Thursday, August 26, 2010

Music and the "Gift Economy" 1: An Introduction

I have been planning on doing a piece about gift economies for quite awhile. I've already discussed pay-what-you-want models, but didn't get into the concept of a gift economy.

I've decided to tackle it now because I'm noticing a shift in conversations about music business models from "we'll all be small business people" to "I'll make music and give it away and see what happens." And Nancy Baym, who has written about fan communities, recently did a presentation on gift exchanges as the basis for fan involvement in music: "Nancy Baym on Changing Relationships, Changing Industries."

Here are two text summaries of her presentation:
  • "Nancy Baym: Pop music and social exchange."
  • "Nancy Baym: Changing Relationships, Changing Industries."

  • Baym was primarily talking about fans giving an artist or band free labor. But does it work the other way? Can musicians give away what they have to offer and still survive?

    Let's start with some definitions of gift economies. In a nutshell, a gift economy is based on the idea that people give stuff away to other people. There's no exchange.

    Here are some basic definitions of a gift economy:
  • In a gift economy people do not work to get money to buy things. What people get in the way of goods and services is either what they make themselves or what is given to them free of charge. So why would people work? People would volunteer their work because they realised that some job needed to be done and they could help to do it. They would work on something because they thought it was enjoyable and interesting work. They would do work to get the social status that goes with giving something to other people. In the gift economy, the economy is not owned by private shareholders or by a government. It is owned by a patchwork of clubs, societies and federated hobby groups. "Options for a Sustainable Future - Four Models of Utopia," The Gift Economy, Anarchism and Strategies for Change.
    (I have linked to a cached version of this document. The original was available online when I started my research, but doesn't seem to be available now. Here is the information at the author's website: Leahy, Terry "Four Models of Utopia," TASA conference, University of Western Australia, December 2006.)
  • Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods.

    ...In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away. "The Hacker Milieu as Gift Culture," by Eric Steven Raymond in Future Positive.

  • In the 1920s the maverick French economist, Marcel Mauss, cited anthropologists who found that moneyless societies rarely use a strict barter system. Instead, most goods circulate as gifts. One person in a community gives something to another who needs it, even though there may be no hope of immediate return. This open-ended giving links both people, and points toward a future exchange. The giver is seen by the group as useful, reliable, and generous, and is accepted into the communal flow of goods and labor, while the receiver is indebted to a system that supports him. "Finding a Sense of Surplus," Toby Hemenway in Permaculture Activist No. 46, 2005.
  • This article defines gift economies and also provides a list of variations: "Gift Economy."

    Intertwined in all the explorations about gift economies and the alternatives are these issues: relationships between people, and dividing up resources. The gift economy places far more emphasis on relationships than the two other types of economic exchange models: command hierarchy (where someone at the top makes all the decisions) and exchange economy (a market economy where we pay or trade for what we want). Here's how one person reduces the concept:
    In brief, [Chris] Gregory finally concludes that "the exchange of gifts creates 'personal relations between people,' while commodity exchange creates 'objective relations between things.'" "Response to Barbara Sebek's 'Good Turns and the Art of Merchandising: Conceptualizing Exchange in Early Modern England'," by Scott Cutler Shershow in Early Modern Culture, 2001.
    Anthropologist Alan Fiske talks about relationship models rather than economic models:
    ... people use just four fundamental models for organizing most aspects of sociality most of the time in all cultures. These models are Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Communal Sharing (CS) is a relationship in which people treat some dyad or group as equivalent and undifferentiated ...
    CS examples: people who share the use of a common area, people in love, people who believe we all share in each other's burdens, "people who kill any member of an enemy group indiscriminately in retaliation for an attack."
    In Authority Ranking (AR) people have asymmetric positions in a linear hierarchy in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and take pastoral responsibility for subordinates.
    AR examples: the military, ancestor worship, religious orders, class or ethnic rankings, sports team rankings. "AR relationships are based on perceptions of legitimate asymmetries, not coercive power; they are not inherently exploitative (although they may involve power or cause harm)."
    In Equality Matching relationships people keep track of the balance or difference among participants and know what would be required to restore balance.
    EM examples: "turn-taking, one-person one-vote elections, equal share distributions, and vengeance based on an-eye-for-an-eye, a-tooth-for-a-tooth."
    Market Pricing relationships are oriented to socially meaningful ratios or rates such as prices, wages, interest, rents, tithes, or cost-benefit analyses. Money need not be the medium, and MP relationships need not be selfish, competitive, maximizing, or materialistic ... "Human Sociality."
    Virtually all of us give and receive gifts, so gift-giving is widespread. Whether it is a sustainable model to provide people with the necessities of life is a much more complex discussion, which I plan to explore in regard to artists and musicians.

    There are a variety of reasons why people sometimes choose to give a gift or work for free rather than get paid: out of love, the desire for status, to create a sense of debt on the part of the recipient, etc. Sometimes people prefer to accept no payment than too little.
    Bringing money into the relationship takes the giver’s work out of “gift” market, and brings it into the “pay-for-effort” market. When it was done for nothing, the protagonist was a “donor.” When small money was on the table, he or she became an underpaid employee. "Why Bankers Would Rather Work for $0.00 Than $500K," Dan Ariely Blog, 4/17/09.
    Here's an extensive look at the psychology of gift giving: "Between the gift and the market: the economy of regard."

    And if you want to get a dense historical overview of the economics and anthropology of gift giving, go here. It is chapter 2.1 in Wrapped gifts, by Àngels Trias i Valls. I'm not going to attempt to rehash it all.

    Music and the "Gift Economy" 2: Examples

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

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