Putting a Price on Culture

Can we treat books, comics, CDs, movies, or videogames as commodities? Nick Martens literally examines the monetary value of cultural items by breaking down item price by hour of usage.

Here is a list of new items that I have purchased over the past month or so. I’ve included the price, the length of time I spent/will spend engaging with the item, and the price per hour of that engagement.

  • Book: The Best American Essays 2007
    Price: $14
    Hours: 8
    Price per hour: $1.75
  • Comic book: Watchmen
    Price: $20
    Hours: 4
    Price per hour: $5
  • Videogame: Castlevania, The Dracula X Chronicles
    Price: $30
    Hours: 20
    Price per hour: $1.50
  • Film: Ticket for The Darjeeling Limited
    Price: $7
    Hours: 2
    Price per hour: $3.50
  • Album: Radiohead’s In Rainbows
    Price: $8
    Hours: hundreds
    Price per hour: maybe $.05
  • Concert: Ticket for LCD Soundsystem/Arcade Fire
    Price: $55
    Hours: 3
    Price per hour: $18.33

Three things got me thinking along these lines, about the actual price of culture.

First, I am studying abroad next semester in Amsterdam. I want to immerse myself in a foreign culture, and this is a unique opportunity to do so on my parents’ dime.

Of course, they won’t be footing the bill for concerts, museums, or movies. Those expenses will come out of my pockets. As such, it seems useful to keep in mind how to get the most bang for my buck, especially since those events are my main motivation for living in Europe.

The second prompt for this article was Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows. By letting me choose my own price, Radiohead essentially asked me how much I felt an album is worth. Not just any album even, but a Radiohead album, one I’m nearly guaranteed to love. Balancing some misguided sense of altruism with the thriftiness of a college lifestyle, I chose to give them eight bucks, even though I knew that I would receive many more hours of use from In Rainbows than any other cultural expenditure this year. More on that later.

Finally, I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter about the game Portal. I haven’t played it yet, but there are a couple of traits that seem to make this game a topic of discussion. First, it’s universally regarded as a triumph of innovation in videogames, something everybody claims to want but that we so seldom receive. Second, it is controversially short. Some say, given top-tier comedic arc of Portal, that it should be treated as a film and that its per-hour value should not factor into the judgement of the game. Others, while happy with the gameplay, hesitate to consider it truly great because of the relative dearth of content (Portal, at three-to-four hours for $20, is roughly equivalent to Watchmen on my scale.)

With these factors in mind, I wanted to look at my own cultural habits to see if there’s any credence in treating culture as an hourly value proposition.

Breakdown of price per hour

Let’s consider music first. In my breakdown, recorded music is easily the cheapest on a per hour basis. Sure, a Radiohead album is a special case given that I know before buying it that I’ll listen to it frequently, but it’s only one of several albums I acquired this year that will provide me with dozens of hours of culture.

However, the value of an album is mitigated in several different ways. For starters, one rarely engage completely with recorded music. Instead, one usually listens to it during other activities. Sure, this secondary usage has its own unique value, but it feels less tangible than a cultural activity that consumes your entire attention.

Further, it is very easy to get free recorded music. I used the verb “acquire” above to describe how I procure music because I don’t pay for most of it, so “purchase” would be inaccurate. I spent no money on LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver despite the fact that I have listened to it many, many times. I won’t make a moral case one way or another on this point, but suffice it to say that an abundance of easily accessible free music makes it more difficult to pay for any music at all. Unless it’s an album I’m almost sure to love from a band I respect, I probably won’t spend money on it.

This is complicated by the most grotesquely expensive item on my list, the concert. I generously calculated its length at three hours, even though that time includes the obligatorily terrible opening band. Granted, this was an extremely expensive show, but a show with only one great band would cost at least $15, so it’s not a complete outlier.

Besides musical content, the concert differs from the album in almost every important way. Listening to an album is an abstract experience. You can do it basically any time or anywhere, you can give it as much or little attention as you please, and it can be repeated to your heart’s content. A concert will likely take place only one time at a specific place in your town, and you’re throwing money away if you’re typing or reading a book while the band plays since they’ll only do it once.

