virus looking for a host.

So you pay for this free music with your time, sitting through these absurd and obnoxious sub-radio ads, and the mindshare that they try to extract from you. But you also pay with the potentially permanent association they forge between music you like or even love and  some stupid brand.

But the worst part is what it is doing to that actual emotional connection. If advertisers are hoping to take advantage of listeners’ strong connections and associations with music, there may be less and less there to exploit.

Now that it is so easy, so banally convenient to have tens of thousands of songs at your fingertips–legally or illegally–it feels like the process and the act of discovering and experiencing music grows less consequential and meaningful every day.

When you expend no energy on something, you have no personal investment in it. Songs become meaningless, just files on a computer or a passing stream. As music itself grows increasingly toploaded with convenience and stripped of the relevance that comes from expending effort on something, it becomes more and more disposable. You wind up paying for all this endless free music with something far more valuable than money–your actual emotional connection and love for the music itself.

Now, certainly, paying money for something is not the only way to expend effort on it. But it does–as the marketers like to say–“add value” to the experience. So does going to a show, so does jumping around in a crowd or somehow experiencing something collectively. To be a part of something–not just as a passive, marginalized consumer, but as a citizen and an active, important participant.

It is bleakly but oddly fitting that performance royalties are paid on streams based on an audience of one–as opposed to royalties for terrestrial radio, which are based on broadcast market size. Instead of listening to and experiencing something together–baby, they’re playing our song–the image is of one person, alone and disconnected, with ear buds on, streaming songs on a platform that is tracking their information to exploit with advertising.

That’s why Hereit doesn’t have any advertising of any kind and doesn’t engage in any kind of data tracking either. It is also why Hereit is constantly trying to encourage people to buy music. Don’t just click the Like button. Don’t just stream it. Buy it. Own it.

The artists on Hereit receive 100 percent of the song price. Not only does actually buying music directly, entirely support independent artists and bands at the community level–it also feels good. It feels good to buy music straight from the people who created it, with no cuts siphoned off by some digital platform, and to know that you have made a difference in their lives, emotionally and financially, through your support and encouragement. It’s like voting for something–a very clear way of making your opinions known and your voice heard.

And it feels good to actually own it too–to be able to play it whenever you want, and to do it without connecting or exposing yourself to predatory companies looking to exploit your love of music for their own financial benefit. That’s a lot of freedom, power and peace of mind for the buck or two that songs cost. And that’s a lot to give up in order to pretend you’re not actually paying for something. Because you are probably paying a lot more than you think. The worst thing about free music is what it costs.