The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market

by on December 16, 2009 at 7:28 am in Economics, Music | Permalink

Brian Eno writes:

…go into a record shop and look at the dividers used to separate music into different categories. There used to be about a dozen: rock, jazz, ethnic, and so on. Now there are almost as many dividers as there are records, and they keep proliferating. The category I had a hand in starting–ambient music–has split into a host of subcategories called things like “black ambient,” “ambient dub,” “ambient industrial,” “organic ambient” and 20 others last time I looked. A similar bifurcation has been happening in every other living musical genre (except for “classical” which remains, so far, simply “classical”), and it’s going on in painting, sculpture, cinema and dance.

Recently an MR reader sent along a link to this new genre:

Shava are probably the only representatives so far of the genre of Suomibhangra, a Finnish take on the South Asian diaspora dance genre, bhangra. One one level there's a lot to be critical of here, perhaps – the wilful exoticism, the fake Indian dancers, the almost-brownface of someone like the "Finnjabi bad boy" in the video.

Nonetheless most South Asians seem to approve of their Finnish mimics.  Elsewhere, here is yet another essay on the fragmentation of music

Going back to Eno, I liked this point:

The idea that something is uncool because it’s old or foreign has left the collective consciousness.

1 Millian December 16, 2009 at 7:42 am

Why isn’t classical divided into “sub-genres” by record shops? I doubt it’s anything to do with the extent of the market. I think it’s because it is older. Unlike in other genres, it’s expected that new artists perform mostly old compositions. Most of the composers’ styles will be known to the consumer who is interested in classical music.

“The idea that something is uncool because it’s old or foreign has left the collective consciousness.” – did these ever coexist? Surely the days of jingoism were the days of high traditionalism, and vice-versa, among the cultural elite.

2 josh December 16, 2009 at 8:17 am

A historical side note; most 19th and early 20th century African Americans weren’t particularly upset by minstrelsy either.

3 Seward December 16, 2009 at 9:24 am

Who the heck visits a “record shop” anymore?

4 drobviousso December 16, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Did this happen before, or after, and other tagging systems became popular?

5 agnostic December 16, 2009 at 2:57 pm

The point about classical and jazz not being sliced up at all shows that this has nothing to do with the extent of the market. Maybe the markets for those two are smaller than for rock — but enough to see no distinctions at all?

Rather, this is a reflection of the size of the pool that music dorks are competing against for status. Before you could easily see what everyone else on the planet was listening to, signaling your rare and obscure tastes required a label that put you in the top 1% of your city or perhaps region.

After the internet became common, you’re competing to be in the top 1% of the entire world, so you need much more obscure labels than before — perhaps some that only 100 people in the world would recognize (I mean, just to be safe).

For the same reasons, turnover in fashion is a lot faster. Before the internet, it might take years for knowledge of your obscure bands to spread through your city or region. After the internet, everyone can know about them before they’ve even released their album. Go on those music dork websites and see how they complain:

“I’m not gonna lie, I mean I really liked that Wavves album two weeks ago, but I feel like I need something new that goes beyond that now…”

It’s funny to watch these people flail on the fashion treadmill.

6 anonymous December 16, 2009 at 5:01 pm

The bigger trend is not the fragmentation of music but the fragmentation of everything. The primary driver of this, of course, is the Internet, which solves the distribution problem and provides unlimited virtual shelf space.

We can make an analogy with political systems: traditional television, in its 1970s-80s heyday with only three networks, represented a British-style “first past the post system” that encouraged a very limited number of big-tent political parties; the Internet represents a radical version of proportional representation, with a proliferation of tiny factions that aren’t much interested in compromise or consensus.

Film has not yet followed in the footsteps of music for a number of reasons: movies have vastly higher bandwidth requirements than songs; they have more expensive consumer electronics requirements (giant screen TV vs iPod); they have higher barriers to entry for producers (much more expensive to make a movie than to record a song); a movie’s release is still an “event” (the way that, say, Beatles album releases once were). Yet the pervasiveness of fragmentation in most other fields (books, TV series, music, etc) makes it unwise to bet that this will always be the case in future decades.

The looming problem for society is not cultural fragmentation but news and information fragmentation. There is already a growing disconnect between how blogs and the mainstream media handle breaking news: not merely how they cover a story but whether they cover it at all. It’s one thing if I’ve never heard of any of the songs in your personal top ten list of 2009; it’s quite another if I’ve never heard about any of your top 10 most important news stories of the year.

This has interesting (as in “interesting times”) implications for governability and the long-term viability of pluralistic multiethnic nation states and centralized federal governments. For most of human history, “one tribe = one nation” was the norm, and it may be so again, with our current sociopolitical era representing the twilight of an anomaly. We might anticipate therefore, that the 21st century may see the eventual independence of Scotland and Quebec and perhaps Hawaii, the shipwreck of the European Union as a political federation, or perhaps instead a forceful counter-trend global revival of authoritarianism as ruling elites value political indivisibility, economic efficiency, and stability over democracy. China will be the role model here: much depends on whether it continues to overtake the West or suffers a Japan-like fall from grace.

7 Laeeth December 19, 2009 at 4:56 pm

anonymous of 5:01:06 PM v good point, one made at greater length in Marc Widdowson’s “The Phoenix Principle and the Coming Dark Age”. The extract below implies this is a bad phenomenon per se – I do not think this is necessarily the case, but there does seem to be a very long term cyclical alternation in society between moves towards cohesion and moves towards disintegration. The whole book is worth reading (downloadable for free).

“Contemporary art is characterised by cheapness and hastiness. Everything is in the idea and nothing in the execution. It is the art of gimmickry, or of creativity without skill. The artist Ellsworth Kelly has spoken of the ‘new freedom’ and the fact that there is ‘no longer a need to compose’. In other words, such art is easier to dash off. In terms of effort and expertise, there is a genuine gulf between, say, Michelangelo’s David and rooms of junk or balls of pubic hair. Modern art celebrates nothing and therefore does not warrant the devotion and commitment that are so strongly exuded by the art of former times.
There has not merely been a change of taste and fashion. Rather, taste and fashion have become increasingly fragmented. Whereas people would formerly all have dressed more or less the same, or worn their hair in a similar way, many different styles may now be seen in any social gathering. There has been an explosion of diversity in things like children’s names. Originality and distinctiveness are continually sought after. Once, magazines and television channels were few enough that families everywhere absorbed much the same messages. Now they have multiplied tremendously and cater to every conceivable taste.In every area, the trend is away from bringing people together by reinforcing stereotyped views or common standards and towards compartmentalising them via a proliferation of lifestyle choices.”

8 Antonio February 23, 2010 at 8:01 am

Classical music certainly is not classified as to time and that lasted

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