Sustainable Music


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sound Commons in Smithsonian Folkways Magazine

     My argument in favor of a sound commons for all living creatures has just been published in Smithsonian Folkways Magazine. You can read it in full by following this link:

     Some of the staff at the Smithsonian's Office of Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which includes Folkways Records, were reading my entries on a sound commons on this blog. In response, they invited me to contribute an essay to an issue of their magazine on sounds and scoundscapes, with reference to albums on the Folkways list, many of which were recorded fifty and sixty years ago. I was happy to do so.

   The essay in the Folkways magazine summarizes an argument which I've been making on this blog since last fall or so, that we should manage the acoustic envirnoment as a sound commons shared by all living creatures who communicate via sound.

     I welcome all those who've read the essay on the sound commons and who've clicked the link to arrive here. For first-timers, you may want to know that I began this as a research blog in 2008 to gather thoughts on music, sustainability, and cultural policy, a theme of my public lectures and writings since about 2005. Over the years it's concentrated on those themes, but it's also expanded in scope to include sound and soundscapes, acoustic ecology, and ecomusicology. Please browse around; you have nearly five years of entries to look through at your leisure.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Music is not a cultural asset (2)

    David Throsby is today’s foremost theorist writing about the economics of cultural policy. Concerned with putting the arts (including music) on a sustainable footing, he argues that the arts are best viewed not as an alternative to or a respite from a base and commercial world of money-making but, rather, as an engine of economic competition and growth. The arts, he reminds us, have significant economic consequences, whether local or global. His argument that the arts are economically valuable cultural assets, though persuasive today among arts advocates, rests on a problematic distinction between art’s economic value and its cultural value.
    When Throsby writes that the arts have economic value he refers to the fact that arts are products involved in commodity exchanges, supported by a massive entertainment arts industry that involves venues, art products, advertising, gear, and so forth. We contract to buy music, whether in concerts, on CDs, over the Internet, or in the form of instruments, music lessons, and so forth. As long as we buy it and it has a price, as long as the money we pay supports the arts industry, art has an economic value. In fact, music and the entertainment arts represent a significant portion of the consumer economy.
    Throsby also claims that music and the arts have what he calls cultural value. He lists several kinds of cultural value: aesthetic, spiritual, social, historical, symbolic, authenticity and locational. Cultural value is realized in collective, not individual terms: “collective benefits that cannot be factored out to individuals and yet are important.” Cultural values are those aspects of a group’s lifeways that members of the group have strong feelings about, either positive or negative. That is, they have aesthetic feelings, spiritual feelings, feelings concerning social solidarity or solitude, and so forth. Cultural value is difficult to quantify. It seems to be outside of, or in addition to, the realm of commodity exchange. Throsby’s usual example is the collective benefit of a traditional art to a group of people who identify with that art. So, for instance, an ethnic group identifies with a music that it calls its own, and this has a value that seems beyond price.
    The cultural value argument is seductive; surely those of us involved in promoting traditional arts believe that it expresses group cultural identity. Indeed, folklorists and ethnomusicologists have been making a similar point over and over again in case studies of traditional and contemporary art in various cultural groups for the past fifty years. The notion that traditional art expresses, reinforces and even constitutes collective identity has become a truism.
    If we agree that the arts have cultural value, it does not necessarily follow that arts are cultural assets. Throsby wants to translate cultural values into cultural assets; that is, he believes that cultural policymakers can—and should—factor cultural values into the economic worth of artistic activities and products. The problem turns on the different meanings of value. When Throsby writes of economic value, he is thinking of price, what the art would be bought for as a product in a commodity exchange. But when he writes of cultural value, he is thinking not of price but principle. Cultural values are ideas, principles that guide individual and group behavior. As Throsby recognizes, cultural values are not the result of commodity exchange. They are “values added” but not measurable as added value. Cultural values are invaluable.
    Throsby’s dual use of value conflates value (price) with values (principles) and in so doing it tricks cultural values, which operate chiefly in the arena of gift exchange, into becoming assets with measurable worth which can enter a calculus for a cultural policy operating within the framework of an economic neoliberalism based in property rights, economic deregulation, competition and growth. Then, instead of operating as a critique of the social structure, or as providing an alternative social structure (e.g., commons, gift exchanges, egalitarian democracy), the arts are enlisted to serve a very different end, global corporate capitalism. According to Throsby, they do so by stimulating the creativity required for business innovation and successful competition, which leads to improved technology and continual economic growth, a rising tide that is supposed to lift all boats. Unfortunately, however, this set of economic assumptions is what has made our world unsustainable in the first place.
    Throsby’s argument leaves out the most important aspect of trade: the personal relations that obtain as a result. In a commodity exchange—say, a purchase of an mp3 over the Internet—the legal contract between buyer and seller obviates the need for any personal relationship at all. In a gift exchange, even when the gift is a commodity with economic value—say, a DVD that I purchase and give to you—there is no legal contract between giver and receiver, only a set of personal obligations which I have discussed in earlier blog entries. Throsby’s concept of cultural value recognizes the gift exchange aspect of the arts, but transforms its consequences. Music has economic value, but it may be involved in both commodity and gift exchanges. One of the characteristics of music and the arts is that compared with other goods they partake of a greater proportion of gift exchanges; in fact, the arts often are regarded as belonging to a collectivity, not a single individual.
    Indeed, many artists have testified that they feel their ability is a “gift,” which is not far in concept from the more common notion of “talent” as something one does not earn but either has or does not. Recall the story old-time fiddler Clyde Davenport told me about a rich man who came to him and asked Clyde to teach him. After a few lessons, Clyde advised the man to give up. “But I’ll pay you anything if you can teach me to play like you!” said the rich man. Clyde replied that he had found something money could not buy. Clyde’s ability, he said, was a gift.
    Insistence that art is a cultural asset objectifies and propertizes it. When music is regarded as private property, whether intellectual property or something tangible that one can collect, social relations arising from music exchanges are defined by legal contracts among individuals (or corporations acting under the fiction that they are individuals), instead of by the obligations of gift-giving and friendship within collectivities operating as social networks. As economic value increases, cultural values decrease. What, then, are the alternatives? How does local participatory art, gift exchanges within social networks, operate largely outside this neoliberal economic mainstream, and how may it become a viable alternative? In truth, it already is becoming one; and in future blog entries we shall be seeing where and how.

