I have written a concept album with a band called The Benevolent Dictators all about Adam Smith, and the first song was just released.

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My motivations for writing the album and general vibe will be left for another time, but I feel inclined to discuss more about this particular song’s thematic significance. The song is inspired by text from The Wealth of Nations, Book 3, Chapters 2-4. The summary: commerce liberated the masses from the feudal system.

[Adam Smith was an 18th century Scotsman. His first book, Theory of Moral Sentiments, is about morality and human nature. His second book, Wealth of Nations, is considered the starting point for modern economic thought.]

The story begins just after the Roman Empire’s demise. Everything is in chaos and eventually order is restored via different sovereign monarchs throughout the former Empire. The monarchs don’t have the capability to enforce laws and protect everyone in their respective polities, so they enlist the help of others in exchange for big chunks of land. These estates produce enough food for the feudal landlords to survive. But, Smith observes, our desire for food is limited to the extent our bellies can make space. To utilize the surplus food, the feudal lords give their additional food to individuals in exchange for their servitude in the feudal estate. At the time, the feudal lords had no other outlets for their surplus food. Thus, their best option was to increase their power by making commoners dependent on them for food.

Meanwhile, a bunch of city dwellers (called “Burghers”) were given a special exemption by the king to start making stuff. These are the artisans and merchants. Soon, the Burghers had shiny baubles and trinkets that they were looking to sell. The feudal landlords might have limits for their desire to fill their bellies, but they have no boundaries on their childish vanity. The feudal lords wanted to show off how great they were and get their hands on these diamond trinkets. As a result, they started to trade their surplus food not for the servitude of commoners, but for the luxury goods the merchants were selling.

What they used to exchange for the servitude of hundreds, sometimes thousands of men, was now going to service their childish vanity. As the demand for these trinkets went up, so did the supply, so the previously dependent commoners now could join in on the market. Before, when the commoners were given subsistence-level resources in exchange for their work, there was of course no incentive to innovate or increase efficiency. They did the bare minimum that allowed them to survive, because any extra work would go unrewarded. Now, they began to cultivate different areas, knowing the fruits of their labor would mean more money for themselves. Prosperity follows.

In addition to the cultivation, this new market brought about interdependence where dependence used to be. In a sense, all of the parties involved were just as reliant on each other as before. The commoners of course needed the landlords as consumers of their goods, and the landlords needed an outlet for their surplus food. The difference now was that the power was completely decentralized. Rather than a commoner being subjected to the whims of one feudal lord, the market gave him the ability to appeal to the childish vanity of all the landlords to which he could ship his goods.

What is more exciting than reading about how peaceful commercial exchange liberated the masses from the tyranny of the feudal system? Smith emphasizes how this ‘silent revolution’ came about not because a top-down authority dictated it, and not because anyone was consciously trying to bring about positive change for the masses.

A revolution of the greatest importance to the public happiness was in this manner brought about by two different orders of people who had not the least intention to serve the public. To gratify the most childish vanity was the sole motive of the great proprietors. The merchants and artificers, much less ridiculous, acted merely from a view to their own interest, and in pursuit of their own pedlar principle of turning a penny wherever a penny was to be got. Neither of them had either knowledge or foresight of that great revolution which the folly of the one, and the industry of the other, was gradually bringing about.

There are free PDFs all around the internet if you’d like to read the passages in their entirety. Here is one.

I leave you with the lyrics of Silent Revolution:

They say beauty is in order
What’s left over in so few hands
But the landlords spell their doom
Wanting the jewelry the merchants have

The price they paid could buy them
A thousand different men
And though they get the diamond
Power leaves them
And commerce wins instead

Here comes the silent revolution
Moving slowly, no certainty
Interdependence, cultivation
From no design comes prosperity

Without any intention
Without beneficence
The feudal system’s dying
Lords made obsolete from
Their childish vanity

Without any intention
Without beneficence
The feudal system’s dying
Lords made obsolete from
Their childish vanity

Tyler Cowen has tried to explain the recent trend in wage stagnation by claiming we have reached a “Great Stagnation” – we have exhausted the low-hanging fruits of cheap labor from immigration, trade liberalization, increased education, and previously unused land and natural resources. Basically, we have reached diminishing returns in many of the areas from which we expected to keep getting high growth. A worker’s productivity is easy and cheap to improve when they are illiterate, for example; but increasing productivity when they’re already college-educated is a little harder, more expensive, and at some points not even possible.

I’d like to posit that we have also reached a great stagnation in music. Remember that the Great Stagnation does not claim growth has stopped or we will regress; it merely states that our rate of growth has slowed down. Much like the American economy, popular music extracted what it could in low-hanging fruits during a golden age and getting those incredible returns again is harder to come by.

By some metrics technological innovation peaked in the 1870s and we only realized all the benefits of these innovations decades later. By the same token, popular music had technical and creative innovations in the first half of the twentieth century that we did not fully exploit until the golden age of popular music, which I’d like to theorize was between 1964 and 1973. These progressions include many things, but chiefly the introduction of the electric guitar, increased access of music to influence wider audiences, and better access to recording studios and production equipment.

