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The Music Gallery: Can Music Ever Be Valued As Fine Art?

Recently a Christie’s art sale became the highest auction in history. The sale included works by Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others and in total generated $495 million. The sale established 16 new world auction records, with nine works selling for more than $10m (£6.6m) and 23 for more than $5m (£3.2m). Christie’s said the record breaking sales reflected “a new era in the art market”.

The top lot of Wednesday’s sale was Pollock’s drip painting Number 19, 1948, which fetched $58.4m (£38.3m) – nearly twice its pre-sale estimate.

Lichtenstein’s Woman with Flowered Hat sold for $56.1 million, while another Basquiat work, Dustheads (top of article), went for $48.8 million.

All three works set the highest prices ever fetched for the artists at auction. Christie’s described the $495,021,500 total – which included commissions – as “staggering”. Only four of the 70 lots on offer went unsold.

In addition, a 1968 oil painting by Gerhard Richter has set a new record for the highest auction price achieved by a living artist. Richter’s photo-painting Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan) sold for $37.1 million (£24.4 million). Sotheby’s described Domplatz, Mailand, which depicts a cityscape painted in a style that suggests a blurred photograph, as a “masterpiece of 20th Century art” and the “epitome” of the artist’s 1960s photo-painting canon. Don Bryant, founder of Napa Valley’s Bryant Family Vineyard and the painting’s new owner, said the work “just knocks me over”.

Brett Gorvy, head of post-war and contemporary art, said “The remarkable bidding and record prices set reflect a new era in the art market,” he said. Steven Murphy, CEO of Christie’s International, said new collectors were helping drive the boom.

Myths of the Music-Fine Art Price Differential

When I came across this article I was stunned at the prices these artworks were able to obtain. Several of them would hardly evoke a positive emotional response in me, while others might only slightly, but for almost all of them I really don’t understand how their prices are reflected in the work, and vice versa. Obviously, these pieces were not intended for people like me, an artist, while wealthy patrons certainly see their intrinsic artistic value clearly.

So why doesn’t music attract these kinds of prices? Is it even possible for a piece of recorded music, not music memorabilia or a music artifact (such as a rare record, LP, bootleg, T-shirt, album artwork, etc.), to be worth $1 million or more? Are all musicians and music composers doomed to struggle in the music industry and claw their way up into a career in music? If one painting can be valued at $1 million, why can’t a song or piece of music also be valued similarly? Apparently, the $.99 per download price is the highest price a song is able to command at market value, no matter what its quality or content, and the musician or composer must accept this value as such.

The financial equation looks something like this:

1 painting = $37 million

1 song = $.99

Sometimes people say that a song can change the world, but no one ever says that about paintings. So theoretically, if people want change $.99 is the price we must pay for it.

Now here are a few statements that should help us clarify what the monetary or value discrepancy between painting and music is based upon.

(1) There are fewer painters than there are musicians.

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(2) Musicians are less talented than painters?

(3) It is easier to create music than it is to paint.

(4) The public values paintings more than music.

(5) Paintings are more beautiful than music.

(6) Paintings are impossible to copy unlike music.

(7) Painters work harder than musicians and composers.

(8) Blah, blah, blah.

Hardly anyone agrees with all of these statements and yet all, or at least some of them, would have to be true in order for the price of paintings to so greatly exceed the cost of music. Moreover, I doubt that art collectors and great painters have to deal with as much legal red tape as do musicians when releasing their work into the public domain, so why aren’t the rewards equal, if not greater for musicians who have to work almost as much protecting their work as in producing it. Musicians and composers, however, actually must do more than authenticate their work and obtain accurate appraisals concerning what their work is worth, but they get paid less. The equipment costs alone for musicians is much higher than it is for painters.

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