Sunday, October 14, 2007

radiohead part deux

there's a lot of buzz still swirling around the radiohead album release, with some fans crowing over getting the MP3 version of the album for free--not counting a 45p credit card handling fee--and others bitching about the sound quality--at 160 kbps its better than iTunes' standard of 128 kbps, but worse than the 192 kbps or higher most music fans have come to expect.

and then there were people who were just happy to have a new radiohead album.

but here's a take on the idea of letting people pay what they want that i wouldn't have thought of: it's insane to pay more than zero dollars. or at least irrational.

eduardo porter of the new york times argues that in purely economic terms, paying anyone more than the asking price for anything is irrational. restaurant workers beware: what he is saying is that those who paid more than zero for the radiohead album were engaged in a form of tipping--and that that is irrational:

"This phenomenon is not new. It’s called tipping. We do it when we go to the restaurant or the barber, or when we ride in a taxi. Though one could argue there are real tangible reasons for this payment — like not losing an ear the next time we get a haircut — the practice of paying more money than we are legally bound to do is still mystifying in an economic sense. For instance, why tip a cabdriver you will probably never see again?

“'Since we economists don’t understand tipping, we can’t really say whether this new scheme will work,'” Greg Mankiw, a Harvard professor of economics, said in an entry on his blog."

and, the argument makes sense, as far as it goes--but that's not very far.

of course economists don't understand tipping--theirs is a zero-sum game. the least amount one can pay in order to obtain the greatest value is all that matters, in the narrow world of the economist.

but what we are talking about here is art. is it rational to pay millions of dollars for a monet or a picasso? of course not. but, the ridiculousness of art prices and the cachet associated with owning rare pieces aside, that's not what it's about. despite status-seekers flooding the art market with nouveau riche dollars in a quest for a kind of rented class, the underlying reason for desiring art or even desiring to view it is an intangible change that takes place within us when we are exposed to it.

intangible = incomprehensible to economists.

porter goes on to posit that perhaps radiohead fans might simply be "altruistic beings who out of the goodness of their hearts would like to give some money to a spectacularly successful and probably stinking rich rock band." and he goes on to suggest that there is a "warm and fuzzy" effect fans might be seeking by paying for something they could get for free.

i would suggest that to pay an artist for his art it is neither irrational nor a cleverly-disguised, selfish pursuit of righteousness. paying an artist for his art--and i do mean paying the ARTIST, not his management, record company, public relations flacks, distributors, or other assorted hangers-on--is simply acknowledging that he has provided you with something you cannot get anywhere else, that he has touched your life in a unique way that has a personal value that only you can understand.

it may not have the hard-edged value of stocks and currency, but art is valuable. in fact, because its value cannot be measured in a ledger by those whose imaginations go only as far as the next column of ones and zeroes, art is invaluable, beyond valuation.

art transcends value, and thus it helps us to transcend as well.

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