Category: Music

Tantrums as Status Symbols

Once upon a time one’s social status was clearly signaled by so many things: fragile expensive clothes, skin not worn from work, accent, vocabulary, and so on.  As many of these signal have weakened, one remains strong: tantrums.

CEOs throw more tantrums than mailboys.  Similarly movie stars, sports stars, and politicians throw more tantrums than ordinary people  in those industries.  Also famous for their tantrums: spoiled young wives, bigshot patriarchs, elite travelers, and toddlers.

These patterns make sense: after all, beautiful young women and successful older men are at their peak of desirability to the opposite sex.  If you are surprised that toddlers make the list, perhaps you should pay closer attention to the toddler-parent relation.  Parents mostly serve toddlers, not the other way around.

Of course, like a swagger, the signal is not so much the tantum itself as the fact that someone can get away with it.

Addendum: Todd Kendall has a data paper on this for NBA players.

What’s on my MP3 Player?

If all goes well today I shall climb Putucusi, the mountain next to Machu Picchu.  I intend to time the ascent in order to summit with the climax of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.  Those of you who know the piece will recognize the megalomania, oh well at least I can’t be accused of lacking self-awareness.

Also on my IRiver MP3 Player:

Rush: Moving Pictures.
Fleming and John: Way We Are.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.
Van Morrision: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.

The Grokster decision won’t much affect illegal file-sharing

Yes it might stifle technological innovation, but it won’t stop or perhaps even diminish illegal file-sharing.  You might recall that the major file-sharing service KaZaA is missing from the suit, as it falls under Australian law.  Yes there is a suit in Australia but what matters in the longer run is the strength of the most permissive international ruling.  Our Supreme Court is unlikely to fit that bill. adds more.  David Post has a detailed analysis of the case.

Why economists should feel conflicted about the Grokster ruling

…it is difficult to judge how a given level of illegal downloads will affect economic efficiency. First, the quantity of music sold in a given year is not a very accurate indicator of how much value consumers receive from music. Fans commonly experiment by buying a number of CDs, only a few of which pay off and become favorites. Many or most of the products bought are quickly regarded as disappointments and discarded; in this regard the market for CDs differs from the market for refrigerators. Whether consumers like what they bought is at least as important as the absolute size of the industry.

The Internet already helps music companies track fan demands. When fans sample on-line music, usually they can figure out whether or not they would like the entire CD. Many of these fans still buy the CD, to get better sound, to have the music in more convenient form, to receive the packaging, and so on, as discussed above. These fans usually will be happy with their purchases. As a result, it will be harder for the music companies to issue low quality CDs. Of course this tighter monitoring of quality may cause the number of new issues to decline. In nominal terms the industry will shrink, but at the same time it may produce more real value for consumers. For this reason, a shrinking music industry, as measured in terms of either dollars or new releases, can be desirable from an economic point of view.

Evaluating the efficiency consequences of illegal downloads is difficult for a more fundamental reason. Most generally, we do not understand the demand for music very well. We do not understand what most fans want from their music. Just as book buyers are not always readers, the music market is not always about the tunes. Sometimes it is about symbolic values.

It is a mystery why fans spend almost all of their music money on product of very recent vintage. Until we untangle this puzzle, and we have not yet, we will not understand how Internet music is likely to affect consumer welfare.

Most consumers are not interested in buying much music from 1950, regardless of its objective quality in the eyes of the critic. Music from 1650 is even less popular. Few people search the history of music for “the best recordings” and focus their buying on those. Rather, in any given year the most recent recordings dominate the charts. At a typical moment, all of the Billboard Top 40 singles, or albums, come from the last two years of recorded output. Every now and then there is a Beatles revival, but such events are the exception rather than the rule. Consumers evince an overwhelming preference for music produced in the very recent past.

Most likely the music market is about more than simply buying “good music,” as a critic might understand that term. People buy music to signal their hipness, to participate in current trends, or to distinguish themselves from previous generations. Buyers use music to signal their social standing, whether this consists of going to the opera or listening to heavy metal. Others value partaking in novelty per se. They find newness exciting, a way of following the course of fashion, and the music market offers one handy arena for this pursuit. For some people music is an excuse to go out and mix with others, a coordination point for dancing, staying up late, drinking, or a singles scene. Along these lines, many fans seem to enjoy musical promotions, hype, and advertising as ends in themselves, and not merely as means to hearing music. They like being part of the “next big thing.” The accompanying music cannot be so bad to their ears as to offend them, but the deftness of the harmonic triads is not their primary concern.

In other words, the features of the market that matter to the critic may not be very special to consumers at all. Most of all, consumers seem to care about some feature of newness and trendiness, more than they care about music per se. So how much does it matter, from a consumer’s point of view, if weaker copyright protection reshapes the world of music?

Under one hypothesis, the specific musics of our day are easily replaced, or in economic terminology, highly substitutable. All other things equal, people will buy the new, but they could get along with alternatives almost as well. For instance perhaps “ravers” could use Gregorian chants to define their cultural status. Indeed one chant CD (“Chant”) had a very long and successful chart run. Young rave and techno fans were among the largest buyers of this recording.

