Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Friendship, "Giving Back," and the Price of a Creative Economy

    About ten years ago John Fenn, interviewing me on the subject of applied ethnomusicology, asked why I thought so many graduate students in his generation were interested in it. I told him I thought they weren’t satisfied with the traditional circulation of knowledge inside the intellectual communities of the colleges, universities, museums, and archives; and that they felt, after getting to know the people whose music they were researching, a desire to “give back” something to those people and the music cultures they were not only learning about but learning from. (For that interview, see John Fenn, "A Conversation with Jeff Todd Titon," Folklore Forum, Vol. 34, nos. 1 and 2 [2003], pp. 119-131. A free download is available at:
    “Giving back” is the way they phrase it now, and it’s also the way those of us in my generation did when engaging in the kinds of reciprocity that distinguished us from previous academic generations. As I said in that interview, I was “giving back” to the blues musicians I hung out with long before I even knew what fieldwork research or ethnomusicology was, for reciprocity is the way friends normally behave with one another. The gift exchange of giving back isn’t noblesse oblige, the way humanities institutions typically think about their public mission, to bring culture to the uncultured. It is reciprocity, a gift quid pro quo. The bluesmen I hung around with in the 1960s—Lazy Bill Lucas primarily, but also JoJo Williams, Baby Doo Caston, Lee Rogers, and Mojo Buford—were freely giving me their music, their thoughts, their time, their soul food. I’d learned to play blues guitar in high school and played it in college but I don’t think I really learned it until I started making music with these musicians, first jamming with them in their apartments and then eventually joining Lazy Bill’s band. And I was learning about the blues music culture, too: how to be in the world as a blues musician like them. These were priceless gifts to me, and I wanted to give something back if I could.
    But what? Maybe, I thought, I could help their careers by generating some publicity for them. I interviewed each of them about their lives in music and got these published in blues fan magazines, notably Blues Unlimited. This led to three record contracts for Bill, and many more gigs, including an appearance at the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, for which Bill earned more money than he ever had been paid for any job in his life, before or since. 
    Although this could be regarded as “pay back,” because we each did help each other's careers, and that brought money in, I preferred to think of it as an example of a gift exchange. Making music as we did is a social activity in which musicians give to each other; these gifts enforce the gift-giving nature of friendship among musicians. They’d have given me these things whether I tried to help their careers or not. I’d have tried to give back in other ways if I could—and I did, in bringing food, transporting them around town on occasion, and so forth, the kinds of things friends do for each other anyway.
    But looking back on it, I now understand it as both a gift exchange and a commodity exchange; some of each, and both can be seen as investments in the future. It is difficult to talk about exchanges, even gift exchanges without talking in economic terms; but I trust that there is more to economics than commodity exchanges.
    In the so-called creative economy (see the blog entry for Feb. 19, 2011), when cultural policy increasingly becomes an arm of economic policy, where is the place for the unmerited gift, given and received, that is music (or any art, for that matter)? Economist David Throsby argues that art has a cultural value which transcends its price. Yet Throsby's arguments in favor of the creative economy all are use arguments which assign commodity value to music. And so while the music in the creative economy may be viewed as partaking of both gift and commodity exchanges, the price of emphasizing the latter is to risk atrophy to the former.

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