The intricacies of the music industry recently stumped a Nobel Prize-winning economist. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, sharing a panel with members of Arcade Fire at this year’s South by Southwest music conference, told attendees that successful musicians continue to make most of their money the centuries-old way: live performance. As with the rest of society, though, the lion’s share of that income is increasingly going to only a tiny elite. “I actually don't quite understand how the bands I like are even surviving,” Krugman said. He was being self-effacing, sure—but probably not entirely.
So: What is music worth? As Krugman’s improbable-enough SXSW presence shows, the question has gained renewed prominence as of late, from celebrity-stirred discussions about online streaming to last month’s $7.4 million “Blurred Lines” jury verdict. The answer, however, is a moving—if not almost invisible—target. Putting the debates about artists’ income from Spotify, Pandora, and their ilk in a broader historical context, it becomes clear that the money made from a song or an album has clearly decreased over the last several decades. What’s equally clear, though, is that the value of music is almost as subjective financially as it is aesthetically; the economics of music, it turns out, is more dark art than dismal science.