Money and Music: dispelling the illusion

My brother Brian is an enterprising fellow, always has been. As a teenager, he learned how to turn eels into guitars. Brian loves fishing. He learned that his talent for catching fish was of value to others. So he caught eels and sold them. He accumulated enough money to buy an electric guitar. Brian wasn’t a fisherman, or a guitarist. He was an alchemist. Transforming slimy river monsters into pinch harmonics. This is the power of money. Cool huh? Well yes, unless you’re an eel. And that’s an important piece of the puzzle. In the eyes of money, nothing is what it is. Everything is everything else. Money flattens everything. It has 2-D vision. A tree, from the perspective money is only “good” because it can be transformed into lumber and paper. Which is counter to a natural way of looking at a tree. Because a tree is good in and of itself. Because it is beautiful. It doesn’t need to be anything else to be good. It just is good.

This is my thesis on money. For now. What happens when this strange force is applied to music?

The Early Youtube Music Scene and the Rise of Jack Conte

I was involved in the vibrant youtube music scene of over a decade ago. This was when youtube was a young platform serving as an empty vessel for the imagination of users. It was filled with all sorts of raw, low-budget, 360p creative energy. The platform had very simple tools that facilitated micro-solidarity such as peer-to-peer messaging and the ability to feature others’ work on your own channel. Community leaders emerged and orbits formed. The mood was one of mutual support. Then the light of Pamplemoose’s rising star became unignorable.

You may have heard of this husband and wife band. The front woman Nataly Dawn sports an attractive coyness. And her husband, Jack Conte has an infectious, playful energy. Pamplemoose built an audience with catchy video production and an addictively cute approach to cover songs. Their popularity on youtube rose higher than anyone in our community expected possible. The phenomenon focused attention on the view count meter. Until Pamplemoose, view count was not something discussed very much, let alone prioritized as an end. Soon Pamplemoose was touring to large audiences. They were the talk of the cyber town.

Jack Conte went on to create Patreon. This tech company is currently valued at over one billion dollars. It is a membership platform that provides business tools for content creators to run a subscription service. It helps creators and artists earn a monthly income by providing rewards and perks to their subscribers. Patreon charges a commission on transactions, in addition to payment processing fees. At a time when the old music business model was losing the confidence of artists, Patreon was embraced as a valid alternative. It was successful because it offered a real benefit to creatives. I am grateful that Patreon revealed how much was possible for musicians looking to leverage the internet to grow their audience and income. But in retrospect, it was a Faustian bargain.

It took a few years but Jack Conte, like most major tech CEOs became embroiled in a censorship controversy. The kerfuffle raised some worrying questions about the future of online community. The basic structure of the trouble is that as Patreon grew, it felt a need to maintain a certain brand appearance. This meant that unpalatable creators got the boot off the platform. One creator got a lifetime denial of access to Patreon because of activity that occurred outside the platform. Shades of Big Brother. This article is not about that controversy. The reader can inform themselves of these details. I am highlighting that Patreon’s evolution matches the scaling problem in archaic human community as outlined in the article linked here. To summarize: there is historical precedent indicating that shamans integrate laterally into their communities until the community reaches a certain size. With the increase of community size comes an increase in complexity and an increase in the likelihood that the shaman class becomes a priest class. This priest class installs taboos for the proper running of the now large community. However, it is the power of taboo creation that – whether ill or well-intended – can result in oppressive living conditions for the ruled class. The most clear example of this is the creation of classes themselves and the sets of behaviors resulting from their existence.

When Pamplemoose hit big I saw musicians in my community adjust their presentation and style to imitate Pamplemoose’s. Time was spent on production value which reduced time spent on maintaining communal bonds. Certain musical styles were favored over others. Key players took a turn away from unbridled imagination towards brand awareness. Pamplemoose showed us the possibility of being independent through the earning of money. But it also introduced the idea that our small community is unnecessary. Sincerity and connection was replaced by performance. Some abandoned the pursuit of music altogether and pursued clicks via other content types. Most of us slipped out into the silence of the meat world. The internet no longer had magic to offer. Those that stayed plugged in deepened their devotion to the algorithm. The dream of making money from music came at a cost. The cost being the loss of the joy we brought to our hearts. Jack Conte’s rise was a promethean gift. It got everyone cooking and it burned down the house. 

The Great Flattening

Charles Eisenstein’s master thesis on money comes in the form of a book called “Sacred Economics”. It’s a dizzyingly deep look at money and its enmeshed relationship to the human experience. There’s a scenario Charles proposes that illuminates his motivation for writing the book. Suppose that you live in a town that is small enough for you to get to know your neighbours. Suppose that you run into your neighbour Kevin one morning and you engage in small talk. You tell Kevin that you are on your way to buy some winter tires. Kevin interrupts and says that he has a spare set of winter tires in his garage. He won’t be using them this year anyway so you may as well take them. You stutter. “Gee thanks, but you really don’t have to give me the tires. I can go buy some”. Kevin insists. You yield but continue negotiating. You offer to buy the tires from him. Why is it that you insist to bring money into this? Kevin wants to give you something. Why not accept? Eisenstein suggests it’s because money has trained us to avoid entanglement with others. What independence money offers comes at the cost of the obligation to your neighbours. Or one could say money absolves you from loving your neighbour.

Money’s unending hunger to turn all forms of valuations into itself has placed musicians in a strange position. It is not obvious how many coins a song is “worth”. One may be able to say they paid 99 cents or 99 dollars for a song. But knowing that tells you nothing about the song. How well did the singer perform it? Did he lend his charisma and feeling to the performance? How much healing did the song bring to your soul?

