Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Economics of Culture

While writing the previous post, it occurred to me that the phrase 'economics of culture' was worth some elaboration. Here, then, is a rather meandering attempt to unpack the phrase... Culture is a famously vague term, meaning to some the total of everyday practices ('everything you don't have to think about when you wake up in the morning,' a former professor of mine defined it as). To others, culture designates a much narrower category of elite literary and artistic production, below which are various levels of popular culture, sub-cultures, or non-cultures. But in either case, the creation and dissemination of 'culture' in any society must be economically viable. In order to survive in the memory of a society, cultural products must have a large enough group of people who recognize a product as having a value worth propagating, preserving, and imitating.

Cultural products can be highly idiosyncratic--the product of unpredictable individual genius, greatly underdetermined by social or economic context. Or they can be produced by groups or individuals who carefully tailor the products to match a perceived demand. There is no predicting which type of cultural product will at any one time, in the present or future, be considered 'good' or 'bad,' which will be popular, which will be favored by elite groups (people with 'good taste'). And the status of a product can change dramatically over time, moving back and forth across from popular to elite, dwelling in both at time, shifting from popularity in one social group to another.

There is, then, a high degree of contingency in individual cultural products, but in general there must also be larger economic and social structures that help determine the overall content of a society's culture. There have been periods of history known for their efflorescence of certain types of cultural products. The new painting styles of the Renaissance, for example, or the development of literary realism in the 19th century. What were the economic and social structures that made such bursts of creativity possible? This question is not only of historical interest, but is at the heart of debates--or at least the moral rather than strictly legal aspects of the debate--over intellectual property rights, file sharing and the music industry.

The proponents of file sharing and digital distribution, such as myself, argue for fewer limits on such technology because it allows for a greater variety of music to reach consumers. If individual artists have fairly simple and inexpensive access to the means of music production and international distribution, they have a greater chance of enrolling a large enough group of fans around the world to support the continued production of their music. The music industry--and many very popular recording artists--argues that file sharing robs artists of their right to control and profit from their creations. In their view, without greater copyright protections (both legal and technological), artists will no longer be able to support themselves through sales of their recordings, and so creativity will be stiffled.

Although, as the 'Rockonomics' paper makes clear, very few recording artists make money through their recordings; most gain income by touring rather than record sales. The musicians losing money because of file sharing are, at most, an elite few at the very top of record sales lists.

1 comment:

Wulingren said...

Interesting post. Are you familiar with the writings and blog of Lawrence Lessig? He makes similar points I believe. The Grateful Dead was an interesting pre-WWW phenomenon. They used to promote people recording their concerts, and exchanging live recordings with their friends. They did not seem to suffer financially from this practice. By the way, I have added your link to my blog. Congratulations! Don't feel so lumpen.