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Cory Weeds and the 7500x option

What’s the value of a CD, and will people walk away from the merch table when they find out you’re on Spotify?

Cory Weeds, a central entrepreneur in Canadian jazz, shared insights about jazz business in a live YouTube Q&A on Saturday, March 6th, 2021.

Watch the whole Q&A here:

Weeds said many interesting things in this video, but today I’m focusing on one concept around streaming, CDs, and the merch table. His insight about streaming begins at time 16:40 of the video, when he says:

“I don’t think there’s any debate that the streaming sites are not exactly beneficial for musicians. It goes without saying that we don’t like the model. We don’t think we’re getting paid enough, and we don’t think it’s fair.

However, I have chosen to embrace streaming and do my best to utilize streaming in a way that benefits me and that advances my career, and that advances the notoriety of the label.”

The merch table

With that context, he later mentions a scenario he often sees at his live gigs. Here’s Weeds at time 28:08, talking about his interactions with people at the merch table (emphasis mine):

“I’ll be at a gig and they’ll come up, and they’ll take a look at my CDs, and they’ll look at the back. And they’ll put it back and they’ll say, ‘Are you on Spotify?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’m on Spotify.’ [They’ll respond,] “Great, okay! I’ll go home and listen to you on Spotify.’

“They don’t realize that you almost gave me 15 bucks, now you’re gonna go listen on Spotify […] Sometimes I take that opportunity to try to educate them about what that means, and then sometimes I don’t, because I think you have to be really careful.

“You certainly don’t want to make somebody feel bad. I also don’t like guilting people into buying my music, but there does need to be some education around that. And I have to be very careful, because I don’t like the concept of streaming, and I don’t like the monetary setup for streaming; but I also rely very heavily on […] the digital service providers that are playing [my] music.”

The hypothetical audience member sees the offer of a $15 CD, remembers the alternative of streaming, and declines the offer. Before discussing this option further, let’s check in on a relevant question about CDs.

What’s the value of a CD?

The value of a CD no longer rests in playing the music; some CD buyers will listen to that music in several other places, perhaps never playing it from the disc. So, why buy one at all—what’s in it for you?

Here are four things about music on CDs, one or more of which might hold value for you:

  1. Physical scarcity. If you get satisfaction from owning a copy of your favourite artist’s limited-edition CD, you will pay some price for that.
  2. The supporter-artist relationship. Again, if supporting an artist gives you satisfaction, you’ll pay the right price to experience that commitment.
  3. The supporter-audience relationship. Likewise, you can use that support as social currency among other supporters and audience members for that artist, becoming a leader in a niche club.
  4. Not being tracked. Some people pay for ad-free podcasts; similarly, if algorithms, recommendations, and searching really grind your gears, you’ll pay something to go off-grid as a listener and add to your custom library.

I note that Bandcamp has done a decent job at digitizing all four of these things, making sure that they apply to digital-only releases too. But I digress.

The 7500x option

For quick math, I price streams at about $2 per 1,000. Depending on the platform and the time in history, that will change, but it’s a rough way to think through it for now. That means one stream is 1/500 of a dollar, in my calculations.

Let’s say Weeds sells a CD for $15. That’s the equivalent of 7,500 streams here.

Weeds describes an option that the audience member encounters at the merch table. You have the right to buy his music at a fixed price right now, or pay nothing (marginally) with streaming and have the service pay for it over time in royalties.

If you take Weeds up on that, he gets (roughly) 7,500x more revenue from you than if you left and streamed him at home.

However, you’d need to value your mix of the above four things at not just 7,500x but perhaps infinitely more than the experience of streaming him—because you pay no more than your flat monthly subscription to do so! (That’s what I meant by “marginally” two paragraphs up.)

But there’s one more thing about options: time.

Time-saving

An option expires at a certain time. If you’re walking up to the merch table after a gig, yours expires when you have to leave the venue.

And if you say that you’ll stream Weeds on Spotify, you’ll have to take the time to do so later. Otherwise, you’re probably not the level of supporter who would have bought the CD anyway, so we don’t need to worry about that here.

In the case of streaming later, you’ll have to remember to do so, search for the artist, and choose music. Time is costly—more for some folks than others—so not everyone will want that.

And after you stream, how to get those four levers of value (scarcity, artist support, social currency, and off-grid listening) is unclear. Sure, you’ll have something to listen to, but what else do you get out of that experience? How do you show the support, show it off to others, etc? You’ll have to spend more time.

Will you, the time-conscious person, be happier buying the CD even if you don’t listen to the music off of it? Maybe, because it gives you an instant jolt of those four value levers in a social environment.

You will stick around at the merch table and buy the CD if you price the extra social value you’re getting right now, more than the dollars you pay. Even if you don’t think it all through.

Selling CDs has nothing to do with the music.

Back to the table

What can the hypothetical Cory Weeds do to convert more 7500x options like this?

The artist needs to let you go and stream if you want! The real-life Weeds knows this already, to his great credit. Even walking away from his merch table, you’re more likely to come back and convert than the average person is.

Also, he needs to know that his biggest returns come from adding social value as per the four levers. What makes him a great artist is, literally, his capacity to do that.

By Will Chernoff

William Ross Chernoff—known as Will to friends and colleagues—is a jazz musician, podcaster, YouTuber, and writer. He records and performs under his own name, William Chernoff.

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