Earlier this autumn, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti released a September 11th-themed standalone single called "Witchhunt Suite"; this song is ridiculous, the Southland Tales of faux "bring it on" anthems. I'm not saying that anyone should feel obligated to buy the thing, but in the context of song pricing, it's a useful example. You see, "Witchhunt Suite" is 15 minutes long, and it cost me $1.99 on iTunes, and that's perfectly kosher. There's no rule that limits iTunes mp3s to 69 cents, 99 cents, or $1.29, and it's generally understood that songs up to five or six minutes in duration are worth at least that much.
Usually, if an album is 10 songs long and retails around $9.99, each individual song retails for 99 cents per—except when you run into situations where Skullflower or Russell Haswell, for example, augment their releases with sitcom-length adventures. Then you run smack dab into the dreaded ALBUM ONLY wall, which demands that one purchase an entire album even if just the longest songs are the ones desired, and puts the lie to whatever myth of consumptive democracy the mp3 age has supposedly ushered in. (For those of you who think of "rockism" as some sort of abstract concept limited to music nerd smackdowns on message boards, take note; this is rockism hitting you where you live, the calcification of the idea that all music need be consumed in album-sized chunks to be legitimate.)
This quagmire almost dares music fans to steal music. The obvious, right-this-minute example is Lulu, the mostly unlistenable collaboration between art rock king Lou Reed and heavy thrash godfathers Metallica. If you really wanted a first taste, you sampled the stream on the project's site; most people found the marriage of misanthropic, graphic poetry and noisome metal repellant, but enjoyed "Junior Dad," where the musical extremes gelled into something emotional and transcendental, even if you'd be hard pressed to put together a cogent explanation of what the song is about. (Also: tons of string-section drone.) But because "Junior Dad" clocks in at about 20 minutes—albeit 20 minutes so unfuckwithable that the average, dad-having punter would gladly pay two or three clams to own digitally—you can't buy the song without ponying up for the other 70 minutes of Lulu, which are utter dreck.
There are business motives at work here; physical CD sales are a joke, paid downloads are on the rise, and labels and artists would probably prefer that everyone scarfed down sounds in batches. But that's not how most fans approach music in 2011, and the industry owes its audience a rethink. Otherwise, the only online entity winning the digital music wars will be continue to be Mediafire.