free art signphoto © 2008 my dog sighs | more info (via: WylioThis is a really strange time to be in the business of music. Between iPods, digital records, album leaks, and online radio, there is no shortage of new artists to discover and new sounds to explore. Home studios, eclectic playlists, albums streaming for weeks before street date (huzzah NPR First Listen), and the floor open for anyone to share reviews have done a lot to “level the playing field,” as it were.

I admit, I consume way more than I probably should, and my dual jobs of music writer and radio girl are partly to blame, even though I suppose keeping up with as much as I can is a necessity. (and how many jobs can claim that?) Factor in Noisetrade and aforementioned album streams, and I get to hear an abnormal amount of music without spending a dime. And I love that. It’s awesome to have such a vast world of sounds as close as my iPod.

But what’s the cost?

I happened to catch a tweet from Ben Shive last night that got me thinking:

Huh. Interesting point. How often do I flip through my iTunes library and say, “oh! I forgot I had that!” or “Where did I get that? And why did I get that?”

I wonder if the real cost of free is that it cheapens the experience in a way. When I download an album, say from Noisetrade, because it looks cool, or even buy it from Amazon because it’s cheap, sometimes I won’t listen to it for weeks. Sometimes I forget it’s even there.

When I buy a CD, I rip off the plastic and put it in my car stereo first chance I get. If it’s good (and I usually want it to be, because I stood in line a store and paid somebody for it), I’ll let it sit and spin in my player for a few listens. Maybe even days and miles. I absorb the sounds, the lyrics, the feelings. It feels more real and satisfying.

And then there’s Kickstarter. I invested in a few projects this year, including Ben Shive’s new record The Cymbal Crashing Clouds. To invest in something before it exists is a strange and wonderful thing that takes appreciation and attachment to a whole new level. I suspect when I get this record in my earbuds, it will become one of my newest favorites.

So again, I wonder… when it comes to art, what is the cost of free? Without some sort of exchange, does art feel less meaningful? Or is it meant to be free to reach as many ears, eyes, minds, and hearts as possible?

What do you think?