What Unpopular Music Can Teach Us About the Future of Economics

The necessary arrogance of academic elites

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By Frances Copolla 

Throughout history, there has been a tendency of elites – moneyed elites, intellectual elites, dynastic elites, religious elites – to regard themselves as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity.

All fields of human endeavour develop elites, which are the brightest and best in those fields. For example, Olympic athletes are “elite” physical sportsmen and women whose sporting prowess far exceeds the capability of ordinary mortals. But in many fields, once elites have developed they have a vested interest in maintaining themselves, whether or not they still have genuine excellence. And they create barriers to admission of people who are not “one of them” but who possess genuine ability. They use special language that is not known to ordinary people. They require particular social connections: in the most extreme form elite membership is restricted to members of the same family (dynastic elitism), but more commonly it is restricted to people who move in particular social circles (class-based elitism: the “old boys’ network”).

In this last form, “who you know” defines whether or not you are part of an elite, not “what can you do”: this skews human endeavour away from developing excellence towards developing connections, and therefore further dilutes the actual ability of the elite, which forces them to become even more protective of their privilege.  They may also prevent people who are the wrong sex, the wrong colour or who lack particular physical attributes which are not actually required for excellence in that field from becoming part of the elite. All of these are ways of defending their privileges.

So far, I haven’t said anything extraordinary. Elitism is a well-understood phenomenon and one which makes a lot of people very angry. But there is a necessity to the arrogance of elites, and it is not simply self-preservation.

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Individual members of the elite may lack genuine ability – they may simply have gained membership through their connections. But the body of knowledge and understanding that the elite as a whole has, however divorced it may seem to be from the understanding of ordinary people, nevertheless contributes to the development of human culture. And the defences that they put in place to protect their privileges enable them to maintain and develop unpopular and even apparently worthless practices that may in the future bring real value to humanity.

This will not be obvious to many people, so I will use a musical example.

In the 20th century, so-called “serious” music went down what appeared to be blind alleys. It departed from any attempt to appeal to ordinary people, and became the province of musical academics, who enjoyed it for its structural challenge rather than its appeal to human emotion. You could say that it became completely divorced from reality.

Milton Babbitt, in his famous essay “Who cares if you listen?” argued that ordinary people couldn’t really be expected to understand serious music, any more than they could understand theoretical physics, and so it didn’t matter if ordinary people didn’t want to listen to it. The fact that many talented and skilled musicians didn’t really enjoy listening to it either appears to have been lost on him. He even seems rather proud of the fact that music that no-one wants to listen to is commercially dead: but despite his claim that “serious” composers were self-funding, in reality he could only reject popular appeal because state and philanthropic funding of “serious” music made commercial viability unnecessary. “Serious” musicians at this period were rent-seekers, relying on their connections with the rich and powerful to secure the funding they needed to produce music of little popular appeal or commercial value.

Perhaps the darkest of the blind alleys was the mathematical approach of the post-Schoenberg serialist school. The most famous exponent of extreme serialism, Pierre Boulez, was severely criticised by fellow composers for his “dry, ascetic” approach and eventually dropped it in favour of something slightly less rigorous. In the end, music cannot simply be a mathematical system – it must appeal to human emotions or it loses its purpose.

Meanwhile, ordinary people with ability – barred from the elite, or even rejecting it outright – were developing new forms of music. The major musical developments of the 20th century were in popular music culture, starting with jazz and blues and moving on into the rediscovery of simple theatrical music in the American musical, the creation of rock&roll in the 1950s and 60s, and the development of contemporary popular music from indigenous musical forms. Deprived of state and philanthropic funding, popular music forms and develops through the free market: music that is not popular with at least a significant proportion of people does not survive. Because of this, some forms of popular music have become “tribal” in nature: they are associated with particular groups of, especially, young people for whom the music they listen to is a part of their group identity, and its quality as music is of secondary importance.

Anyone watching the reality TV shows will be aware that participants often seem to inhabit particular cultural silos, and their followers are the people who self-identify with that silo: the winner may not be the person with the most musical talent, but the one whose cultural silo is the most dominant. In popular music, “survival of the fittest” is the name of the game, but “fittest” doesn’t necessarily mean musical excellence.

