The Invisible Hand is Broken

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Adam Smith’s law of competition is supposed to create an optimal economy of consumers and producers. When a better product appears on the market, the consumer rewards the producer with his or her custom. This spurs the producer’s competitor to create an even better product, etc. ensuring a cycle of continual improvement.

But this law breaks down when it comes to bands. With the sheer number of musical acts these days, the competition should be fierce and the consumer should be able to choose from the very best available. But for three reasons, this is not the case.

First, because our culture has abandoned communal music-making, performing in a band is one of the few accepted ways of expressing our musicality. Group singing in classrooms, churches, bars, games, etc. is a normal part of most cultures, and used to be part of ours. Now music instruction has been cut from many schools, and recorded music has replaced singalongs. We no longer sing our national anthem. Most parties in restaurants can’t even manage to sing “Happy Birthday” all in the same key. Almost everybody of whatever ability enjoys making music, but the socially-encouraged path is only to perform music for others, to be a “rock star.”

Second, since the cost of music to the modern consumer is negligible, the value of any one band to the consumer is not very high. There is a glut. While each band is competing for the attention of the consumer, the consumer does not see him/herself as part of this economy. He/she can have essentially all the music he/she needs at any time, and has no reason to seek for anything more.

Third, the ubiquity of bands creates a bottleneck. The journalistic, academic and commercial forces that have traditionally provided some discernment and encouragement of excellence are overwhelmed, and have largely abandoned the task. Talented bands and untalented bands all end up in the same pool, never to be evaluated. And when a band is randomly elevated from this pool, it is more likely than not to be unremarkable, even as it becomes the talk of the town.

We have broken the invisible hand that used to feed us

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