We, as human beings, love music. There’s something about it that connects to us in a very primal way; and thus we place great importance on it in our lives. Country music is arguably an extended version of that, because of the emphasis on community, collective identity and a sense of belonging, brought on by music that incorporates shared experiences, values, beliefs, hopes and dreams. So as country music fans, fuelled by radio, live music and the internet, we set out to engage with and immerse ourselves in as much country music as possible.
When we find an artist or band that we connect to more than the others, this immersion begins to take place as we get emotionally involved with the objects or our musical affection. In today’s society and marketplace, this generally involves buying singles, albums, various merchandise (the range of items being huge and diverse) and tickets to see them play live, the ultimate musical experience. A big fan will own all music ever recorded by the artist (be it commercially released or not), have been to several shows on every tour (even those where the artist was supporting someone else), own posters, every magazine cover, T-shirts, hoodies, wristbands, dedicated online pages they will regularly update, have a premium fan club membership for exclusives, will have signed material and no doubt a few photos of them with the star, having gone out of their way to meet them. This process of becoming a collector of memorabilia and trying to be the biggest fan they can be is very emotionally satisfying and many make it the focus of their existence.
However, this comes at a price.
Increasingly, due to the decline in record sales induced by the rise of illegal downloading and file sharing (for the most part anyway), record companies are raising the prices of everything else they sell in order to keep the extortionate profits they receive. This includes allowing them to make money from tours which they previously were not able to do, and therefore the prices of tickets have increased noticeably in the last five to ten years. The cost of merchandise has increased tenfold because in the day of the online superfan it has become very important for articulating your fandom to other fans. This is equally the case for the price of fan club memberships and other gear, including special bundles for new album releases.
Back in 2008 I was a Taylor Swift superfan and in the run-up to the release of Fearless, her highly-anticipated sophomore album, her record company offered three special CD packages to pre-order. Bearing in mind that the majority of Taylor’s fans have always been between the ages of ten and eighteen, fans would have to rely on parents’ bank accounts. The gold package was $75 plus $15 shipping, and included a jazzed-up cardboard box to send it in, some stickers, two small posters, the CD, a T-shirt, a cheap wristband, your face in a mosaic-style poster of Taylor and what else I really cannot remember, but it was not a lot. The bronze and silver packages included a lot less. This is fan manipulation.
In addition, the Dolly Parton concert I’d been to a few months before, tickets ranged from £50-£75 ($80-$125), and it was at a huge arena where even with binoculars I could barely see her tiny figure on stage. The same was true of three years later, when I went again to see her and the prices were very similar, and certainly didn’t drop below $80.
This year I had a look at the album packages for Taylor Swift’s new release ‘Red’. The bonus package includes the CD, a rubber bracelet, a ‘special note from Taylor’ and a sticker. This is $19.99. The deluxe package consists of the bonus material plus a limited edition print of Taylor (unframed and unsigned) and a Tervis cup with the album cover printed on it. This is $49.99. So basically a poster and a plastic cup cost $30? Right. The ultimate package is all of the above but the print is framed and signed, there is a signed CD insert and a blanket with the album cover printed on. This costs the shocking $169.99.
Now obviously this is unacceptable. But it’s not just Taylor who does it. I recently heard that LeAnn Rimes is charging people $13 just to register on her official forum. What?! Numerous artists do it outside and inside the country field, and it’s just not fair. The record companies are making a huge profit on it and we’re out of pocket for frankly below-par goods. It’s not good enough. Even with the decline of record sales, country and other genres are still doing more than well enough to survive without raising these prices like that.
I’ve had a look at some online stores and the Pistol Annies are charging $40 for a hoody that probably cost a fraction to make; Miranda Lambert is charging $30 for a T-shirt; Blake Shelton’s Christmas CD package includes the CD, a printed bauble, a 2013 calendar and a pint glass and costs $49.99; he’s also charging $20 for a pair of hotpants/shorts; Scotty McCreery is charging $10 for a poster and $8.25 for a car sticker; Eric Church is charging $8 for a bottle opener and $45 for a photobook covering his career; and Luke Bryan is charging $5 for a wristband, $35 for a T-shirt and $25 for a baseball cap.
But we want to buy this stuff because we want to prove our fandom, we want to feel part of a community, we want to be country proud. But it’s so expensive, and being a music fan has definitely been one of the most expensive things I have ever done.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do, there isn’t a solution we can implement, we can’t rally against the record companies, nothing’s going to change, it can only really get worse the way I see it. But next time you want to buy that Rascal Flatts T-shirt or Brantley Gilbert pack of plectrums, just remember that the artist will barely receive any of your money, and you’re better off dedicating yourself to them rather than your money when it comes to merchandise.
It’s really not worth it.