In 1889, when the first “phonograph parlor” opened in San Francisco, saloon patrons could listen to a song through a tube for a nickel. When Thomas Edison began manufacturing wax cylinders of recorded music for home entertainment in the late 1890s, they cost 50 cents each, played at 120 RPM, and could hold only two minutes of music. Loosely speaking, what cost a nickel in 1889 would cost $1.29 today, and what cost 50 cents in 1900 would go for $13.89 today. (Then as now, how much money ever ended up in the hands of musicians remains murky.)
We create the value of music through a sort of community consensus, whether in terms of its emotional impact or its monetary worth. As units of music have become difficult to price, they’ve also lost their economic value—so I agree with a recent Future of Music Coalition op-ed arguing that “the music business has a transparency problem.” Would more detail about dollars and cents restore the music economy’s spirit? Maybe. The industry has recovered before, and there are reasons for optimism, but ultimately music and business, though inextricable from each other, aren’t the same.
A useful article here from last April, just discovered thanks to contributing article-finder Jon Curtis, that doesn't quite answer the headline's question but does lay down some interesting facts and figures. And the historical information on formats and pricing that comprises the middle section of the article is fascinating as well as providing some context.
The vague conclusion from the writer seems to be not to think in terms of a recording's worth, but in the overall income an artist can wrangle through his / her creative endeavors. One can also reach the assumption that artists controlling their revenue inputs – that is, not sharing huge portions of everything with a label – come out on top. But one might want to have a trusted manager to handle the numbers, to keep artist types from getting creatively derailed, as one interviewed musician put it. As I like to say, managers are the new record labels.