free art

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Last night I watched Festival Express which is a not-very-good documentary about the 1970 Canadian train tour /slash/ festival that included the Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, etc. etc. There’s no drug use in the whole film with the exception of some spiked Canadian Club at the end of the film, which should be enough to make you suspicious. The music’s not that good (I say this with several dozen concerts by the participating bands under my belt) although watching Janis is always a profound experience for me. Let me set the scene really quickly: keep in mind that this is happening in the wake of Woodstock, and more sharply, Altamont. Somehow anti-racism, -sexism, -authoritarianism, -ismism has turned into a perverted form of anti-capitalism where the kids have jobs, rents, kids, hobbies, etc. but expect their culture–especially their music–to be free. Or this is how the opinion of the “gate crashers” “protesters” “increasingly speed fueled old hippies” is depicted in the film when it focuses on the actions of a small group of folks who try to subvert, protest, crash a series of dates on the festival. The tickets, btw, were something like $16 for a full-day pass, which, in the words of one dude is “about $1 per super-group.”

In order to address this component of the festival, the filmmakers frame the question as one of value: “how much the festival is worth”. The narratives presented got me thinking that this was an interesting connection to some of what Peter Levin and I have been discussing in our bi-monthly lunch extravaganzas.
It should be strange to you to think of the festival as having a negotiable absolute value (in the sense that the fans intended–that it could/should be absolutely free to them to attend). That is, it should be your assumption that the festival actually costs “something” (presumably, the conservative estimate of the cost of infrastructure, security and facilities, and talent) but festival organizers charge “something else” (presumably, estimate no. 1 plus profit for the promoter). The voices brought in by the documentarian don’t do much to help you to see how this could be the case. The promoter says clearly “it costs to put something like this on. We need police and security. If you were attending, you’d want them, too. Plus, the artists need to get paid–they’re working.” Most of the artists are sympathetic (or they feign sympathy–there’s a suggestion that they are “over” the peace & love schtick but recognize that they profit from it, so play into it to some degree) but wonder aloud why they should work for free. The kids/fans are rioting/jumping fences/screaming about “the pigs” in full-on fakery of the innocence long since lost, even in Canada. They aren’t ceded a very reasonable argument.

So let’s assume that the kids–in a conservative and generous version of their argument they argue that profit is of negotiable value–have a point. What is the value of the concert? It seems we have some choices about how to answer this question:

1. To compare by artist. The “$1 per super-group” comment gets at this. We can consider the cost of a ticket to a “regular” performance by each, any or all of the performers, and add, or add weighted values of these costs.

2. To compare based on format. The idea here is to look at the cost of admission to other, similar festivals. This one is notable in that it is the only multi-city tour where these particular performers travel together by train between outdoor stages in Canada, but none of those details seem too determining to me. We might just look at other festivals, in that year, with similar length, talent, whathaveyou.

3. To compare based on venue. In this approach, we look at the fixed cost of putting on performances in each of the venues where the festival stops. We would include the cost of talent, the travel costs of talent, etc. The obvious and immediate problem here is that they’re playing in Winnipeg (no disrespect) and at racetracks and the like. This may be the biggest thing ever to hit town, so the comperables may not give us too much realistic insight into those fixed costs…let alone the markup.

Les autre? Pierre?

And just to avoid my usual cageyness:

Here’s one specific reason something like this matters to someone like me (beyond that it, like a bug to a cat, is fun to play with…and then to kill, ‘by accident’):

The question of how to assess value–especially aesthetic or experiential value–plagues the literature on music and culture more generally. How good is really good? Are CDs too expensive? Is this the reason why kids (really, everyone) downloads illegally? If artists followed Radiohead (et al) and released their music “for free” would this simply reflect the “reality” that artists “make their money” on merch and concerts? Is “independent” music still “authentic” if it costs $16/CD? What if those “independent” artists use major label distribution and reduce the cost of the CD to $10 (because the fixed costs of distribution are lower)? Is this still “authentically” “independent?” Etc. etc.

3 Comments

Filed under Academia, Music

3 responses to “free art

  1. sneaky, sneaky – I tell you I’m busy this week and you antagonize me with a tantalizingly interesting post…

  2. jlena

    i even made some (as yet uncorrected) errors to entice you. nah–i was going to just email you about it until i realized this might provide “value added” for the folks that are still coming (in the dozens!) to the site looking for “beavers” “Beaver” “Beavers” and “pictures of beavers.”
    it’ll be here when you get back.

  3. jlena

    so will the beavers.

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