Or perhaps half the supply of music could do almost as good a job of supplying symbolic goods, especially if music companies can track fan demand with greater facility. Alternatively, individuals could rely more heavily on alternative means, such as fashion, to signal their social standing and participate in trends. These points are all speculations, but they show the difficult of pinning down what music fans really care about.

Consider two further examples. First, in the former Soviet Union, dissident rock and roll bands performed many popular culture functions and commanded a fervent following. These bands fell short of the objective critical quality of their Western counterparts. Still they provided consumers with many useful services, including a means to signal rebellion against the Soviet state. Second, in 1941, the major radio stations refused to carry the catalog of the music publisher ASCAP, in a dispute over fees. At that time ASCAP, the leading music publisher and clearinghouse in the United States, dominated the music market. The stations instead played BMI music, which was more oriented towards rhythm and blues and offered less Tin Pan Alley, crooning, and big band. Radio listeners seemed to take the sudden change in stride; there is little evidence of a serious problem. Music fans continued pretty much as before, except for the change in styles and associated music publishers.

For whatever reason, most consumers find it harder to reorient their attention towards older musics. Perhaps only new music allows for effective signaling and sorting. When music is new, individuals can show that they are connected to current modes of thinking and feeling. Not everyone can know “what is in,” because “what is in” is changing so frequently. That very fact makes it worthwhile for consumers to put effort into following the new. The music market might therefore churn product to help people communicate their identities to others, and to help people play an ongoing dynamic game of clues and cues. Furthermore previous generations already have claimed older musics, making them less well suited for social differentiation. Perhaps musical taste is a game of secession and repudiation more than anything else.

So the music of Chuck Berry “no longer fits” the world of 2005, and cannot be made to fit it. Critics still love the music, and some niche consumers will be drawn to its merits, but it can never hold the current place of Britney Spears. That is why hit reissues are rare. It is not because consumers still remember the older musics. Rather most consumers do not care about them very much. It thus appears that the value of popular music, to most consumers, consists of some temporally specific tracking quality. This may involve an ability to follow, correspond to, or perhaps even shape the spirit of the times. Rejection of the previous Zeitgeist may be part of this same process. For consumers, this tracking quality is a significant part of the value of music. The music industry is delivering the goods when its product performs this tracking function, and otherwise not. The Internet helps music perform tracking functions of this kind.

The bottom line: The welfare economics of music do not resemble those of bread or buttons.  Right now we do not even know whether music is being oversupplied or undersupplied, relative to an optimum.  Beware of any analysis of this case which does not consider these deeper underlying issues.

Markets in everything

The latest is pre-sale passwords for early access to concert tickets, here is the ebay listing.  Here is an excellent article on how concerts sell out much more quickly than before.  The old days of getting there early and waiting in line seem to be gone:

Combined with the selling efficiency of the Internet and swelling competition from scalpers, “your chances of getting a great seat after a concert goes on sale are almost non-existent,” says Arizona State University economist Steve Happel, a concert business expert. “Tickets are gone in a heartbeat.”

What ever happened to Fleming and John?

Fleming and John made two of my favorite CDs the excellent Delusions of Grandeur and the even-better The Way We Are.  In the words of one reviewer:

Vocalist Fleming McWilliams’s voice soars from a waifish whisper to a Joplin-esque
wail to operatic diva, often in the same song. Multi-instrumentalist
John Painter assembles a dizzying palette of sounds, from buzzy,
riff-heavy guitars to horns, accordion, Middle Eastern percussion, and
theremin, which yields a general sense of weirdness–all set in a
perfectly pop context–while the Love Sponge String Quartet add sonic
depth and a Van Dyke Parks quality to several arrangements.

The lyrics are also great.  When these albums appeared in the mid 1990s I thought these guys were going to be superstars and yet I’m about the only person I know who knows about them.  Although they can be labeled pop/rock almost none of their songs follows a pop/rock formula and that may have reduced airplay.  Their official website hasn’t been updated in years.  If you run out and buy their albums or blog about them perhaps we can create enough economies of scale to induce a new album.

Markets in everything — musical equity

A London-based pop singer is raising funds to kick-start his career by selling shares in himself on internet auction site eBay. In just three days, Shayan has raised £9,000 from buyers in London, New York and Toronto.

Shayan – who doesn’t trade under his surname, Italia – insists the scheme is a way of avoiding the traditional route of sending demos to major labels. "The most difficult thing is to get people’s attention," he says.

Speculative buyers are offered the chance to invest £3,000 in return for a 0.25% equity share in anything the 27-year-old singer-songwriter earns over his entire career. The shares remain valid for 70 years after the artist’s death, and can be transferred to the buyer’s children.

Read more here.

Birdsong and human song

Here is a site on bird song, and yes I am recommending the actual music clips.  The slowed down versions sound like Miles Davis.  The accompanying book is excellent, and not only because you can read it in an hour.

