Menus Subscribe Search
Nayvadius-Cash-Future

Future. (PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Free Music Is Better Because It’s Free

• June 05, 2013 • 6:00 AM

Future. (PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Free music has changed the way we consume music, but does it also affect the way we experience it?

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, both albums 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.

Adam Waytz
Adam Waytz is a psychologist who studies the attribution and denial of mental states to other agents, and the moral and ethical implications of these processes. Follow him on Twitter @awaytz.

More From Adam Waytz

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.