Searching for Love

Cultural economics has come a long way since Baumol and Bowen first started poking around, but the fact remains that it still revolves around money—the delicate dance of legal tender among producers, sellers, and buyers. More so than other goods, there’s almost always a disconnect between the price of a work of art and its value, and traditional market economies are notoriously slow and inefficient at minding that gap; while the art market as a whole can give a reasonably predictable return on investment, the market for individual works or categories of art can be dauntingly volatile. And that’s the plastic arts, something you can take home and display. Music? Even cloudier.

So here’s a thought experiment: what if, instead of cash, one considered curiosity as the main currency of culture? Curiosity drives cultural consumption. We keep looking until we find what we like, or what we think we like—maybe we come across a style or repertoire that seems to be enough of what we like that we consider any further search too expensive, in terms of curiosity. In this scheme, art that is harder to find is more “expensive”—and consumers who are more curious spend more. (Note that what is about to follow is laughable as economics—how do you quantify curiosity? Think of it more as a metaphor on steroids.)

In terms of curiosity, popular culture is very cheap indeed—almost free, in fact. (Try to resist applying favorable or unfavorable connotations to “cheap” and “expensive” for this one.) Popular culture comes to you via the mass media. If that’s what you like, or what you decide you like, you haven’t had to spend very much curiosity at all. Whereas, if what you really like is avant-garde tape-manipulation music from early-1970s Scandanavia, but you don’t know that yet, you’re going to have to spend a considerable amount of curiosity to find it.

The interesting thing about this goofy scheme is how, under it, one would interpret the impact of the Internet. You could argue that, back in the pre-tubes dark ages, music was actually cheaper in curiosity terms, but there was a greater chance of having to settle for less than you were prepared to “pay” for. There was whatever was being pumped out over the mass media, but beyond that, you were limited to whatever record companies were willing to record and distribute, or whatever happened to be performed near where you lived. For recordings, once you stepped into a record store, the curiosity price of anything that happened to be in the store would be pretty much the same, but if it wasn’t there, you weren’t very likely to find it without a huge jump in curiosity price. Live performance would be so balkanized by geography—New York? cheap; central Nebraska? not so cheap—that comparing curiosity spending would be almost apples to oranges. (Hopping on the subway=low curiosity price; moving to New York=high curiosity price.)

With the Internet, though, all music (or at least enough information to know whether it’s what you want) is available, theoretically with near-immediacy—that is, if you know where to look, or, more probably, you have the time and curiosity to sift through the much wider array on offer. Has this made music cheaper or pricier in terms of curiosity? Back in the Reagan era, sifting through the bins at my local record store would take me, at most, a couple hours. A couple hours on the Internet, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. With greater variety comes greater investment of time, effort, judgement. (It’s the same reason I can shop for shoes exponentially faster than my lovely wife, since, at size 14, my selection is usually limited to one or two pair.) Has the increased digital availability of culture, paradoxically, raised its curiosity price across the board?

As the economist Alfred Marshall once pointed out, artistic styles don’t usually have diminishing marginal utility—once we find what we like, we can like the same thing pretty much forever. The thing is, most people, even music lovers, are going to decide they like some kind of music and stop spending their curiosity earlier than than those of us sufficiently obsessed with the stuff to blog about it. When curiosity prices were fixed and relatively low (i.e., record store), the chance of a given outlay of curiosity leading into jazz, classical, world music, showtunes—basically anything not served up free by the mass media—was not all that variable, once you walked in the door. (The downside? Opportunity costs, that is, the amount you give up by making a decision one way or another, were relatively high.) If curiosity prices have become higher with the advent of the Internet, the chance of a given outlay leading to a specific category is just that: a chance. It’s much more of a crapshoot. There’s a greater chance of stumbling on something you didn’t expect, but an equal or greater chance of missing what you really want—or giving up before you find it. It all depends on how hard you want to look.

So in terms of the curiosity expended to find it, the initial price barrier to culture has gone way down, but the average price of the wanted cultural experience has, perhaps, gone up. Inflation, in other words. Is it a valid trade-off? I think so: since the resources aren’t scarce—it’s all out there somewhere, at the click of a mouse—opportunity costs go down. For now, the increased opportunity to at least stumble on what isn’t expected seems to be raising the tide for all kinds of boats. The question is whether the way people are able to search for music on the Internet will evolve towards a more sophisticated, Pandora-like guided journey, or whether the old corporate categories will re-assert themselves, leading to more dead-end or prematurely stifled spending of curiosity.

The former, most likely. Here’s why, although I admit it’s a bit of a stretch. The previous way of buying and selling music was based on a certain assumed valuation of curiosity. If that curiosity is going through inflation? All bets are off. Inflation has the power to mutate economic systems at the genetic level. It’s why central banks throughout the Capitalist Era have never stopped worrying about it. Here’s how John Maynard Keynes put it, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace:

Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency…. Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.

