In the last issue of the New Yorker, there was a “Talk of the Town” piece by Nick Paumgarten about the machine on which the best-selling album of all time was made. Michael Jackson’s Thriller, along with albums by other prominent artists, such as Billy Joel and Donna Summer, were recorded on the solid-state recording console called the Harrison 4032. Of course, most people don’t know or care about such details. Production quality is obviously an important attribute of the Thriller album, and most good albums. But we usually take note of the man behind the job (e.g., Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson), and ignore the equipment. Nevertheless, the specific instruments and consoles behind a piece of music that we love are imbued with a special value that’s hard to explain rationally. Knowing that a guitar model is the same one that Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix used makes you desire it more (and these models are priced accordingly); when a guitar is literally and specifically one that these musicians used, it ends up in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or is auctioned off for hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of dollars.
According to Paumgarten’s article, the Harrison 4032 on which Thriller was made somehow ended up in the hands of a Christian-music recording studio owner named Clayton Rose. When MJ passed away in 2009, Rose decided it would be a good idea to sell the console. After all, once it was certified as authentic, wouldn’t this piece of equipment go for lots of money? Jackson was one of the most beloved musicians of all time, and he continues to have many wealthy fans. But unfortunately, Rose had to lower his price on eBay from one million dollars to $500,000, and then he had to lower it even more. It wasn’t until Laurent Brancowitz from the band Phoenix came across the console that there was a serious buyer. The French electronic band (I am a fan!) decided that they had to have it, and they began negotiating with Rose. And at once, it became apparent why it was so hard to sell this equipment. Rose’s e-mails and exchanges with potential clients were misspelled, hostile, defensive…just all around distasteful. He was turning people off with his poor salesmanship. Such a valuable item should’ve been able to sell itself; but it seemed like a bad salesman could actually hinder the sale! Phoenix ended up buying the Harrison 4032. For $17,000.
It’s amazing how context can influence our valuation of an item. When a non-human animal views something of value (such as a piece of food…there are few other things valued by those outside our species), it weighs a few attributes – taste, smell, amount, effort required to obtain it, opportunity cost of eating it. When we consider something of value, on the other hand, the number of potential attributes explodes. This recording console means more to someone who can use it (like a musical artist) then to someone who doesn’t know how to use it. This recording console is valued more than others of its same kind because the most beloved album of all time was created on it. Finally, this recording console loses value because the person who owned it before seems a little abrasive and a little nuts, given his e-mails. All of these attributes are completely abstract! To even consider these, we must be able to make extremely complex inferences (that don’t seem complex to us at all). And in the end, it can all be translated into a price.
Phoenix’s next album (to be released in April) has been mixed on the same recording console on which Thriller was mixed. I’m not gonna lie – as silly as it seems, this makes me want to buy and listen to the album all the more.