Musical economics

Various discussions here have touched on economics, especially as a constraint, but I have generally been dismissive of the subject and reluctant to discuss it in any detail. Now is the time to change that. The first basic observation is that there are several overarching paradigms which will allow one to more or less live one's life while providing an explanation in some sense for most circumstances. Economics is one such paradigm, and consequently people who favor it can phrase most issues in its terms and draw conclusions based on its premises. Although I posit "more or less" equivalence between various paradigms in this way, I will not suggest that they lead to equivalent conclusions or viewpoints at all levels of detail. In fact, while it is clear that different life paradigms, whether economic or theological or aesthetic or evolutionary or hedonist, can logically lead one to such conclusions as that one should not slaughter a random stranger, they lead equally clearly to rather different priorities on some of the more subtle life orderings.

We live in an era during which the economic & evolutionary paradigms are the most often used to frame larger issues, whether by government or by ordinary professionals. Just as with other paradigms in other eras, their most loyal followers frequently believe that not only do they provide one sensible orientation for many issues, they provide the only one. This is, I think, clearly false. Previous and even current cultures have managed to survive or even thrive with various paradigms, and that is evidence enough. Things come & go, and the same will happen with the economic & evolutionary paradigms, making them neither more nor less valuable than they are right now. What they are right now, however, is dangerous. They are dangerous because they have been invested by some people with power beyond their station, exposed most clearly by the fact that some unfortunate individuals will do something not because they think it is a good idea otherwise, but because the paradigm "tells" them to do so. In other words, if art music cannot thrive in the current economy, then this is sometimes taken as evidence that it should be actively destroyed.

So while I respect the fact that various artistic externalities can be framed in strictly economic terms, I am also cautious. Fundamentally, I believe that when one places something first, one is placing it first, and I certainly intend to put the things I feel most strongly about first. This is almost a truism, but is worth stating. I go by more of an aesthetic paradigm, as do several of you, I imagine. In other words, I ask less "What is the relevance of music to making money?" than "What is the relevance of money to making music?" Such a bald juxtaposition understates the case somewhat, since "music" is rather too specific for the general question. One might better use "beauty" or another general aesthetic term. Even there, the present dominance of the economic paradigm makes the question outrageous in some circles. By way of ironic diversion, many of the most enthusiastic supporters of the economic paradigm today also excoriate Karl Marx, the very founder of the paradigm! Of course, Marx had more detailed ideas on these issues, ideas which are quite unpopular, but he is the father of economic history and at least a cofounder of the general paradigm. To continue the irony in a different direction, support for the arts has been a pillar of Marxism.

The above statements are less than useful. What one really wants to know is: How do I pursue music as a profession and refrain from starving? This is a question whose answer changes through time, as societies change. The answer today is both more & less challenging than it has ever been, due respectively to the dominance of the economic paradigm and the wealth around us. The latter facts are connected in two ways. From "within" the paradigm, one might say that a concentration on economics has led to increased wealth. From "outside" the paradigm, one might say that increased wealth has led to an obsession with it. This is one of many cases of applying an unclear causality to a clear correlation. One factor which makes paradigm choices & arguments such as historical causality so endlessly entertaining is that ultimately everything is connected to everything else, somehow, and so in this web of connections, where one selects one's primary "vertex" can radically shift one's perspective of the others.

Finally, I claim the question is not an economic one at all. To be quite literal, one does not starve today for lack of money. There are other reasons, including pride, but money is not one of them. At least for most people asking it, the subtext of the question is rather different, namely: How do I pursue music as a profession while receiving the same luxuries as my neighbors with whom I otherwise share social standing? In other words, it is not a matter of the economic system preventing one from having the necessities of life, but rather of the economic paradigm questioning one's self worth. Of course, simply pinpointing the situation does not make it go away. It can be a mental burden to feel that one is doing something worthwhile, even very worthwhile, and then needing to fend off both explicit & implicit messages of contempt. One defense mechanism is to take on an air of superiority oneself, and this is something to which academic enclaves are particularly susceptible. To be fully effective, one must really do neither of these things, and today that requires a strong person.

What we frequently see happening is that musicians have dual careers. They may work one job for money and play music in their spare time, or they may train in both music and a more "practical" area but leave the latter more as a security blanket. I fit into the second group. As a young person, I felt I needed that practical basis, yet when I reached the point of career security in science, I suddenly felt no more need for it. It never came to the point of having actual financial security, but simply the direct knowledge that I could have had it got me past any nagging self doubt. Is this a silly thing? Perhaps so, but as outlined above, the topic will arise every day if one lets it. I am perhaps crazier than that, since I am reluctant to accept a position with more security even within the arts. In that sense, I fear the economic paradigm and its incentives, and basically as an artist, I fear security per se. We live in a time where, objectively, people are more secure than they have ever been, yet lament any possible lapse of security even more vociferously. Such a thing is not a paradox, but rather the nature of humanity, and one of many pitfalls an artist must straddle.

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Todd M. McComb