Sharing music at a festival.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Green.
Creative Commons License

Friday, March 8, 2013

Music is not a cultural asset (1)

   Once again this semester at Brown University I'm leading a seminar in music and cultural policy. In that seminar we've returned to ideas discussed in the first few years of this blog, those involving the dominant concepts operating in the arts policy world today, namely heritage, cultural tourism, and the arts as cultural assets. Using the term "asset" brings the arts into the sphere of economics, one which met initial resistance from arts administrators who voiced fears that commerce runs counter to the spirit of art. That resistance dissolved as arguments about the "creative economy" began to persuade government decision-makers to spend money to stimulate the arts. But thinking of the arts as economic assets also runs counter to what we now know about sustainability. I believe that a policy which views music as a cultural asset will not sustain music—or people making music—in a way that is worth having. Quite the contrary, it will transform music—and people—into things not worth wanting.
    In his book The Economics of Cultural Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2010), David Throsby makes a powerful argument for the economic value of the arts; that is, an argument that the arts do not merely cultivate the personality, provide aesthetic pleasure and civilized refinements. Throsby argues that the arts also stimulate personal creativity. Creativity leads to innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit, required for individuals and businesses to compete successfully in today's globalized, corporate world. For that reason, corporations, foundations and governments should invest in the arts--and such patronage, along with the new economic value that is placed on the arts, will assure their sustainability. This is a seductive line of reasoning for cultural policymakers because if true, it makes the arts (and their advocates) much more powerful players in public policy debates. Yet despite the argument’s sustainabilty-friendly appearance, I remain concerned that something bad happens to arts and people when objectified into economic assets. In the next blog entry I will critique Throsby’s argument. It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned it on this blog, but because it is winning more and more allies in the world of arts and politics, it’s important to come to come to grips with its limitations. But first, some background. How did we get to the place where support for the arts is thought to yield economic benefit?
    As Throsby notes, thirty and forty years ago government, corporate and individual patrons sustained the arts in Western nations mainly with financial grants to exemplary artists and arts presenting institutions, such as “educational television” (as PBS was called then), museums and symphony orchestras. Then, policy discussions took up such issues as how the arts “contribute to a civilized society, how more people could be introduced to the benefits of artistic consumption, and how the arts content of education systems and the media could be improved” (p. 1). In the early 1980s when I helped the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment of the Arts distribute nearly $3 million in grants per year, our awards went in this direction, often to sponsor specific events such as festivals, arts education workshops, and media productions targeted to a large audience. Gradually, these cultural policy agencies began to move away from event-centered arts patronage and towards arts infrastructure support. A guiding principle, cultural conservation, began to be articulated. As in natural conservation, the idea was a series of targeted interventions that would enable folk and traditional arts cultures to maintain themselves and, as the N.E.A. guidelines put it, “move confidently into their futures” secure in their connections with the past.
Guitar as folk art.
Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, Bangor, ME, 2011.
Creative Commons License
