Oleh : Alvin Ulido | Staff Divisi Kajian Kanopi 2012 | Ilmu Ekonomi 2011
Why Are There More Biebers and Less Mozarts (?)
Some Economic Explanations of the Rise of Pop Culture
After a short evening silence (and half a glass of table wine), this thought came across my mind: Why increasing prosperity in society does not make lower class adopt haute culture, but rather the opposite? If increasing prosperity makes lower and middle class try their best to mimic upper class fashion and lifestyle, then logically, contemporary pop culture, which mainly rest upon light content and easy pleasure, should not prevail over the more established classical and conservative haute culture (including fine art) in the first place. Or is there anything else?
Before we start doing analysis upon this phenomenon, I will present you random excerpts of writing by popular writers from different era as a small proof of existence of this phenomenon:
“’My affectations!’ he murmured; ’what are they? For heaven’s sake, Catherine, don’t look so angry! Despise me as much as you please; I am a worthless, cowardly wretch: I can’t be scorned enough; but I’m too mean for your anger. Hate my father, and spare me for contempt.’”
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë (1847)
“This is the first kiss that we’re both fully aware of. Neither of us hobbled by sickness or pain or simply unconscious. Our lips neither burning with fever or icy cold. This is the first kiss where I actually feel stirring inside my chest. Warm and curious. This is the first kiss that makes me want another. But I don’t get it. Well, I do get a second kiss, but it’s just a light one on the tip of my nose because Peeta’s been distracted. “I think your wound is bleeding again. Come on, lie down, it’s bedtime anyway,” he says.”
The Hunger Games – Suzan Collins (2008)
Lack of Proper Education?
Enough said, the diction (choice of words) of those two different popular novel reflect something bigger; difference of the initial target readers. Bookreaders at the time of Ms. Brontë, even in industrialised Britain, came mainly from the well-educated upper class and middle class, which represent only a fraction of the total population. Education at the time of Ms. Brontë stressed the importance of culture and refined taste, and limited chance of education means only elites of the society can have access to education, ensuring maintained level of sophistication.
However, we should always be reminded that the lower and lower-middle class comprised (and still comprise) the majority of the population. Refinement and sophistication are not something that they are accustomed to, and even though governments around the world (starting from Britain, of course) finally opened up access to education for all people, governments failed to foresee that “assembly-line education” is not the way to make people “educated”, rather being intellectually empty robots. Education didn’t make them any more
Okay, enough for the rhetorics of education. Firstly, I thought lack of proper education is satisfying enough to answer the puzzling rise of pop culture and diminishing refinement and sophistication in some forms of work of art, chiefly in literature and music. However, after further contemplation, I came to a conclusion that such explanation can only be true until fifty years ago (where the concern about holistic growth of children start to emerge). Indeed, today’s generation does not lack art education. Public education has gone through massive amelioration, in terms of quantity and quality, over the last 100 years. In many advanced economies, almost anybody has access to adequate education, which also cover curricular and extra-curricular activities on arts. If the education has gradually ceased to be assembly-line of smart robots, why refined, sophisticated literatures and musics don’t enjoy popular comeback in today’s generation? Why, resembling the title of this article, are there more musics like those of Justin Bieber and less musics like those of Wolfgang A. Mozart?
After long hours of pondering, I came to a not-so-surprising conclusion: mainstream authors and musicians no longer operate by the virtue of “art for the art’s sake”, but rather like producer of ordinary goods. In short, the reduced level of sophistication achieved by current generation of mainstream authors and musicians is, ironically, because they start to think as a rational economic actor; profit seeker. Mainstream authors and musicians may or may not be aware that they surrender their creativity to the will of the market, but one thing is certain: they create music and books that are easy to comprehend so that more people can enjoy it.
But why “creating musics and books that are easy to comprehend” has serious economic implications?
Fine arts, as it is created by idealists musicians and authors who prefer to proudce magnum opus rather than fames and fortunes, is usually distinguished by its perplexed details and cannot be easily grasped, let alone be enjoyed, by laymen. Enjoying fine arts requires one to at least reflect about what the artist(s) want to communicate through their works of art. However, reflection, much like any other forms of critical thinking, is not something that most people like to do, and this reduce the utility derived from enjoying fine arts, at least for most people.
When musicians and authors began to create musics and books that are easy to comprehend, people soon find alternative sources to derive enjoyment (hence, utilities) from arts, and they like it. Why should bother taking classical writings and musics seriously while pop musics and writings can easily amuse you, anyway? Not only pop arts derive more utilities to general public, they also derive utilities from enjoying arts more instantly.
When we translate this phenomenon into economic languages, we can simply put these situations into sequences:
- Literatures and musics were once domain of the people with much leisure time, that is the upper class (a small niche market)
- People of this class tend to be much more sophisticated and refined. The prevailing demands are for complexly crafted musics and novellas with other-worldly vocabularies (and fine arts in general)
- As lower class and lower middle class became more and more prosperous, they gained more leisure time (new market). More educations also means that they became more aware of musics and literatures
- However, lower class and lower middle class found that complexly crafted musics and novellas with other-worldly vocabularies (fine arts) are of low utility for them, due to extra effort for thinking to really enjoy them. (new market don’t like old products)
- Some musicians and authors are well aware of it, and started to supply the market with easy-to-listen songs and easy-to-read books. (some producers see opportunity in the new market)
- Those musicians and authors who had anticipated the new market were becoming successful. Other musicians and authors, knowing that the new market is to rise further, reduced supply for the small niche market (producers were exiting the small market and entering the new market)
- Products in the new market, which are easy-to-listen and easy-to-read, provide instant gratifications for the listeners or the readers. Instant gratifications, of course, provide more utilities. (people prefer instant/apparent utilities)
- Members of the upper class and upper middle class were becoming increasingly aware of the instant gratifications given by the products of the pop culture. Coupled by turbulence in society’s structure in 1910s-1920s and 1960s-1970s, younger members of the upper class regarded the changes in virtues of the society as a good justification to indulge in pop culture rather than culturally staying “refined” (customer base/demand increased)
If we observe the sequences more carefully, we may see that the change in taste stemmed from the fact that the modern music and literature industries experience negligible marginal costs, thus always profit very nicely from more demands. As pop arts has demands several magnitudes more than fine arts, it is more profitable for authors and musicians (and also for the recording studios and publishers) to serve the pop arts market and gradually left the market for fine arts. Then, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution starts to work.
In short, the answer to “why are there more Biebers and less Mozarts?” is
1) Bieber provide more utilities to more people than Mozart; and
2) Bieber has much bigger fanbase than Mozart.
Bear in mind that it is not implied that I, as the writer, loathe pop arts. Indeed, I quite enjoy a handful of contemporary pop musics and writings, despite my overall preference for classical musics and writings (and yes, I certainly don’t mind if you regard me as snobbish, hipster, or whatever)
At least, I have found a generally satisfying explanation, and I now can sleep knowing why I will never ever hear pieces by Rachmaninoff on the radio, or see novels like Jane Eyre to top the “Best-Seller” list anytime soon.