Here’s a thought: We’ve all been so conditioned by expressions such as music soothes the savage breast, and music as a holy art that we’re largely oblivious to the reality that the world of music may be the purest form of capitalism we can experience.
Pure capitalism is supposed to be a perpetual competition to survive in a marketplace where the supply of a product and a demand for it are locked in a mutual embrace.
Thanks to the boom-and-bust cycles that this sort of embrace engenders — culminating in the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe — capitalists themselves don’t function in a free market. They are regulated and supervised. And, when that fails, they are propped up by sympathetic governments and bankers.
But look at the music world.
Children who take lessons seriously and show promise are encouraged to enter competitions. They have to compete through audition to get places in schools and, after that, to get work.
How much a musician gets paid, either as a freelancer or as a member of an orchestra or teaching staff, depends on how many peers can do the same thing just as well — and how much of an audience there is for what they have to offer.
Unlike an entrepreneur with a great idea, the cellist with a fabulous programme of newly dusted-off repertoire can’t go to a bank to get a loan to finance an album. She has to find a patron — or, investors, as Garth Drabinsky tried to call them when he founded his music festival last year.
Granted (so to speak), arts councils and foundations offer money — to those who can creatively propose something new and enticing to the funding juries.
Isn’t this just a musical version of Dragon’s Den?
On the marketplace side, if the supply of music begins to exceed demand, ticket and album prices fall.
What, exactly, is the proliferation of free streaming and downloading saying to us about the quantity of fine music available to anyone who has 30 seconds to spare for a Google search?
If there isn’t sufficient demand in one place, the artist goes elsewhere in search of a paying audience.
Behold the multitude of Canadians who have gone abroad to make their careers. Until the present day, it’s usually been in Europe. But, with arts council cuts there, China, the new Mecca of entrepreneurship, has been welcoming Western musicians by the planeload — or will, until the 40 million Chinese piano, violin, cello and voice students are all out looking for work as performers and teachers.
Even the internal ecosystem of the music world follows the capitalist creed that the wealth of the successful will trickle down to the lowly: The great orchestras create a critical mass of players, teachers and audiences in each city, who work in the community, inspire children to play, create new orchestras and concert presenters.
Here are but two sentences from the original Bible of capitalism, Adam Smith’s Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776 (the sentences are from Book IV — Of Systems of Political Economy — Chapter 1).
Substitute “musician” for “gold and silver,” and see what you get:
The quantity of every commodity which human industry can either purchase or produce, naturally regulates itself in every country according to the effectual demand, or according to the demand of those who are willing to pay the whole rent, labour, and profits, which must be paid in order to prepare and bring it to market. But no commodities regulate themselves more easily or more exactly, according to this effectual demand, than gold and silver; because, on account of the small bulk and great value of those metals, no commodities can be more easily transported from one place to another; from the places where they are cheap, to those where they are dear; from the places where they exceed, to those where they fall short of this effectual demand.
So what, exactly, is my point?
Except for diehard libertarians, none of whom have ever had to survive in the Dickensian horrors of pure capitalism, we live and vote by common agreement that unregulated capitalism isn’t good for anyone but those people who are making money right now.
Yet, somehow, few enough people currently feel the same way about music and the arts to ensure that creative artists and arts organizations be protected from cutthroat competition and the fluctuations of supply and demand.
I’m bringing this up now because the larger modern institutions that helped build demand — public broadcasters and the daily newspaper — are under stress. The critic is being replaced by the blogger. The interviewer by the Facebook page. The ad by the “you gotta see this” tweet.
I’m not trying to paint a doomsday scenario for the arts. They have all been under stress before and, given the incredible resilience of the human spirit, they will endure.
But in what form — and under what sorts of circumstances?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.