In today’s age of musical abundance, we all live like ‘kings’

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We are in the midst of an art renaissance, and very few people are talking about it. One person who is talking about it is Gale Pooley, economics professor at Brigham Young University and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute.

Fortuitously, the theme for CEI’s 2023 Julian L. Simon Memorial Award Dinner is Elvis: All Shook Up. And Prof. Pooley is one of this year’s Simon Award Honorees along with Marian Tupy, editor of and senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Pooley and Tupy coauthored a momentous book entitled Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet.

Last September, shortly after the book’s publication, Pooley wrote a blog post for on “Musical Abundance.” He takes us back to 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the first phonograph record. In 1949, RCA Victor released the first 45 rpm vinyl records, which were smaller, more portable, and cheaper.

Interestingly enough, the 45 rpm came about due to Radio Corporation of America’s (RCA) acquisition of the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1929. The purchase is still considered to be one of the most pivotal media acquisitions in history. 

One of RCA’s initial releases on the new 45 rpm format was Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” a song that would later serve as Elvis Presley’s breakout record. While some debate Elvis’s contributions as a musician and a performer, there is little doubt that Presley made a huge cultural impact on the music industry.

When Leonard Bernstein was challenged for saying he was the greatest cultural force of the century, his rebuttal was that Elvis “introduced the beat to everything and he changed everything—music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution—the ’60s come from it.”

When it comes to music in today’s age, there is no shortage of abundance. There isn’t enough time in a single person’s life to listen to all of it. By some estimates, it would take over 600 years to listen to every song ever recorded.

The value created by music, both directly and indirectly, is enormous. The global recorded music industry generated over $26 billion last year from streaming, digital downloads, and physical media. Vinyl record sales even surpassed compact disk (CD) sales earlier this year for the first time since 1987. Before the pandemic, the global revenue from the live music industry was over $28 billion and is estimated to be worth over $30 billion by 2025.

Digital innovation has enabled musicians to take alternative paths to success. In Forbes’s 2017 list of highest paid hip-hop artists, Chicago native Chance the Rapper came in at number 5 with $33 million in earnings. The dollar amount is less startling than the fact that, at the time, Chance hadn’t actually sold an album. He gave his first three full-length titles away for free. While still profiting from streaming, he made a bulk of his millions from touring and brand deals. 

Music not only creates wealth for artists and performers. It creates value for workers in a variety of industries. Concert venues employ sound and lighting engineers, food and drink workers, custodial staff, and many others. Other careers in management, advertising, promoting, and the legal field also benefit. Unsurprisingly, manufacturing of music related tech devices has exploded in recent decades.

In a 2016 interview, Simon Le Bon, lead singer of the 80s rock band Duran Duran, said the biggest change in music was the invention of the Sony Walkman. “The fact that people listen to their own music, and they have their own playlists, their own set of likes. You don’t have to listen to everybody else’s choice. That, to me, still is the biggest development in the music scene in 50 years,” he said.

With the Walkman came CDs. And the device ultimately blazed the way for the MP3 player and Apple’s notorious iPod. Now, everyone walks around with an MP3 player in their pocket. We have smartphones. Consumers are no longer confined to a certain number of songs or gigabytes of memory. Streaming has essentially placed the world’s discography into the palm of your hand.

In addition to advances in music playing technology, music listening devices have seen massive leaps in innovation. The Bluetooth speaker market is worth over $14 billion and is expected to surpass $32 billion by 2028. The earphones and headphones industry is worth over $55 billion and is expected to be over $95 billion in 2028. 

While these figures are notable, they may not be sufficient alone. As Tupy and Pooley note in chapter 4 of Superabundance, “Wealth and changes in wealth, then, should be measured in time, not money.” According to Pooley, music’s cost to consumers continues to become more affordable:

If a typical song runs three to four minutes, you can play 12,342 songs per month. The time price per song is around one-eighth of a second of work. For the time it took our grandparents to earn the money to buy one song in 1955, we get 19,750 songs today. Since 1955, personal music abundance has been growing around 15.9 percent a year, doubling in abundance every 4.5 years. All of the products we enjoy today are the culmination of billions and billions of little bits of knowledge that humans discover and then share with the rest of us in free markets.

Tupy and Pooley pay much homage to Julian L. Simon and his framework on abundance in their book, particularly Simon’s famous bet with doomsayer Paul Ehrlich on the future price of 5 metals. Our 2023 Simon Award winners point out, “Twenty years after his premature death, Simon is still right. May his legacy of optimism endure for generations to come.”

There is a notable difference between the Italian Renaissance that began in the 14th century and the musical renaissance that began in the 20th century. The Italian Renaissance was funded by a smaller group of wealthy rulers, institutions, and families like the House of Medici. Our present renaissance is funded by the average consumer. This makes sense considering the average American lives a higher quality of life than kings from the 16th century. While Elvis was America’s “King” a half-century ago, music consumers today are more flush than ever.  Ultimately, these indicia of abundance should be met with optimism, not despair.