What Goes Around, Comes Around

As we stagger out past the end of the American Century, it may be useful to contemplate what will happen next — or what may happen, if we’re willing to roll with it. The American Century lasted for about 130 years, from 1880 to 2010. It’s over now.

What does this have to do with music? I’ll get to that.

We can be sure of one thing about the years to come: Almost nobody is going to enjoy the kind of material prosperity Americans have long felt was their birthright. Face it: If everyone on this planet had the number of possessions you and I have, and used the amount of natural resources you and I use, this would be a dead planet. The air would not be fit to breathe, nor the water fit to drink.

Prosperity will not be restored. But if we have the courage to re-envision our entire economic system, this need not be a calamity. Okay, we’re going to need to reduce the human population to, at most, 10% of its current level. If we don’t do it voluntarily, nature is going to do it for us. Once that detail is taken care of, there will be some good news. With the technology available to us today, the entire (reduced) population of the world can be neatly supported — housed, clothed, fed, cared for, and entertained — by 10% of the available work force. The other 90% of our descendants will have nothing to do but sing and dance and weave garlands and make love.

This is not a bad outcome.

The good news is, we’re already seeing the birth of this new post-economy economy. In the past decade, thanks to the Internet, there has been a significant upsurge in the amount of human activity that is not undertaken in order to make money. People are sharing stuff — ideas, software, music, videos — simply for the joy of sharing.

Assuming we don’t run head-on into a catastrophic collapse, you can confidently expect this trend to continue. And it’s not just for hippies, either. I have a friend who is an Ayn Rand conservative. Though he’s a bright guy, his ideas about government are shockingly naive. And yet, he write a blog in which he freely shares his insights and passions. His hobby is mathematics, and his blog is entirely devoted to advanced ideas in math. A lot more people read it than read my blog. Even though he idolizes Rand’s fictional industrial tycoon John Galt, my friend has happily dived into the post-consumer economy. In a nutshell, he’s a socialist, and he doesn’t even know it.

Lately I’ve been spending more time with Csound. It’s free. It’s entirely supported by a community of enthusiastic volunteers. Okay, a few of us make a little money on it — I’ve written a book (you know, the paper kind) that will be on sale in a couple of months. But while writing the book, I’ve also been helping a developer prepare a new version of the QuteCsound front end. I’ve been testing the not-yet-released software and sending him bug reports. For free. I’ve been building the program using a compiler I downloaded from Nokia. For free. I took a look at a modestly priced software bundle called CsoundForLive and reported a few bugs, which the developers were able to fix mere hours before they released the software. I did it for free.

Thousands of examples of Csound code (synthesizers and music compositions) are available for download. For free.

In the short term, the transition to a post-consumption economy creates massive dislocations. How are independent musicians supposed to make a living on music when people can share their recordings for free? (The answer is not, “Sell tee-shirts at your gigs.”) A hundred years from now — if there are musicians, and if there’s an Internet — this is not going to be a problem. Musicians will be clothed, housed, fed, and cared for the way most of the rest of the population is. The productive output of 10% of the population will provide for the other 90%. Musicians will be able to share their music freely without having to worry about making money from it.

We can even imagine that there might be sanctions against doing productive work. If too many people are working, you’ll have a surplus of material goods, and the planet simply won’t support a surplus of material goods. The service economy, however — teachers, counselors, acrobats, expert repair technicians — will flourish.

It’s a dreadful capitalist trick to say, “Oh, but you do it because you love it, right?” This bullshit is used by club owners to justify ripping off musicians. The club owner expects to make a living … but somehow the musician isn’t entitled to expect the same consideration.

Come to think of it, that bullshit is used by publishers too. When my first novel was published (in 1985), I couldn’t help noticing that the guy who drove the truck that delivered the books to the bookstore expected to earn a living. The clerks in the bookstore may only have made minimum wage, but the minimum wage stretched a little farther then than it does today. Meanwhile, I was working a day job, because my royalty on the novel wasn’t nearly enough to pay the rent and the grocery bill while I wrote the next novel. I was creating the wealth for these other workers, yet I was expected to do it because I loved doing it.

A few years before that, in 1977 or thereabouts, jazz pianist Chick Corea wrote a column for Keyboard, the magazine where I worked, in which he suggested that the government ought to support all artists. What bothered me about that proposal, at the time, was that I didn’t much want a government-run board deciding who did or did not qualify as an authentically talented artist.

In the future that’s not going to be a problem. If you don’t want to work, you won’t have to. You’ll be able to play music all day, if that’s what pleases you.

I’m sad that I won’t live long enough to see it. But it’s coming. And if you download Csound, you may find that it’s closer than you think.

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One Response to What Goes Around, Comes Around

  1. “In the future that’s not going to be a problem. If you don’t want to work, you won’t have to. You’ll be able to play music all day, if that’s what pleases you.”—-Not sure I understand the logistics of this happening??

    “yet I was expected to do it because I loved doing it.”—-Yes, you were creating something from scratch. If your publishing company couldn’t locate any authors than the people who worked in it, as well as the truck drivers and book store managers/owners/clerks wouldn’t have jobs. However, I don’t think people expect authors or artists to just do their work because they love it—although, I write and I don’t get paid, so if someone was willing to pay me, then all the better!

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