the economics of underserved audiences (part 2): “Who Benefits Whom” and Preference Minorities

Joel Waldfogel’s – The Tyranny of the Market published by Harvard University Press (2007)

It’s been some time since I posted the first part of this series of posts exploring the issues surrounding how I view my role as an educator and musician.  In this, part 2 of the series, I’m going to make some use of some of the research and theoretical insights by Joel Waldfogel that he published as a short book titled, “The Tyranny of the Market: Why You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

The gist of the book is summarized well enough at its page at the Harvard University Press website (linked above):

Economists have long counseled reliance on markets rather than on government to decide a wide range of questions, in part because allocation through voting can give rise to a “tyranny of the majority.” Markets, by contrast, are believed to make products available to suit any individual, regardless of what others want. But the argument is not generally correct. In markets, you can’t always get what you want. This book explores why this is so and its consequences for consumers with atypical preferences.

When fixed costs are substantial, markets provide only products desired by large concentrations of people. As a result, people are better off in their capacity as consumers when more fellow consumers share their product preferences. Small groups of consumers with less prevalent tastes, such as blacks, Hispanics, people with rare diseases, and people living in remote areas, find less satisfaction in markets. In some cases, an actual tyranny of the majority occurs in product markets. A single product can suit one group or another. If one group is larger, the product is targeted to the larger group, making them better off and others worse off.

The book illustrates these phenomena with evidence from a variety of industries such as restaurants, air travel, pharmaceuticals, and the media, including radio broadcasting, newspapers, television, bookstores, libraries, and the Internet.

Waldfogel’s basic thesis is that given high fixed costs, those who are members of a preference minority are far less likely to get products they desire.  Through his research he demonstrates that as the population of a particular preference group increases, the members of that group are more likely to be satisfied by the range of choices available to them and vice versa if the population of a particular preference group decreases.

As I stated with the example I gave in the previous post in some cases (i.e. nutrition, medicine), not being able to get what you “want” can be deadly.  While we can make whatever claims to our overall mental or psychological health and the effect that the arts can have on that may be intuitively obvious to some of us, the idea is probably not going to win over many folks who just may not “get it.”

And that’s part of the problem isn’t it?  If you’re part of a society that happens to have available many of the things you happen to enjoy it’s hard to understand how not having those choices available to you would affect you.  Interestingly, Waldfogel touches on some of that issue as well.   Studies that connect levels of civic engagement with respects to how closely tailored local media is to particular ethnic groups grew from studies of how ethnic groups tend to use non-local media (cable television, the internet) as their primary news source when local media isn’t tailored (i.e. isn’t relevant) to them.

But what happens when a local arts organization is no longer tailored to a local population?  Ironically, as the gap between audiences and [Western] Orchestras continues to divide, we see those audiences also turning to “non-local media.”  As Douglas Dempster hinted over a decade ago:

First—and this should be no surprise—classical music consumption is heavily influenced by electronic technologies and media. Audiences have shifted, and will very likely continue to shift, their discretionary time and dollars toward new technologies for listening to classical music. Second and contrary to the critics, younger generations of Americans do seem to be “growing into” a more mature interest in classical music, but they will probably, much more so than their parents, satisfy that interest outside the concert hall. The audience in the symphony concert hall may be aging, in relative terms, but the overall audience for classical music is not.

And as Anne Midgette blogged about the recent NEA survey on participation in the arts:

A survey released in 2008 indicated a steep decline in audience participation in the performing arts. But it turns out the data paints quite a different picture when analyzed differently — when the definition of “participation” is expanded to include more than simply buying a ticket to something. The 2008 survey told us that only some 35% of adults attended a performance or visited a museum; but the new survey pulls the lens back and realizes that 75% of adults interacted with art in some form via their computers.

And classical music is leading the way: 18% of that audience participated in classical music, more than any other kind of art.

Setting aside the relevancy issue, I’ve been seeing as a trend towards the emergence and growth of non-Western Orchestras in the US (and North America).  Going back to Waldfogel’s basic thesis that “given high fixed costs, those who are members of a preference minority are far less likely to get products they desire” what I think we’re seeing is just a reflection of the growing economic influence of ethnic groups.  With the changing demographics of the US and a growing non-Euro-American population, that just means a bigger pool of resources in general to get past the high fixed costs of starting (and maintaining) a large ensemble.

But what reason do ethnic minorities have to make the large ensembles they support simply be the Western Classical ones we think of when we think of Orchestras?  We can argue till we’re blue in the face about the need to preserve the high art of Western Classical Music–but how many of those advocates will argue the need to preserve the high art of non-Western Classical Music?  And no, I’m not saying that only European-American will support European Styled Orchestras and that Arab-Americans will only support Arabic Orchestras and et cetera with other ethnic grous.  There’s obviously going to be overlap of folks from any group interested in the art musics of any culture.  It would be a ridiculously essentialist characterization of ethnic populations to make the claim they would only be interested in art musics from their countries of origin.

Despite claims to the contrary, however, we’re never completely free of our cultural backgrounds and that will shape to some extent what and how we support anything with our dollar voting, and as Waldfogel argues that can sometimes lead to a Tyranny of the Market.

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link to the economics of underserved audiences (part 1)

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