“STEAL THIS ALBUM” (Elvis Costello)

Artists make money by selling their art. Or maybe they make money by performing it. Or selling merchandise. Elvis Costello says his art costs too much, and you shouldn’t pay for it.

Elvis Costello (née Declan Patrick MacManus) is a musician. You probably know his work, both because Elvis Costello had a string of radio hits once upon a time and because he’s branched out in so many directions that almost anyone who listens to music would almost have to have heard his stuff.

Yesterday, Mr. Costello told his fans that they shouldn’t buy his latest release. And at over $200 for a CD, a DVD, and a vinyl record album, the set sure is expensive. But why would an artist tell his fans not to spend their money on his stuff?

We can start with the simple reality that the price is a real eye-opener and even if Costello once thought it was a good idea he’s reconsidered in the face of concern for what his fans will think of him. More likely, though, it’s a shrewd marketing and business change play by a guy who’s been around the block.

Costello states that the pricing has been set by the music label that publishes his work. This is certainly possible; even if he owns the label or part of it there’s a real chance that he has no control over business decisions. There’s a long history in the music business of artists not having control over business and business change issues. Remember when Pink Floyd sued their music label?

More likely, though, particularly in light of Costello’s not-quite-direct suggestion that people are just going to download the music for free anyway (“those items will be available separately at a more affordable price in the New Year, assuming that you have not already obtained them by more unconventional means”), there’s more going on here than a simple disagreement between an artist and his publisher.

The music business has changed. Artists never really made money from their music; the labels kept pretty much everything and artists got rich (if they got rich) by touring and selling tickets and tee shirts. In fact, because it’s so lucrative compared to selling the music, even labels want to be in the merchandising business.

Maybe Elvis Costello is fighting his label on your behalf, or maybe he realized that the buzz he could create by coming out as a stand-up guy was worth more than he was ever going to make from album sales, whether his new release was priced at $200 or $35. Or for that matter, maybe the music label knew they were in the same boat and Costello/MacManus is working with them on this clever little maneuver. Since the music is going to be stolen anyway, why not price it ridiculously high, sell what they can to collectors, and figure out another way to make money?

I’m not saying Elvis Costello is a disingenuous sot, mind you; only that he might be. Again, though, let’s look at this from the business change perspective.

The music (and other media) business isn’t just changing for artists, it’s changing for everyone. Writers get paid less than they used to, performers are taking a piece of the profits from movies instead of getting big salaries, and television programs are produced on shoe string budgets. Netflix is so new, it’s become old, Amazon’s gone Gaga, and Google is making money selling bandwidth overage charges for wireless phone carriers.

Elvis Costello is either a marketing genius, or a really nice guy. In business change, both work.

For that matter, maybe he’s both.