The Economics of Local Music (part 3): Folk vs Pop vs Art Music

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A few days ago I read a fascinating analysis of music from a functional standpoint by Gregory Booth and Terry Kuhn.  The piece, titled “Economic and Transmission Factors as Essential Elements in the Definition of Folk, Art, and Pop Music” (The Music Quarterly, Vol. 74. No. 3, 1990, pp. 411-438), compares and contrasts very general characteristics of the three types of musics in ways that might not seem intuitive at first glance but seem to make so much sense once we can step away from our normal biases regarding all these musics.

The authors discuss the problematic ways we define various musical styles and give a brief introduction on how some of those definitions can profoundly change even within a generation or two.  The problem is, as in most disciplines, we get left with the terminology of the the field and need to figure out ways to re-invent ways to talk about the subjects using the old terminology.

Differences in musical traditions persist, however, and as earlier theories based on socioeconomic or cultural arrogance disappear, musicians and scholars have been left with a terminology and structure of labels (serious, popular, art, primitive, classical, folk, etc.) but without any consistent theoretical basis on which to assign such labels to music repertoires.  This is especially problematic given the wide variety of music systems that are being relabeled, rediscovered, or revalued on an almost daily basis.  (What does it mean, for example, when we say that jazz is the classical music of America?  What is Afro-pop?)

In focusing on the three (folk, art, pop) music terms the authors pull commonalities that have as much to do with the musics themselves as well as the commonalities that are economic and transmissive in nature.  And I think they’ve done an admirable job of explaining how musics are tied to the culture and how different musics in different cultures can have broad similarities relative to those functions.  As one of the things I often talk about is the context or environment within which different types of music are allowed to flourish (or not, as the case may be) this article was of particular interest to me.

Two Preliminary Definitions are explained by the authors: Economic Support Systems and Transmission Support Systems.  While I think most of us can recognize a bit what each of these mean, I’ll pull from the authors’ text to make things more explicit.

The Economic Support Systems for music activity include:

  1. The decision-making process regarding what types of music activity will be supported
  2. The nature and extent of economic rewards (direct and indirect) resulting from music activity
  3. The extent to which professional music activity is possible
  4. The control of any necessary technologies for recording and performing music
  5. The possible existence of the merchandising of music activity and products

The Transmission Support Systems, which obviously includes ways that musical content and repertoire is passed from one generation to another, include:

  1. The creation of new music ideas, thus maintaining a particular framework for music creation (e.g., the precomposition of a symphony or the spontaneous re-creation of an Indian raga)
  2. The public dissemination of that music (e.g., a concert, a record pressing, sheet music publication, radio broadcast, inclusion in a sociocultural event or ritual)
  3. The teaching and learning of that music by other individuals, either incidentally (e.g., in the performance of a ceremony, in the singing of a lullaby, in a television commercial) or intentionally (e.g., in a private studio, in an age-group initiation, or in an elementary school music class)

Within these  definitional constraints the authors show the similarities and differences between each of the three types of musics.  The types aren’t mutually exclusive, however, and the last part of the paper discusses how the music types can morph or evolve into another one as well as which ones aren’t likely to evolve in a particular direction (here, ‘direction’ doesn’t not mean a progressional view as some take ‘evolve’ to mean).

But basic categorizations fall like this in the authors’ analysis:

Folk Music: generally requires more collective and communal support as a group will need to suspend collective subsistence activities.  Transmission of folk music is generally more incidental, usually not requiring specialists to teach.  Given that many folk music activities happen during communal activities this is often how the music gets transmitted.

Art Music: generally requires concentration of nonsubsistence income (e.g. Court, Nation-State government) that often happens as direct patronage.  Musicians in art music systems are usually professionals (specialists) and the transmission is through specialized teaching in the form of apprenticeships (that used to be familial) or as in modern day private (or group) lessons.  The familiarity of the repertoire almost invariable falls along socioeconomic class lines as only those who can benefit from the lack of subsistence activities will have the time or money to absorb the music and the culture.

Pop Music: generally happens through indirect patronage by a mass audience that’s obviously dependent on some level of technology that can either bring a large audience into one place (e.g. concert halls) or disseminating the music (broadcast media, recorded media, etc.).  Patrons contributions will usually be smaller even though the audience may very well be much larger.  Popular musicians are also considered professionals in the authors’ analysis though the specialized training that art musicians require may or may not be a prerequisite for pop musicians.

The above is just a brief summary, but I suspect I will be coming back to this much more as I start to develop some ideas about the economics of local music.

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