Music, bought and sold in the marketplace, is usually regarded as a commodity. As a product, such as a recording, music has a commodity value and a market price. As a created object, as intellectual property, music can also be copyrighted and owned; not merely the creation but also the performance—and they may be owned separately, as indicated by the different copyright symbols © and ℗. As an aside, the notion that a person can own a recording, such as a CD or an mp3 file downloaded from the Internet, but not the right to copy and sell that recording, is peculiar. I will have more to say about that in later posts.
Music is also regarded as a gift. That is, music is sometimes experienced as a gift, and one cannot put a price on such an experience. Composers say that sometimes they experience moments when pure inspiration produces music effortlessly and it is as if they are merely the vessels bringing music into the world from another source. Musicians say that sometimes their playing is equally a gift. In many cultures, musical talent is regarded as a gift, innate, and although it can be developed, it cannot be bought or sold. Listeners sometimes say that they experience music as an invaluable gift that enhances their appreciation and understanding.
My friend Lewis Hyde—we first met when he was an undergraduate and I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota—has written about experiencing art as a gift. In his widely-read and deservedly influential book, The Gift, he recalls that “I went to see a landscape painter’s works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see the shapes and colors I had not seen the day before. The spirit of an artist’s gift can wake our own. The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition. . . We may not have the power to profess our gifts as the artist does, and yet we come to recognize, and in a sense to receive, the endowments of our being through the agency of his creation” (Lewis Hyde, The Gift [Vintage Books, 1983, p. xii]).
It was the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss who, nearly 100 years ago, drawing on Bronislaw Malinowski’s fieldwork among Trobriand Islanders, posited a difference between societies where economic exchange took place chiefly in the form of gifts, and those societies such as our own where commodity exchange was the norm. His original insight was that in commodity exchanges, the legal contract between buyer and seller obviates the need for any ongoing personal relationship among them; whereas in gift exchanges, the receiver is personally obligated to the giver, ethically if not legally. That is, the receiver feels obliged to give something back, in exchange, to the original giver; or to circulate the gift further.
But cultural policy is quickly and willingly becoming an arm of economic policy. As David Throsby writes in his book The Economics of Cultural Policy, until a decade or so ago, cultural policy among the Western nations was devoted chiefly to subsidizing the arts with direct financial support, whether from corporations, government, or philanthropic individuals. These subsidies were given chiefly to arts organizations such as symphony orchestras, museums, dance companies, and so forth; some monies came to artists directly in the form of fellowships. But in the past decade, according to Throsby, cultural policy has increasingly been positioned as part and parcel of economic policy, and a new term has entered policy discourse to describe this meetingplace: the “creative economy.”
Cultural policy-makers argue that art grows the commodity economy. It does so in three ways. First, cultural tourism which takes in the arts brings tourist money to local economies where heritage spaces, museums, concert halls, and other presentational venues attract an audience. Second, the cultural industries themselves, those involved in the production of mass market art—particularly music—have a large and growing impact on the economy. Third, education in the arts nourishes creativity, and creativity leads to innovation in technology and business, which leads to a competitive edge and economic growth. Cultural tourism, the culture industries, and the way the arts nourish the qualities needed for creativity in the marketplace constitute the creative economy.
Thus my question: how can civil society sustain the gift culture surrounding art in general and music in particular, when music is increasingly viewed as a commodity and when cultural policy, which is the way civil society encourages music, is increasingly becoming an arm of economic policy?