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Personal essays by Colgate people
The Soundmakers Behind the Spreadsheets
By Christopher Esposito ’14
I grew up in a funky town. The local independent bookstore’s best-selling product was a “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” T-shirt, surfboards outnumbered soccer balls, and lip piercings were commonplace.
I loved Santa Cruz. I grew up surfing, and one of my closest childhood friends is currently renovating a van. I’m trying to convince him to make the cross-country trek to visit me once it’s up and running.
But I left Santa Cruz for Colgate in part because I wanted to keep my lips free of piercings, and I chose to major in economics and quantitative geography because I wanted to study the world from a broad, if detached perspective. I thought that academic work should be distant from the subjects it studies, and so I was perfectly content to study people using numbers and spreadsheets.
That was, at least, until I completed my internship as part of Colgate’s London Economics Study Group.
Students perform three-week internships near the end of the program. Having expressed an interest in journalism to Chad Sparber, my professor who led the group, I landed with Sheila Norman-Culp ’80, assistant Europe editor at the Associated Press. She assigned me the task of investigating the economics of the live-music industry in Camden Town, an alternative neighborhood in London where the AP’s offices are located.
Christopher Esposito ’14, visiting London’s British Museum with Adriana Sperlea ’14
In Camden Town, tips of purple mohawks poke above throngs of visitors, and tattoo-faced men advertise their parlors’ half-off discounts. “The whole neighborhood is bustling with creativity,” Sheila told me. It was my job to investigate the market processes behind it.
Each day, my classmates were buttoning up, fastening ties, and making their way to banks and shiny office buildings. But I would catch the bus to Camden Town, a pocket-sized notebook and pen in hand.
Music is nocturnal, so I slept during the days and worked at night. For two weeks, I roamed the streets of Camdentown until well past midnight, meeting bartenders and venue managers, bands and concert-goers, street musicians and local police officers, looking to uncover the secrets of the neighborhood’s music industry. I spoke with the owner of a psychedelic trance record label and heard firsthand the myths surrounding Amy Winehouse, who lived in Camdentown and whose spirit “still presides over the neighborhood.” In the back of my notebook, I tallied the number of times that street peddlers offered me drugs (which I refused).
After two weeks, I sat down to reconcile my notes and draft the seven-page investigation that Sheila assigned as the product of my internship. My findings? For one, in Camden, the live-music industry operates at multiple levels, or what is referred to as a multi-equilibrium market in economic jargon. With 30-plus venues, from hole-in-the-wall pubs (Barfly, The Dublin Castle) to internationally renowned venues such as the Roundhouse and Koko, I learned that the economics vary based on the scale of venue and act.
The core of Camden’s live-music industry is centered around up-and-coming artists. Most bands are from out of town and already have some traction. They come to Camden in pursuit of their first record deal. Venues keep cover prices cheap (rarely exceeding 15 GBP — about $25) and earn most of their income through sales at the bar. These places are partial to upbeat bands with active drummers because their energy helps boost alcohol sales.
I was saddened to learn that, as with live music elsewhere, Camden’s live-music industry is in economic decline. Eleanor, the booking manager at Proud Camden (one of the neighborhood’s most iconic establishments), put it to me bluntly: “People don’t watch bands like they used to.” Venues like Proud Camden must respond to the waning demand, so DJs and electronic music have taken the center stage. Now, the venue holds live music only on the quietest weeknights. Fewer bands get gigs, and concert-goers have fewer shows to attend.
Even heavy-metal venues like The Underworld hold bandless “club nights” on weekends. I went to one of The Underworld’s club nights looking for studded leather jackets and anarchists, to see if the venue’s rebellious vibe lives on. I checked the coat rack, and I looked for a mosh pit (a sure sign of anarchists) but came up empty-handed.
The music economy does beat on in Camden, but you have to be willing to stop and listen to hear it. Each day, capitalizing on the neighborhood’s tourist traffic, alternative vibe, and lenient ordinances, more and more buskers are setting up on Camden’s sidewalks. As both supply and demand have shifted outward, a whole new informal music industry has formed. In less than five minutes, I counted 250 people walking by Harry, a talented blues guitarist playing for bypassers’ loose change.
The big surprise is that busking can pay. Harry made 5 GBP in 30 minutes, and he told me that he usually earns at least 10 GBP an hour — nearly double the UK adult minimum wage. Cocosan, a young Italian guitarist, said she can earn more than 40 GBP in a good hour.
To improve their chances, both Harry and Cocosan practice what we economists call “product differentiation.” Harry differentiates his product — the music he plays — by using a portable amplifier. It allows him to play intricately, which requires softer strumming. Cocosan’s product differentiator, besides being cute, is her Italian accent. Both Harry’s and Cocosan’s entrepreneurial resourcefulness impressed me.
As a musician who’s always looking for spare change, I decided to test the busking market myself. One day, I packed my guitar and made my way to Camden. I set up on the sidewalk, tuned up, took a deep breath, and strummed a chord. A double-decker bus drove by and drowned me out. Grimacing, I played another chord. A police siren began to wail. I kept playing, but the crowd continued to just walk by. Thirty minutes later, my case was still empty. My head hung a little lower as I walked back to my apartment that evening.
I’m still kicking myself for forgetting those lessons on product differentiation before trying busking for myself. I hope to try busking again soon, but I will do it the right way — like Harry and Cocosan. The amplifier is something that I can easily fix. Cuteness and an Italian accent will take a little more work.
I do not know how successful my future endeavors in busking will be. But in Camden, between the concert-goers and bands, street musicians and psychedelic trance producers, dealers peddling drugs and fake tales about Amy Winehouse, I learned one unforgettable lesson: when it comes to economic markets, there is an awful lot going on behind the spreadsheets.