Do those factors, then, make the concert exponentially more valuable than an album, as my breakdown suggests? When I think about it, I can’t really put my finger on why I’m willing to break the bank to see a band live when I can just play them really loud on the nice speakers in my living room. Part of it, certainly, is the value of being able to brag about seeing LCD open for the Arcade Fire, but I think the scarcity of a concert also plays a major role in pushing up the price. Sure, the concert in question is once-in-a-lifetime, but even bands that tour constantly like the Shins or the Klaxons are unpredictable. Who knows if next week’s show will be your last chance to see your favorite band for the next two years? This also factors into why concerts are so much more expensive than movies, which occur at predictable intervals without scarcity.

Regardless of why, it seems apparent that, for the internet generation at least, people are more willing to spend money on concerts than on albums. Unless you’re up to some serious trickery, it is difficult to attend concerts for free, and their occurrence is unpredictable. I don’t think that, at any point, a consideration of value-per-hour arises when considering musical purchases. If it did, I expect people would stop bitching about how expensive CDs are.

On the other hand, I think an interesting contrast can be observed by looking at the cost per hour of videogames and comic books. Despite being hugely expensive, games are becoming more and more popular, evinced by Halo 3’s ridiculously profitable launch. Comic books, on the other hand, are languishing. Besides inspiring bad movies, they seem to have lost nearly all cultural resonance except with enthusiasts (at least in the U.S.).

On the face of it, this seems odd. A comic book costs $3 and a game costs $60. When you look at the cost per hour, though, you see a different picture. Watchmen, which is just about the most substantive comic I can think of, is far more expensive per hour than games or regular books. And, honestly, Watchmen is a special case. A trade paperback of Y: The Last Man costs $15 and takes me less than an hour to read. This rate approaches that of the outrageously expensive concert.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that this cost is the main reason I don’t read more comics. Comics might actually be my favorite entertainment medium, and there are many series I want to read. But I can’t justify spending so much money for so little time. The novelty and sheer fun of games is surely important, but I also think that the infinite replayability of Halo or even Grand Theft Auto is a huge part of the growth of the games industry. There is simply so much value packed onto a game disc, or, at the very least, the consumer perceives the potential for vast entertainment on any game they buy.

This brings me around to Portal, and why I don’t think it’s a sustainable model for major game releases. By all accounts, Portal is masterfully executed in much the same way a brilliant comedy movie might be, and its short length can be considered an artistic decision divorced from value. To me, though, this sounds like an abandonment of a key feature that makes spending big money on a game a palatable proposition: the indeterminate amount of gameplay.

In nearly any game you buy, even a good single-player game, you never know when you might get completely wrapped up in it. You could become obsessed with online multiplayer, or you might want to go back for alternative endings or an increased difficulty level. It doesn’t matter that all games don’t deliver this obsessive element; it’s potential presence is good enough. If too many games begin to focus on short, potent, single-player narratives, the luster of vast gameplay potential may begin to wane.

Proponents of artistic games may not like that most people consider gaming to be a form of brute entertainment, but that doesn’t make it any less the case. And, with basic entertainment, cost per hour is highly relevant. If you can get 200 hours of entertainment for $60, it’s easy to see why the medium that provides this experience is growing as other sectors of culture decline.

At this point, it may be tempting to bring up television, as it renders a month’s worth of entertainment for the price of a game. I don’t think TV belongs in this discussion, though. It seems more like a utility to me, a constant presence in nearly any house. Despite its persistent flicker, people still attend movies and concerts, and they still buy games and books. You’ll almost never see someone identify themselves as a television enthusiast, but the collector’s aspect of the other mediums makes them more personal. People can be gamers, readers, movie buffs or music junkies without facing the scorn of society (well, maybe gamers are a little scorned).

Generally, I don’t think that most people consider the length of entertainment they will receive when the purchase a piece of culture. It’s just not as important a factor as the quality of entertainment, the potential enlightenment, or the overall aesthetic value. With games and comics, though, I think hours-per-dollar is a real motivator, and is one reason why people seem to have trouble taking those mediums seriously. When consumers measure culture’s gross value-per-dollar as if they were purchasing meat in bulk, the artistic legitimacy of that culture might justifiably be questioned.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.