    The apprenticeship grant was regarded as an outstanding example of this new kind of initiative in cultural conservation. An apprenticeship grant meant money paid to a master traditional folk artist such as a Portugese fado singer or a Penobscot basket maker to teach a worthy tradition-bearer in the younger generations how to master this art, usually in a one-on-one collaboration over a period of months or years, with a young person who had shown much talent and serious interest and was likely to make it a career (or as much of one as was possible, if such a career wasn’t very remunerative). This kind of grant was thought to have more long-term positive effect in sustaining the tradition than a one-time festival or workshop, or a media product that had only a short presentational life before it was put on the storage shelf. Grants also were given in increasing numbers directly to arts agencies themselves—that is, to local NGOs consisting of culture workers encouraging folk and ethnic arts activities, who would themselves offer assistance to local arts-presenting organizations. It was not a coincidence that the cultural conservation initiative took hold at a period in the United States when support for the arts was being challenged by political conservatives. Just as the welfare state was reformed in the 1980s and 1990s, so arts support thinking moved from welfare to conservation.
    Along with the change in thinking from welfare to conservation, the word “culture” began to be used more and more as in anthropology, referring a people’s way of life, what’s learned and passed along from one generation to the next, the non-biological inheritance. But how to fund cultural conservation efforts remained a problem. Yet a solution, as I pointed out years ago on this blog, was already available—in the arena of historic preservation—and what worked over there could be used to fund the arts. In so doing, tourism, the economic lifeblood of historic preservation, was brought into cultural conservation. Not that arts tourism was unknown, but for more than a century it had been aimed at the fine arts objects in museums, cathedrals, and the like. Traditional arts, on the other hand, could become the focus of arts tourism in living history settings. These arts were alive; the artifacts could, as one museum executive director put it, emerge from their glass cases and reunite with their makers who would demonstrate their making for the tourists.
    Historic preservation sounded a little too musty for the arts in this context, though. UNESCO in particular took the initiative and settled on the concept of heritage, which is to say history with a certain kind of cultural value placed on it. With UNESCO, heritage was already in use to describe historical monuments, and so the somewhat awkward contrast was made between tangible heritage, such as a historic building, and intangible heritage, such as a traditional art, understood both as cultural knowledge and expression or product. Eventually the term in use, intangible cultural heritage, became shortened to its acronym, ICH.
    Although usually pronounced eye-see-aitch, the UNESCO policy regarding ICH also itched, or irritated, some cultural policymakers for a number of reasons: fuzzy conceptualization and problematic implementation, for starters. Nevertheless, cultural policymakers throughout the world began using intangible cultural heritage and the arts, particularly traditional music, to promote tourism and then, the argument ran, with tourist dollars not only sustain the arts but also pour money into the local economies.  At a time when, in the so-called developed world, manufacturing had been outsourced and economies had changed to largely service and information providing, when income inequality was increasing, and when local economies were under great stress, arts tourism seemed an avenue worth encouraging. Soon arts were being regarded as potentially powerful economic assets.    
    In the next blog entry I will critique the argument for sustaining music and the arts by treating them as economic assets, particularly when termed cultural assets. I will reveal the confusion underlying Throsby’s attempt to differentiate between art’s economic value and cultural value, while assigning a measurable worth to each. I continue to believe that local, participatory music in small groups, based on commons, social networks and gifts exchanges, is a better alternative for long-term sustainability than economic asset-think which, despite Throsby’s seductive presentation, makes neoliberal assumptions concerning economic growth and competition that are inimical to both music and sustainability.