Weighing the costs of music and fashion

By Merritt Wuchina

It doesn’t cost much to have good taste in music these days. But it does cost to be in… It doesn’t cost much to have good taste in music these days. But it does cost to be in style.

A few weeks ago, I went to Carnegie Mellon’s Rangos Ballroom to see the band The Books. They put on a great performance, and for only $10 it was one of the best concert deals of the summer. Before their last song, bassist Nick Zammuto addressed the audience:

“You know, we have this thing called CDs out there. If you’d like to buy one, see us after the show. We have little children at home too.”

The band members went on to play the song “Classy Penguin” along with a video of children laughing and playing — a subtle reminder to the audience of the time away from their families that they sacrificed to go on tour.

The group actually stopped recording music for five years because increased illegal file sharing put a dent in their income. In a 2007 interview, Zammuto said that he arrived in cities where only a few albums were sold yet hundreds of people showed up to the concert.

Looking around the room at CMU, I wondered how many people had actually bought The Books’ album. I knew I hadn’t, and I felt a twinge of shame for knowing the songs without actually owning them. While contemplating this, I began to notice that most of the students at the show were quite fashionable. There were girls with tattoos and Urban Outfitters jeggings and boys with iPhones and American Apparel hoodies. How many would run to the merchandise table and buy a T-shirt rather than a CD?

We make plenty of excuses for why we can’t afford to pay for music. Look at the numbers — it would take about $7,425 to fill a 30GB iPod at 99 cents a song. That’s about the same cost of a semester’s tuition at Pitt. And that’s not even for the largest iPod. That might sound exorbitant, but consider the price of a pair of pants from American Apparel — that $75 would get you seven albums. For a week’s worth of Starbucks grande lattes, you could buy two albums.

Every day we need more and more music to fill our snappy gadgets, but we’re buying less and less of it. And the leftover cash goes into fueling our fashionable wardrobes.

Of course, counterculture fashion and music have always been related. The hippies patched their ripped-up jeans — they didn’t buy them “destroyed” — the punks pulled seams together with safety pins and the grunge rockers hung around in outdoorsman flannel. These styles were cheap and durable and the rockers separated themselves from the rest of society by wearing lower-class garb. But although these people might have been among society’s poor and rejected, I’m sure they didn’t skimp when it came to building great record collections.

Although hipsters today are supposed to be known for their thriftiness, I find it strange that pricey stores like Urban Outfitters have capitalized on their trends. The faded-graphic shirts have goofy slogans, like things you’d pull off the rack at Goodwill, and the retro dinner sets could have easily come from Grandma’s cupboard. Now that we’re surrounded by so many stylish things to buy, why should music, a practically free commodity, take priority on our shopping lists?

Well, because the future of music depends on it. Musicians like The Books don’t go into their professions to make oodles of money. Sure, there are plenty of talented people looking for fame, but among the indie crowd there is a strong desire to make beautiful music for even a modest living.

The effects of illegal file sharing might not seem immediate, but if we as a society continue this behavior, many more talented musicians might start dropping out of the music circuit to earn a living wage. And really, who can blame them?

Fortunately, we have the option to preview music before we buy it, using streaming sites like MySpace and Pandora, and don’t have to rely on Top-40 radio. Everyone wins — the independent musicians get to spread their music and the consumers get to sample the album before buying.

I am in no way saying you need to drop out of college so you can legally fill your iPod with songs. Borrowing CDs from the library and buying used are all affordable ways to discover new music.

But next time you pull out your wallet to pay for that grande latte or pair of jeans, think about how good it would feel to really indulge yourself in purchasing a new album every now and then instead. Your ears will thank you for it.