The entangling of money with music has permitted its explosive growth especially in the industrial revolution and the technology that came with it. The digital age all but eliminated the musician’s ability to append value to their contribution. In a supply and demand economy that exists in an age where literally everyone can make and distribute music, any given musical contribution can’t be said to have monetary value. Especially considering that music itself has no tangible benefit to a society that disavows the soul. Why value getting my soul back if there is no such thing to get back?

The Consequences: the hard lesson of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

A town is plagued by rats. A piper comes through. He is dressed in fambloyant garb. He is an outsider. The piper learns that anyone able to solve the rat problem will be awarded a bag of gold. The piper begins playing a tune which ensorcells all the rats. After leading the vermin away to a river, the rats drown. The town is overjoyed. But when the piper comes to collect his reward he is denied it. “All you did was pipe a tune!” The piper exacts his revenge by playing another tune that ensorcells the children this time. The piper leads the children into a mountain that closes up behind them. The children are never again seen. Note that the piper does not place a price on his song. The price is placed by the community on the result of the song. The downfall of the townsfolk is their dismissal of the power of music. This failure costs them dearly: an entire generation lost.

This is the challenge which we face. Music having become ubiquitous in an age of money has caused its real value to be hidden in plain sight. Music can not be eaten, used as an antibiotic or a means of transportation. Seen with the eyes of money, music is merely a potential good. That is to say, a song is not edible. And because it is money that buys you a meal, money is thus “higher” than music. But we know there’s something wrong with that, don’t we? We can feel it, like a splinter in the mind. We know music has a specialness that money doesn’t have. A song is more sacred than a dollar because a dollar is like every other dollar. But a song is a singular being. Like a tree, a song stands as singularly valuable. It is sacred. Our generation’s life depends on our ability to dispell the illusion money casts on us. It is imperative that we recognize the non-fungible value of sacred things such as music. Otherwise, like the Hamelin children, we will be led to non-existence by the very thing we fail to value.

A Vision from the Past for the Future

I’ve spoken with musicians alot lately for the new Music, Meaning and Mystery podcast (Oh yeah, there’s a podcast now by the way, go check it out on every major podcatcher!) In these conversations, I’ve asked my guests what special experiences they have had in music. So far they have not talked about their ability to get paid as being something special. They speak of it as a necessity and a challenge. What they revere is their connection to their community. Seeing people dancing, children celebrating a groove, people emoting at the sound of music, or participating in some manner. This harkens to what I call a traditional use of music. I define that as participatory. Sea Shanties are designed to be a simple form so anyone can join in by call and answer. The 12 bar blues format is widespread and enjoyed for its standard pattern that can be shared by musicians of many skill levels. Drumming and chanting in traditional cultures are accessible, repetitive forms that facilitate dancing and trance. Pay attention to Voudon traditional celebrations, or the San dancing ceremonies supported by music such as in this video.

Notice who is doing the singing and clapping. It is not strictly the healer who sings to the community but it is the community as a whole who make the ceremony. I want to underline how the healer describes his encounter with the spirit who called him to his vocation. The “white shape” sang him a song**. Also note how the healer is not singing out of self expression, he says he is listening to what the song is saying. He has a relationship to the song as a standalone agency. The song is a person communicating to him and granting him powers. The healer, and the community all participate in a relationship to the music as an outside agency. All those present participate in the healing process. The point of the music here is not to exchange it for currency. It’s not to turn it into everything else. The song by virtue of being a person is singular (the opposite of a commodity). It can not be turned into something else except medicine. And it can not be owned because everyone makes it. This traditional use of music does something very well that money does not. It unites. This should indicate to us what it is about the groove and the jam that is revered by musicians. And it is a clue where the new musician class will take music and how the community will re-integrate the sacred into its relationship to music and musicians. The Song heals and the whole community makes the song. We are all the Song.

Kevin’s Invitation to Human Ceremony

The community’s recognition of the existence of that value in music is the challenge. The community must come to value it by participation. Participation means action. It means gratitude. When you accept Kevin’s gift of tires, you accept the responsibility of entering into the spirit of the gift. You now can’t easily forget about Kevin. You kind of have to get to know him. Kevin didn’t offer you tires. He invited you to participate in human ceremony. The invitation to the human ceremony comes in many forms. Sometimes it is a song. If we reject the invitation, we separate ourselves from the sacred dimension of life and are swallowed up by the mountain. We disappear.

We all have our obligations to money. Money has become some sort of prison in that it is impossible to extricate ourselves from its requirements. If you and your family want to eat, you have to make money. So it will require an intentional effort of will to re-enchant life with the sacred dimension. It’s going to take a long time and will be done in steps. The heartening truth is that each step we take in our personal lives to reconnect to our lost soul, we nudge the world towards a more beautiful future. Each time you allow yourself a pause and listen to a particularly skilled busker, you accept the invitation and participate a little bit. Each time you sit down to listen to music intently instead of playing it in the background to prevent awkward silence, you participate in the sacred value of music. Each time you let a song move you to dance or cry, you allow the “other” to transform you. Each time you allow a budding musician to showcase their craft and you offer encouragement you enter into a relationship with Music. Can we do even more maybe? I’m trying to figure that out with out other people. Go check out that podcast I mentioned and let me know what you think about all this.

I am calling forth a certain class of musician. This is not an argument for some kind of musical elitism. It is a plea for the recognition of the existence of a certain kind of gift, a certain kind of invitation. I am doing what I can to accept and extend the invitation. For there is no hope of the spiritual contribution of musicians to flourish if the community at large does not believe it exists or participates in it. So when the Master of Ceremony beseeches you to “throw your hands in the air” and to “Wave them around like you just don’t care” for all our sakes, accept the invitation!


* Recommended reading on this: History of Money by Jack Weatherford and Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein

**Also note the initiatory ordeal: twisted neck, immobility and pain

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