If you want music by humans, try Lee Perry’s new four-CD collection I Am the Upsetter; it is the best Perry anthology (better than Arkology or Open the Gate, although buy all three) and therefore one of the best CDs sets, ever.


Two of the four — the bald ones — looked like villains from a Bruce Willis movie.  The other two looked like late-career managers after seven years of Arbeitslosigkeit, laid off by Lufthansa due to insufficient downward real wage flexibility.

They didn’t play instruments, nor did they sing.  Well, one of them would, every few  minutes or so, bark something into a kind of mike.  He ejaculated phrases like "Carbohydrat" [sic] and "Tour de France" [at least his country supported the EU Constitution].

All four stood at laptop computers, with, well, "that look."  You know, the look you have when you just blogged something that you took just a little too seriously.  Hey, maybe they were blogging.  [What did you expect Tyler, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf? a ten-minute accordion solo?]

Nor am I the one to call them stiff.  I arrived at the 9:30 club – one of DC’s coolest venues — at 7:30, armed with my copy of Oscar Edward Anderson’s 1953 Refrigeration in America: A History of a Technology and its Impact, just in case the proceedings at hand should prove too slow for my tastes.

But I was not to read the book.  As a matter of pure accident, I ran into Henry Farrell, of CrookedTimber fame.  Here is his excellent recent post on Turkey and the EU.

The bottom line: The music was great, and the show started exactly on time.

Music I love in genres I hate

Heavy metal – Ugh, right?  Well, the good stuff, such as Led Zeppelin, gets defined as classic rock instead of metal.  I dislike "metal-as-we-know-it," but nonetheless I am struck by Mastodon’s Leviathan.  Metal’s dirty little secret is just how much it can resemble free jazz.  Add to the mix a retelling of America’s greatest novel (Moby Dick), a feel for the apocalyptic, a tasteful switch to the acoustic, and you have an album to come back to.  Even the eggheads at The New York Times pushed this one.

Post-1965 Country music – You can argue about that date, but New Jersey boys aren’t going to like Garth Brooks or Shania Twain.  Shelby Lynne, on the other hand, is the best of Loretta Lynn and Dusty Springfield rolled into one, only circa 2005.  I am Shelby Lynne is the breakthrough album and probably her best work.  Identity Crisis is a worthy follow-up, and the excellent Suit Yourself just came out this week.

Why satellite radio doesn’t make me happier

I love satellite radio.  I listen every day and did not flinch when they raised the price.  Still I cannot help but feel (boo-hoo) it was not designed with me in mind.  I am not completely happy with 70 commercial-free, DJ-driven music stations with no playlists. 

The culprit lies in how the channels are defined.  They have a station for "50s music," or "bluegrass," or "reggae."  They need clear and compelling channel titles to attract subscribers.  And with so many channels at hand, many listeners wish to know what is where when. 

But I don’t care so much about genre or time period per se.  Let’s face it, most music from the 1960s is unlistenable.  I love the best of Jamaican music, but most reggae stinks.  A station that has to cover a genre or time period gives you, in lieu of a least common denominator problem, too many denominators at once.

I would rather have 70 channels with the liberty of experimenting across all possible dimensions.  Even better, how about defining channels by IQ scores?  Number of CDs in your collection?  Personal mood that day?  Best yet, a station: "For people who are convinced that James Brown, Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, Lee Perry, and Pierre Boulez are seminal musical figures of our time."

That is why I am not happier with satellite radio.  I hope soon to relate my experiences with Internet radio and podcasting.

Which cultures do we tend to undervalue?

Large and insular ones.  The Cape Verde islands produce music which is immediately accessible, whether or not you are a local or an insider.  The music could not have flourished as it has without external support; the same is true for Jamaican reggae.

On the other hand, you might find that Chinese music sounds like screeching cats being murdered.  But in reality, you probably should accept the old saw that 1.3 billion (or however many) people can’t be wrong.  Get used to the idea that musical timbre can be as important as traditional harmony, or that shrill voices, loud gongs, and droning background instruments can make for fun.

If you are looking for some Chinese music that won’t offend your Western ears, try the pipa (think elaborate Chinese lute) player Min Xiao-Fen.  Here is her home page and some press quotes.  Here is a disc to buy.  But don’t expect all Chinese music to be so easy.

What about sea cucumber?  The Chinese love the culinary texture of smoothness, even if you don’t.  Jellyfish is yummy and crunchy, and don’t forget chicken kidney boiled with fishhead.  (For real Chinese food in Northern Virginia, try China Star of Fairfax, or Saigon Palace, at Seven Corners, Falls Church, they have the kidney dish, and yes I know Saigon is in Vietnam but a Hong Kong entrepreneur just bought out the old place). 

Are you curious and looking for new cultural adventures?  Or just seeking a new and difficult way to signal your sophistication?  You probably alrerady grasp island cultures relatively well.  Spend your marginal time and energy on learning the creations of large and remote foreign territories.