The Beatles recorded Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s in an incredible 18-month span. Bob Dylan released Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in about 14 months. Today, regardless of your musical taste and what you consider the most relevant music, artists will usually take years upon completing albums. Releasing two landmark albums within a year is essentially unheard of. Radiohead took 4 years between Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, 4 years between In Rainbows and King of Limbs. When I think of any of my favorite rock/indie/pop bands in my lifetime, their careers span twice as long as my Theorized Golden Age and often produce half a many albums as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, or the Kinks did in the same time period.

I want to emphasize again that the presence of a great stagnation in music does not mean we are no longer creating really awesome music, it just means you have to push that much harder to squeeze out valuable creative juices that turn something incredible. In the beginning to mid 60s there were so many low hanging fruits that the aforementioned could churn out excellent albums, often while touring.

Thomas Edison filed thousands of patents centuries ago, all without much formal education. In a sense, he had so much to work with because there was so much potential that was yet to be realized. Now such a renaissance man is impossible to come by. Even the greatest innovators are only known for one or two great inventions, spending their whole lives devoted to coming up with and perfecting one great idea. Edison managed to make hundreds or thousands, depending on how you look at it.

The artists of 64-73 encountered a similar atmosphere. Many production techniques, the electric guitar, a recovered post-WWII global economy – these were all things that made it very easy to release lots of high quality music very quickly. There is simply no other reason why John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson could poop out the music they did so quickly. Never before had the rate of fusion of so many genres of music – blues, jazz, barber shop, classical, folk, country – happened anywhere near what it did during the golden era.

And the music wasn’t just good, it was innovative. I think the reason why bands now have to take years to release an album is because they need to work so hard to be perfectionists and manage to create something unique. It’s still possible, just like making that college graduate more productive is possible; it just means you have to spend five years giving them a phd, whereas when they were illiterate all you needed to do was teach them to read to make them more productive. Fleet Foxes is awesome, but I’d hesitate to call them truly innovative. Whatever hip-hop is coming out may be good, but it’s not as innovative as Paul’s Boutique (yes, I know this wasn’t in the Golden Era, but I state it just as a point to emphasize the difference between quality and innovation).

Today recording equipment, access to audiences, and a richer global economy imply that the music industry has many tools and financial resources needed to create incredibly innovative music. Before, the industry was dominated by middlemen called record companies that basically decided who was going to even have a chance at succeeding. They owned the capital (the recording studios), the means of distribution, and an essential monopoly on the ability to promote, so there were huge barriers to entry for musicians. Today, musicians can record at home, go viral on the internet, play live shows, afford equipment because we’re all richer, have endless access to musical influences. No matter how one looks at it, the barriers to entry for musicians is a lot less than it was 70 years ago.

It is in spite of these facts, not because of them, that musicians in the golden era were able to produce the music they did at the quick rate they did. That they were able to achieve their quick rate of release makes it even more impressive that they were able to overcome the past barriers to entry for musicians.

Sure, musical culture has changed. Bands rely more on touring it seems to produce revenues. This means more time away from the studio and less time sitting around writing songs. But this didn’t stop the Beatles in the first half of their career, Dylan during his first three electric albums, or Frank Zappa from churning out quality music quickly.

Think of what the most famous classic rock musicians were able to achieve during this time period: those rich sounds and timeless songs on what we’d now think of as primitive technology. No ProTools to redo that one 10 second take to get that right sound from farting on keyboards, sometimes only 4 tracks at one time, and generally less sophisticated instruments. The Flaming Lips create new sounds because they have tons of new technology at the ready – new pedals/effects, lots of recording options, etc. The golden era musicians didn’t have this. Still Wayne Coyne needs to work tirelessly to create a new sound. Before, it seemed Phil Spector could open his fridge and find a new “Be My Baby” or another wall of sound gem.

Most of my favorite albums were not in the Golden Era, so I don’t state all of this as a dork who listens exclusively to classic rock. Instead, I merely see the rate of production during this time period to be phenomenal. Sure Radiohead has grown from Creep to Lotus Flower, but that happened over twenty years. The Beatles went from I Saw Her Standing There to Helter Skelter in FIVE.

Yeah, I am writing this from the perspective of my musical collection/taste. But maybe, though I may be wrong, you can extend it to genres I’m not as familiar with. I’d have to guess punk bands today can’t churn out stuff equal to Give Em Enough Rope and London Calling in the 13 month The Clash did. Overall, I think no matter what your musical preference, bands don’t release music nearly as quickly as they used to.

It could be that we are getting genre-defiers and massive innovators right now that will spur another golden age, and we just don’t know it yet. Much like we have arguably not extracted all productive efficiencies from computer or the internet yet, or it took decades for the mass innovations of the 1870s to be realized fully, we could be on the brink of another mass innovation fest.

What do I think this generally implies? We’ll have to have some sort of industrial revolution equivalent in music to reach the rate of innovation we had in the golden era. We’ll continue to have great music, but we’ll have to wait two or three times as long to get another OK Computer or Veckatimest than we did to get Pet Sounds or After the Goldrush.

This is an admittedly working theory, so I’m happy to hear criticisms or points that I have not mentioned.