The value of music

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

In a capitalist world, one job of anthropologists is to explain behavior that is “irrational” or “inefficient” (what even is the difference, right?) Anthropologists also get hired to understand the mindset of consumers, since economics has tended to regard individual humans as black boxes. When we decide what to buy, we must be constructing our unique individual or ethnic identities and forging social ties. However, the world of cool market-based appraisal and the jungle of irrationality in our cultural lives may not be so cleanly separated. Graeber (2005) points out that in English we use the same word for “having good values” and “getting good value for our money.”

We prefer to separate the sphere of the market, where goods are fungible, to the sphere of ethics, where we hope they aren’t. “Exchanges within a sphere are commensurable; conversions between spheres are incommensurable and incite moral anxiety” (Lambek 2013, 143). This makes me think of the Simpsons episode when a home security system salesman admonishes Homer: “But surely you can’t put a price on your family’s lives!” Homer responds: “I wouldn’t have thought so either, but here we are.”

Marx’s conception of value compares “use value” to “exchange value,” based on the amount of labor time it takes to make something. Mauss considers value in the context of gift exchanges. We might prefer to think of music in Mauss’ terms, but once we are exchanging money for music, we cannot escape Marx. That said, labor hours are a poor explanation for why a ticket to see Paul McCartney costs orders of magnitude more than a ticket to see the Fab Faux. The price differential makes more sense if we follow Taylor in understanding the value of a cultural object as an attempt to quantify its meaning. The Fab Faux might play Beatles songs as well as Paul McCartney, but seeing them does not carry the meaning of seeing Sir Paul in person.

Levi-Strauss shows how we use music to express sameness and difference, and to classify other people as similar or different to ourselves. The McCartney ticket is a status object the way the Fab Faux ticket is not. Taylor points out that sign value can differ based on context, even within the same regime of value, using the example of a New Yorker cartoon showing two ticket windows at the entrance to Graceland: “Ironic” and “Non-Ironic.” The ineffable aspects of cultural capital can have very real economic consequences.

Taylor (2017) argues that any study of value needs to be situational. He then says that the only possible universal theory of the value of cultural goods is that “value is the result of action, and that people continually make it and remake it in ways that are meaningful to them” (199). But if meaning is inescapably contextual, then value must be as well. Conversation might lie in the cultural sphere, but it has economic impact, because it “standardizes judgments of the utility of various riches, creates and specifies the idea of value, and establishes a scale and system of values.” Conversation gives rise to opinion, and opinion gives rise to value. I am intrigued by the idea of “curation as value creation”, especially in a world where every commercial recording is immediately available. We could see curation as a kind of institutionalized, authoritative opinion, a member of the conversation but one with greater weight.

We conventionally oppose the sale of commodities and the giving of gifts. We also think of traditional societies as operating more on gift exchanges than on markets. But even capitalist exchanges have cultural aspects, and gift exchanges can be as coldly Machiavellian as stock trades. Lambek asks us to consider gifts less as “things” and more as acts: “Where a commodity is an objectification of work placed on the market, a gift is an objectification of acts placed in social circulation” (151). Appadurai points out that our ethnocentr­ism is itself a historical product of capitalism. He proposes that objects have social lives in which they play different roles in different contexts, just like people do, and that “the commodity situation in the social life of any “thing” be defined as the situation in which its exchangeability (past, present, or future) for some other thing is its socially relevant feature” (13) Myers asks, if indigenous art signifies indigeneity for white capitalists, then can’t mass-produced commodities signify white capitalism for indigenous people? Maybe this is the work that luxury brands are doing in rap.

Can we have a theory of the value of ritual?

In materializing, objectifying, and displaying the value of acts, the publicity and formality of ritual approximate the way the market objectifies the value of work, but making the consequences impossible to commoditize. One might even say that ritual de-commoditizes value (Lambek 2013, 154).

Does it? Rituals are acts of mutual acknowledgment, recognition, and respect, the basis for the human sense of the word “value.” The problem with capitalist exploitation is that it drains exchanges of acknowledgment or respect, and makes us treat each other as things rather than people. Rather than comparing capitalist and “precapitalist” societies, we could compare ritualized from postritualized societies. Maybe the American taste for world music springs from our hunger for ritualized life—it’s certainly what drove me to blues and klezmer.

To wall off art as a form of cultural production that is separate from utility is “a hegemonic exercise of power through knowledge” (Myers 2002, 35). Why do we think that a “useless” object like a painting in a museum is more valuable than a well-crafted chair? Bourdieu would say that we elevate the painting to express our status as the dominant class, and we expect everyone else to similarly elevate the painting in order to maintain our dominance. We figuratively frame people in museums when we engage in tourism, slumming, or ethnography. We peer into other cultures’ private spaces with a prurient desire to make them public. We do this not because we are terrible people (usually), but because we want be forced to “make comparisons that pierce the membrane of our own quotidian world, allowing us for a brief moment to be spectacles of ourselves, an effect that is also experienced by those on display” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1991, 409). We need to keep this impulse in check, however. Myers reminds us that we used to put people in literal zoos. I had to remove If I Ran The Zoo by Dr Seuss from the bedtime story rotation because of its depiction of caged Hottentots.

Adorno argues that before late capitalism, the use value of art was its autonomy from society, giving it the ability to critique that society. Now, only exchange value remains, and as the exchange value of pop music overwhelms its use value, the exchange value itself becomes the object of enjoyment. There is something here, both in the way that people outside the music industry follow the Billboard charts, and in the way rich Baby Boomers collect guitars. But Adorno oversimplifies. The great composers were never apart from their society. A pop song would have no exchange value in the first place if it did not have some use value, as a way for kids to dance and socialize. And purchases of vintage guitars are motivated at least in part by the memory of experiencing joy while listening to Jimi Hendrix.


Arjun Appadurai (1986) Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value. In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Arjun Appadurai, editor). New York: Cambridge University Press.

David Graeber (2005) Value: Anthropological Theories of Value. In A Handbook of Economic Anthropology (James Carrier, editor). Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Michael Lambek (2013) The Value of (Performative) Acts. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(2): 141-160.

Fred Myers (2001) Introduction: Empire of Things. In Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture (Fred Myers, editor). Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Timothy Taylor (2017) Valuing Music. In Music in the World: Selected Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.