It would be all too easy to conclude that the “serious” music of the 20th century was simply the death rattle of an obsolete art form. But that would be far from the truth. As serious music became ever more divorced from commercial reality, becoming the province of academics and no longer requiring mass popularity for its survival, it became more experimental. It was in serious music that the possibilities of electronics for creating different musical forms and textures were first explored, and it was also in serious music that the sounds of nature were appreciated as music in their own right and incorporated into musical creations. And it was in serious music that forgotten parts of Western musical culture were rediscovered and transformed into contemporary musical forms. Yes, many – perhaps most – of these experimental musical creations will not survive the test of time. But their value lies in the groundwork they provide for contemporary musical developments.

Today we are seeing the important developments in popular music coalescing with the equally important developments in serious music to create new, vibrant, exciting and challenging music for the 21st century. Had “serious” music not been protected as it was, and enabled to flourish in its academic hothouse, it would probably have died – and we would be the poorer for it. The arrogance of the musical elite, and its connections to those with financial power, enabled this tender plant to survive the turbulence of the 20th century musical melting pot.

I would argue that the same is true in economics. In fact if anything, economics has become even more “hothouse”, and even more divorced from reality, than “serious” music. Economics has become dependent on elegant mathematical models whose relationship to the real world is questionable. It is a standing joke that in economics, if the evidence doesn’t agree with the findings of the model, you change the evidence.

In some cases – notably in models of the financial system, which are the foundation of monetarist economics – the models are founded on a wrong understanding of how the world actually works. When the foundation is wrong, so is everything built upon it. But the arrogance of the economic elite makes them unwilling to accept that they may have got some things wrong, so they silence people who point this out and put up academic barriers preventing funded research into anything that questions the foundations on which they have built their models of the world.

And as with “serious” music, when economics becomes so divorced from reality that it fails adequately to explain the real world in which people live, people reject it. People rightly ask why academic economists failed either to predict or adequately explain the financial crisis, whereas heterodox economists working in the real economy – many of them untrained in formal economics – not only predicted it but correctly identified the causes. There is a real danger that the anger people feel over what they see as the failure of mainstream economics leads to rejection of mainstream economics in its entirety and, importantly, withdrawal of funding for academic economic research. This, I feel, would be a mistake.

We may not see the relevance of dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models in a world which manifestly is not in equilibrium. But that doesn’t mean that these, and other mathematical models, have nothing to contribute. The redefinition of the foundations of economics that is currently being done by heterodox economists will inevitably result in many of the models beloved of academic economists becoming obsolete, as with much of the experimental serious” music of the 20th century, they will not survive the test of time. But there will be models that remain relevant, and there will be others that appear obsolete but that will in due course be redeveloped and find new life in the new economic paradigm. If we allow them to disappear, our economic understanding in the future will be poorer.

The academic economic elite is fiercely protective of its privileges, which is a matter of some annoyance to those who understand that it is dependent on state and philanthropic support (and is therefore arguably rent-seeking). The defensiveness of academic economists is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as I argued above, the protection they seek to maintain will ensure the survival of unpopular and even apparently worthless economic models so that they can in due course find their place in the future economic paradigm. But on the other hand, if the academic elite’s defence of its privileges extends to refusing even to admit that some of their foundations are wrong, they may find that the rich and powerful are no longer willing to support them.

Yes, “serious” musicians got away with dismissing developments in popular music as unimportant, but their work did not impinge on people’s lives in the same way as economists’ work does. People can ignore music they don’t like (though they may complain about use of their taxes to fund it), but they can’t ignore wrongly-founded economic thinking when it contributes to a major financial disaster.

Economists should fear the popular vote: they may not be commercially dependent on popularity themselves, but the politicians who support them are, and when funds are tight (as they are at the moment) supporting an apparently useless economic elite may be more than the popular vote is prepared to accept. Elite arrogance is necessary, but if it goes too far it can destroy the very thing it aims to preserve.

Published at Coppola Comment.

10 December 2015

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  • Swami Cat

    Brilliant article. Very thought provoking!

    I will add that jazz similarly outran its audience, largely without central funding. Artists started performing for an elite who was capable of following the complexities of the art. It outran its fan base.

    • E4439qv5

      And music will always have that dichotomy– of the classically and naïvely trained ears, both vying for attention.

