Monday, November 9, 2009

The Day the Music Died

Mark Butterworth observes that there has never been so much talent or ambition in the music world but that that world is on life support. Young and/or unknown artists, particularly writers and composers, simply lack the resources to do quality work. Here's why:

Recorded music costs a lot of money, but recorded music isn't making any money.

Here are a few facts: ... U.S. album sales in 2008: More than 115,000 albums were released, but only 110 sold more than 250,000 copies, a mere 1,500 topped 10,000 sales, and fewer than 6,000 cracked the 1,000 barrier -- further evidence that sales of recorded music are not the way of the future for artists.

Butterworth laments that the production costs of recorded music are so high as to exclude all but the already highly successful artists and even they make little money on their albums. The value of recording them lies in the reknown they bring to the artist who can parlay that fame into sold-out concerts and other venues:

Yes, I know people have home studios and are cranking out tunes by the millions and putting them on their Facebook or MySpace pages, but nearly 100% of them are crap.

Crap, you say? Why? Talent often requires a good deal of instruction, competition, and criticism to develop to the point where it becomes good enough to interest others. Hobbyists don't get that. Hollywood does a good deal of development, and yet 95% of their movies are nearly unwatchable now, and never has so much money been spent on film except for one thing -- the writing. Old Hollywood often spent 25% of a film budget on writing alone. Even the best-paid writers now get nothing like that much.

One hundred thousand or so books a year are published in the USA now, yet millions more are written...and of those 100K, few make money.

So, here are some interesting questions: Assuming he's right about all this, what is the future of music in our culture? Will we be seeing a decline in the quality of our popular music (many would argue that we already have)? Is the decline inevitable? What would it take to reverse it and is it worth reversing? Is a government bailout of the music industry on the horizon?


Compassion Genes

As part of the discussion of free will and determinism in my philosophy classes we talked about evolutionary psychology and the idea of the "selfish gene." One of the foremost popularizers of this view is Robert Wright who in the lecture below claims that human compassion and the Golden Rule are genetically based and hard wired into our biological nature by evolution.

This view is fraught with problems. For example, Wright seems to argue that because we have the genes for compassion that therefore compassion is good, but then cruelty and selfishness must also be genetic. So, why are they not good? What standard does Wright use to decide that compassion is good and cruelty is not? Unfortunately, he has none other than that he prefers one and not the other. It's a purely arbitrary judgment on his part. He likes what compassion does and dislikes what cruelty does, and so he declares compassion good, and counts on an audience steeped in the subliminal assumptions of a Judeo-Christian heritage to agree with him. He could have made the same argument, though, substituting cruelty, and it would be just as valid. If our genes program us to act cruelly, which they surely must, then cruelty is good.

The first nine minutes or so of the video are the most interesting:

How do we know that we have a "compassion gene" anyway? Such a gene has never been found and its existence is purely speculative, but it leads us to one of the interesting aspects of Wright's hypothesis. The theory that there is a gene for compassion may be testable. If Wright's correct then as we elucidate more and more of the genome we should be able to find genes that program us for compassionate behavior. If we don't the idea of a genetic basis for morality becomes much less likely to be true, and we'll have to look elsewhere for a basis for human moral sentiments.


Wide of the Mark

I don't like the title on this graph, but the data it reflects are too important to ignore just because the heading is more tendentious than I'd like:

The red line is the actual unemployment rate. The other lines represent what we were promised by the Obama administration. Either these people were lying to us about the effects their massive stimulus package would have or they're just incompetent. I prefer to believe the latter explanation. It's more charitable but no more comforting.