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Free Music Is Better Because It's Free

Free music has changed the way we consume music, but does it also affect the way we experience it?
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Preserving the last remnants of my youth requires staying in touch with rap music, and this year I have enjoyed no two rap albums more than Future’s F.B.G.: The Movie and Tree’s Sunday School Pt. 2. Future is commercially successful, consistently on the radio, and featured on songs by Rihanna and Lil’ Wayne, whereas Tree is more of an underground sensation, just beginning to make a national name for himself. F.B.G.: The Movie is a cinematic haze of keyboard steroids draped over Future’s warbling and Sunday School Pt. 2 is a soulful, introspective walk through Chicago’s war zones. Amazingly, bothalbums are free, distributed widely by each artist across the Internet.

When I think about the time and creative thought each artist put into the album and the money that must have gone into mixing and mastering the music at a professional level, it astounds me. I assume this tactic to be effective marketing—give people something in order to build a proper fan base so that the artist can tour for pay and put out an “official” album that people will have to purchase. Nonetheless, it still seems bizarre that 20 years ago these albums by Future and Tree would have been exclusively available at brick-and-mortar stores for at least 10 real American dollars.

Whether through Spotify, online mixtape websites, daily MP3 outlets, Soundcloud, or illegal downloading, free music is easily available and is the primary source of listening for many. Free music has obviously changed the way we consume music—but does it also affect the way we experience it?

BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE CAN OFFER insight into the effect of free-ness, as research has shown us that the concept of “free” is psychologically powerful. In his book, Predictably Irrational, psychologist Dan Ariely demonstrates the power of free to capture our emotions and overcome our rational faculties to sway decision-making on choices ranging from whether or not to get a tattoo to which chocolate truffle to select. In terms of whether free will positively or negatively affect our consumption of music, psychology offers two clear hypotheses.

Thinking about the cost of music might simply get in the way of enjoying its intrinsic qualities, and free-ness frees us from this dilemma, allowing us to enjoy music on its merits alone.

The first: free-ness will decrease people’s enjoyment of music. This hypothesis is based on a number of studies that show the more people pay for an entity, the more they value that entity. For example, the more people pay for advice, the more they tend to use and value that advice. Professional basketball teams give more playing time to players for whom they have paid higher salaries, even if these players are not very good. Consumers tend to see products like table salt, aspirin, and shampoo to be of higher quality if the products cost more. Companies continue working on doomed projects once they have invested significant money in them.

The reasons for these phenomena are many, but they rely on at least two well-known psychological concepts. One is effort justification, whereby the more people put effort into an endeavor (e.g., through paying for it) the more satisfied they will become with the endeavor, as a means of rationalizing the effort they put into it. A second, related principle is the sunk cost fallacy, whereby people feel the need to make good on an investment, so as not to experience a sense of loss from the initial spending of money. In line with these principles, when people spend money on something, they engage in a process of inferring, “Well, if I paid for it, it must be good.” By the same token, when people attain free music, they may unconsciously infer it to be of lower value than things that cost money.

A second hypothesis suggests precisely the opposite effect, that free-ness will increase people’s enjoyment of music. This is because money can often have a corrosive effect on whatever it touches. The philosopher Michael J. Sandel makes a strong argument in his book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, that modern society has allowed markets (i.e., an environment for buying and selling) to emerge for things—a wedding toast, a human kidney, the right to shoot an endangered rhino, political influence—that were previously incapable of having a price attached to them. In doing so, many of these things—now goods—have become corrupted.

Some of these goods are corrupted because they give preferential access to people who can afford them at the expense of those who cannot. For example, markets for bodily organs give rich people priority access to purchase them and perhaps subconsciously persuades poor people, in search of money, to sell their organs. In most parts of the world, people consider such a system to be unfair, because everyone should have equal access to good health. Other goods, like friendship, citizenship, honor, and liberty are corrupted simply because people construe these goods as sacred, and therefore priceless. If my relationship with my best friend involves me paying him to spend time with me, this changes the very nature of our relationship into something more along the lines of an escort service. Without a pricing-out cost on music when it’s free, this won’t happen.

MUSIC THEN LIES SOMEWHERE in between these two types of goods. It is both something to which everyone should have access—rich and poor people alike—and something that has a sacred quality to it. Thinking about the cost of music might simply get in the way of enjoying its intrinsic qualities, and free-ness frees us from this dilemma, allowing us to enjoy music on its merits alone.

These hypotheses remain to be tested, but understanding them will be exceedingly important as free-ness starts dominating other domains as well, thanks to innovative websites and emerging technologies. Websites like Hulu have made television free. Despite the rise in paywall systems, most magazines and newspapers have become free to read online. The advent of massive open online courses through websites like Coursera means access to education from top universities is free. Software for statistical analysis programs and card games are free, as are smartphone applications that enhance the experience of dating, shopping, and cooking. As someone who enjoys hanging on to the money I earn, I could not be happier with the rise of costlessness, but I remain curious as to how the power of free will alter how we experience free goods, as well as our expectations for what should and should not have a price.