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July 14, 2004

Selling Art to the Masses and Tracy Lawrence's "Paint

Via Daps Lyrics, here are the words to a Tracy Lawrence song I like, "Paint Me A Birmingham"

He was sitting’ there, his brush in hand
Painting’ waves as they danced, upon the sand
With every stroke, he brought to life
The deep blue of the ocean, against the morning’ sky
I asked him if he only painted ocean scenes
He said for twenty dollars, I’ll paint you anything

Could you Paint Me A Birmingham
Make it look just the way I planned
A little house on the edge of town
Porch going’ all the way around
Put her there in the front yard swing
Cotton dress make it, early spring
For a while she’ll be, mine again
If you can Paint Me A Birmingham

He looked at me, with knowing eyes
Then took a canvas from a bag there by his side
Picked up a brush, and said to me
Son just where in this picture would you like to be
And I said if there’s any way you can
Could you paint me back into her arms again?

Could you Paint Me A Birmingham
Make it look just the way I planned
A little house on the edge of town
Porch going’ all the way around
Put her there in the front yard swing
Cotton dress make it, early spring
For a while she’ll be, mine again
If you can Paint Me A Birmingham

Paint Me A Birmingham
Make it look just the way I planned
A little house on the edge of town
Porch going’ all the way around
Put her there in the front yard swing
Cotton dress make it, early spring
For a while she’ll be, mine again
If you can Paint Me A Birmingham
Oh paint me a Birmingham

The music is important, of course. Poetry seems to be in the doldrums since 1950 or so, just like classical music. Could it be that the talent that would have gone into both has gone into writing popular songs instead? That's where the money is, and someone with talent can do equally good work either place.

Some might deny this, and say that popular music is no place for an artist, because the masses won't buy good music. Suppose we grant the premise-- that the masses like bad songs better than good songs. Although I'm an economist, and economists usually are too bound to the idea of "consumer sovereignty"-- that consumer decisions cannot be criticized on grounds of taste-- I am quite willing to abandon the idea in contexts like this. But let's think about the implications of consumers not being willing to pay as much for artistic music as for schlock.

The key is to make the right comparison. Suppose Artist A is trying to write good, artistic songs for the masses. He will of course earn far far less than Artist B, equally talented, who prostitutes himself to write bad, schlocky songs for the masses. But that is not the proper comparison. Rather, we must compare Artist A with Artist C, who is trying to write good, artistic songs, but in the venue of classical music. I bet Artist A will make far more money than Artist C. He will certainly make more money from royalties, and the only question is whether Artist C makes enough from subsidies from nonprofits and government to come anywhere close. If you're writing good music, maybe it won't sell as well as bad, but if the mass market is a thousand times bigger than the classical market (for newly composed music, that is), a conservative estimate, then you can do far better with a 1% market share than a classical composer could with a 100% market share (900% better, in fact, in this example).

Posted by erasmuse at July 14, 2004 09:13 PM

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