I wonder if the Internet is really what changed things—or if a decrease in available musical variety in the years just before the Internet caused a change in the way people allocated and expended their curiosity, and the resulting, imperceptible disintegration of the traditional recording industry was already underway when the Web came along to accelerate it. Most revolutions, after all, are as much a culmination of historical trends as an instigator of them. That causality is probably a stretch, too, but how else do you explain how the record companies were caught so flat-footed? Corporate stupidity is hardly rare, but when an entire industry is still playing catch-up a dozen years on, deeper shifts become more plausible. Did the recording industry shoot themselves in the foot just before the Internet came along to stomp on it? Curious.


  1. A wonderful re-analysis, and your metaphors brought about at least one coffee spew. Now… how much do we composers get paid in curiosity? And will curiosity currency really buy my artichoke-and-camembert sandwich?Dennis

  2. While you make some good points and you may actually be correct, you make an unfair comparison with the record store in the 80s to today on the Internet. You are forgetting to factor in that there also exists WAY more music now than did 20 to 25 years ago. Not only are there more ppl to create, but the barriers to recording and releasing music have dropped many orders of magnitude. Any kid with a job or an allowance and a brain can put together a “release” quality recording in his bedroom. I did it in 1999 at age 17.So, while the Internet does allow an almost complete index of what’s out there, if such an index had existed 25 years ago, it would have been much, much smaller.Rich(ard)

  3. Richard: I think we’re actually making similar points. One of the reasons I analyzed the “old days” as having lower curiosity costs was precisely because there was less choice—less choice makes it easier to choose, and less likely you’ll quit looking before you exhaust your available offerings. I’ll say it again—the greater variety available now is better for music on the whole, whatever genre. When I started buying records (yes, records—I’m old), I could still pick up Schoenberg and Cage at my local Coconuts, but I remember a decade-long palpable sense of contracting variety until cheap computers and the Internet made it possible to bypass the big distributors in the late 90s. (I wonder, if you take the 20th century as a whole, if there really is that much more total recorded music out there, even given the explosion of the last decade. I’ll have to hunt for some data.)Dennis: Unfortunately, curiosity alone won’t pay for that sandwich, although a lot of people I know would have to expend a fair amount of the stuff to try it. (Me? I’m salivating.)Cosmo: Wouldn’t that be cool? Tell the VR Ariadne what you like, and she weaves a tapestry containing the covers of all the albums you’ll buy in the next year.

  4. Yes, agreed all around.Having gone to Berklee earlier in the decade and working a recording engineer for a few years, I would say undoubtedly that there has been more music recorded and distributed in the past 15 years than the previous…well, recording has only been around for like 120 years.Keep in mind that distribution used to be an expensive process reserved for ppl with distribution deals. Now anyone can post on MySpace in 15 minutes.Rich(ard)

  5. Matthew: that would indeed be cool, but I was trying to suggest that the guide metaphor should have Ariadne’s name attached, not Pandora’s. Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, let Theseus out of the labyrinth by giving him a thread to follow. Pandora (as far as I know) didn’t guide anyone. Tapestry weaving on the other hand I think recalls Penelope, no?

  6. This reminds me of observations made in rock history about the cycles of corporate influence. In the beginning (1955) all rock was being recorded on small independent labels. Then around 1960 the large labels took over, churning out teen idols and Brill Building songs. The British invasion and psychedelia were a reaction against the stifling bubble gum pop (high opportunity costs?) This happened again with corporate rock and punk rock, hair bands and grunge, etc. The 90’s saw an explosion of subgenres, that would be the pre-internet warning signs you suggest. Sorry, I feel like I’m rambling here.

  7. Cosmo:<>Tapestry weaving on the other hand I think recalls Penelope, no?<>I’m an idiot. You wrote “Ariadne,” I thought “Arachne.” Cutting back on caffiene <>is<> making me stupid.

  8. Nobody’s perfect, as the fella says in “Some LIke it Hot.” I wrote “let Theseus out” when I meant “led.” And may I add, Pandora-shmandora, it’s a fascinating post.

  9. <>Pandora (as far as I know) didn’t guide anyone.<>< HREF="" REL="nofollow">Pandora<>, not < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Pandora<>.

  10. Just bought Stravinsky’s collected works conducted by the composer (and Robert Craft) on 22 CDs for less than $30 new at Amoeba. I remember when this was being sold as a set of LPs in the 1970s for literally hundreds of dollars. Whatever the reasons for the economics of this, it certainly is welcome. (And I love Stravinsky conducting Stravinsky, which very much has its own flavor.)

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