Reality Bytes: The Price Is Right! Or is it?

How much is music worth? Nietzsche wrote, "Without music, life would be a mistake." That places a high value on sounds that entertain and sometimes inspire us. Then again, at 3 o'clock in the morning, you'd pay good money to have the music at the party next door shut off.

The marketplace usually decides the fair monetary value of music. We agree that a CD of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is worth $15, while a ticket to see Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus is a steal at $65 (scalpers are getting $2,500). The value of music is very, um, elastic.

Almost all music we hear has a price tag, put there by a record label or a concert promoter. The lowly music you hear in elevators and malls? It didn't cost you anything directly, but someone had to pay for it. Of course, not all music is pay-per-note. Humming to yourself is still free, and the violinist in the subway station merely asks for a donation; you can pay whatever you think his Bach Partita is worth to you.

Perhaps taking a cue from that (literally) underground artist, Radiohead is selling its new opus, In Rainbows, in an unusual way. As I write this, the album isn't available in stores. You can only buy it from The deluxe-edition boxed set costs $80, and an old-fashioned CD will be released later. But here's the thing: There's no set price for downloads. You can pay whatever you want for the 10 songs as DRM-free, 160-kbps MP3 files. Or, if you don't want to pay anything at all, you can just take 'em for free.

Only time will tell if this is: 1) a headline-grabbing stunt, 2) a genuinely enlightened statement on the worth of music, 3) proof that recordings are just loss-leaders for concert tours, 4) a meaningful provocation that will change the music business forever, or 5) just another pile of 1s and 0s.

Cynical view: Radiohead is letting fans pay for a low-fi promo item that would be available for free anyway on file-sharing sites. Will the band also let fans decide how much to pay for concert tickets?

Noble view: Radiohead can sell songs directly to anyone who appreciates its music. There's something pure in that.

So, in an age of pirated material, how much is a music download worth?

According to Radiohead, it's up to you.

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