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  • An interesting mental excursion. I have a daughter who is a musician, classically trained but a fan of popular music. I was a history major turned entrepreneur that writes about economics. (Business and the market is a mathematical absurdity). So yes, there are multiple worlds out there, and people tend to inhabit silos (I like the way you used that term), but I think I missed the point of the essay.

    Every elite is based on some established dogma. The politics of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame are probably as ridiculous as at the opera or in government or the mid-east. It is easy to create a divide (real or imagined) anywhere, and economists have certainly been no stranger to differences of opinion. Is there a marketplace of ideas? Is one really right and others wrong? Does mixing wrongs make a right? Does it dilute what is right? Like music, it seems that the mood of the listener is as important as the music or idea itself, and just as fluid.

    People play, words are spoken, but are they ever heard? Beauty gets lost everywhere. It’s in such overwhelming abundance that it goes unnoticed. Words, music, thoughts, feelings, invention, nature. This post will get lost in the internet zephyr, as brief as a daydream. Can we ever get free of the silo?

    • E4439qv5

      I believe we can be free of the silo, but only if we’re willing to risk exposure to the elements around us. For most of us, that’s a radically scary thought.

      But the unknown is rarely as bad as the worst we fear it could be. And it’s the people who hold fast to this wild-eyed belief that end up culling the dogmatic elites.

      It’s an ideal. I’ve been known to swing to and froward trying to land a perfect dismount onto its platform, but even when I hit the target I tend to slip off. Ever more the shock of the frigid water below has me eager to climb back up to the pendulum to try again.

      I won’t quit until I am (quite literally) physically exhausted.

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  • Duncan Cairncross

    This whole argument is just silly!
    Economics is a science in the medium and long term it will be judged by how well it predicts the real world
    Not by some elite sense of fitness

    That is like judging engineering by the quality of the penmanship and not by the bridges not falling down

  • discus-er

    Thanks for writing the article. I think the economics of what music “survives” in the music industry is far more complex than noted here. So I don’t think there is a clear analogy to economists.

    Central to the argument is that there is a popular music that is doing significantly better than serialism. Popular music is also not doing that well economically speaking. It’s supported not by income but by sheer force of will by artists who are doing what they love despite dire economic realities. Consider that musicians are one of the first industries to be affected by machine automation (recordings) and zero cost of reproduction (mp3s).

    For instance, I have friends with grammy winning work that hold day jobs or consider dropping out of the music scene to make more money as a bartender. Why do people even bother to make music anymore? It’s clearly a bad business to be in financially. Basically, it’s personally meaningful and socially rewarding.

    Consider how difficult it is to make minimum wage as an artist on streaming services:

    Consider that the major record labels are also competing mightily with music startups:

    Consider that there is a successful political party built on not paying artists for their IP:

    Another point is that support for unpopular electronic music is intimately tied to the development of audio technology. Many of the luminaries of electronic music made contributions to the development of synthesis algorithms that were used by telephone companies like bell labs, digital audio work station companies, or the synthesizers used by other artists. Electronic instrument builders are sound geeks who have cultivated appreciations for noise expressed in their music. They think both symbolically and aesthetically about sound. Their main stream contributions are often the audio hardware and software that they create rather than the music they make. Because of this their work is actually supported through market economics rather than mere institutionalized patronage.

    I am sympathetic with your conclusion, but I just don’t see the analogy between music patronage and economics patronage as being super clear.

    • E4439qv5

      Ponds appear very different when taken from the diverging perspectives of dogs and fish.
      Such is the difference between musical historians and performing musicians. One laps it up, the other lives in it, and neither can fully appreciate where the other is coming from, try as they might. The trick lies in remembering that neither is “wrong”– that both are aware the pond exists and try to use it to the best of their understandings. 🙂

  • jaymoses

    sorry, but the analysis is a complete fail. other than absorbing some funding and producing some discordant noise, academic music does no harm. bad economics creates havoc. the author’s only possibly valid point is in the last paragraph, noting that the rich and powerful may decide to reject the prevailing economic orthodoxy. yet even here the author misses the point. the errors, if such they are , of economic orthodoxy invariably benefit the rich and powerful. financialization and neo liberal economics, while profoundly wrong, always seem to redound to the benefit of the elite. why should they reject the ideas of their faithful servants in finance and academia?