The economics of carnival culture

Have you ever been to Trinidad? The steel bands (“pans”) start practicing sometime before Christmas, and the pan competitions peak at the time of Carnival, which we call Mardi Gras. Serious pan music is otherwise hard to find on the island, although we do see many smaller performances for tourists throughout the year.

We find a similar pattern in Brazil. The production of samba culture has an especially pronounced seasonal business cycle, again centered around carnival.

Carnival culture appears to have started for religious and cultural reasons, yet it persists more in some places rather than others. Why bunch your cultural production so tightly into one part of the year?

Carnival culture may prove efficient when a large number of the customers are tourists, who journey from other countries, or other regions, to an urban center. A high fixed cost of the journey implies it is better to bunch cultural production at one time of the year, to lower transport costs.

The significant presence of amateurs in production also encourages carnival culture. It is widely understood in Trinidad that many workers will take off extra time to practice the pans. The relevant time of year is an accepted social convention, plus everyone takes off at the same time, so the pan orchestras can practice together. After carnival, everyone is expected to go back to work at the regular pace.

The use of national competitions to market performers also increases the efficiency of carnival culture. When everyone competes at the same time, on a set of common stages, it is easier to declare a “winner,” and indeed carnival cultures usually emphasize such competitions and hand out national or regional prizes. The prospect of being a winner is then used to drum up local corporate support. If a company backs a carnival winner, it receives significant favorable publicity.

So enjoy your Mardi Gras today!

By the way, classical music has survived as a truly popular music only in Trinidad and Tobago, largely because it is played on the steel pans at Carnival competitions.


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