“How much is a recording worth to you? What’s its value – both artistic and in monetary terms? This is something that’s been brought into question quite starkly in recent years. Firstly, the increasing numbers of super-budget back-catalogue reissues – or even new recordings from the likes of Naxos – have caused many a buyer to pause a little longer before shelling out for a full-price disc. More recent still, the rapid developments in online music – first downloads, then streaming – have made most of the history of music available for free or at the very least through an astonishingly good value subscription model.
How things have changed. An industry colleague this week told me of the price to a record collector, back in 1963, of Herbert von Karajan’s first Beethoven symphony cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, issued by Deutsche Grammophon (the Ninth Symphony is the subject of this month’s Classics Reconsidered – see page 108). The eight-LP set, when purchase tax was added on, cost £14 and 8 shillings (£14.40). At the time, the average British weekly wage was about £15. In the US it cost $47.98 – about 40 per cent of the average weekly American wage at the time, but even so, still a very significant investment. (As indeed was DG’s in making the recording – the label spent 1.5m Deutschmarks and had to sell at least 100,000 to break even. They need not have worried as, one decade on, it had sold 1 million copies.) The set’s just been remastered and handsomely packaged. You can now pick it up for about £45, less than a tenth of today’s average weekly wage.”
(I’ve added the word “classical” above; the excerpt comes from Gramophone, a classical music magazine. Readers on the site know it’s not referring to a pop or rock recording.)
While music sales have been decreasing, no one seems to have addressed the fact that the cost of music has dropped as well. Not just from the extreme mentioned above, but the price of an album. If you look at the standard $10 price of a download, that’s just a baseline. While iTunes doesn’t discount, Amazon does, with steep discounts on many new and popular albums, with some for just $3 or $4.
In classical music, the precipitous drop in per-disc price has been astounding, and it’s certainly a good thing for those who buy a lot of music. Yes, new, single CDs by big names cost the same, but lots of classical music can be had for a pittance. With the price of box sets dragging down the general price of CDs, it’s increasingly difficult to justify full-price any more. Even small box sets – say, 5 or 6 discs – are now sold at the price of a single disc, while bigger sets often come in at $1 – $2 a disc. A set that once would have cost hundreds of dollars, such as Vladimir Horowitz Live At Carnegie Hall (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), is only $106 or £72 on Amazon as of today.
It’s tough for the recording industry to keep a balance between these low prices and profits. With classical labels selling fewer copies of each release – nothing sells like the million copies of the Beethoven symphonies mentioned in the article – it’s harder to break even.