Listening to Gresham’s Law

Back in 1558, Sir Thomas Gresham, who was the financial agent for Queen Elizabeth I, articulated what was to become known as “Gresham’s law.” The law has it that “bad money drives out good.”

He was talking about physical currency.

One way to think about this is to take a quarter out of your pocket (assuming that you’re reading this in the U.S.; if not, it doesn’t make any difference although it will be less physically obvious).

When you look at the coin edge-on you see a sandwich of materials. There is a copper center covered by two shiny layers.

Said quarter is 91.67 percent copper. The shiny stuff is nickel and it makes up the remainder.

Prior to 1964 quarter were made of silver.

So in Gresham’s law, the “bad money”—the metal sandwich—drives out the “good,” the silver, which has a much higher value in terms of the metal alone. Almost as soon as the cupronickel quarters appeared the silver quarters disappeared. Some were saved by coin collectors. Some, no doubt, were melted down (which, by the way, is illegal) and sold as metal.

What does any of this have to do with music?

Well, consider this.

The internet has allowed an explosion in the number of people who can record and distribute music without the gatekeepers that kept control of things that you would or wouldn’t hear, be those people at record companies or at radio stations. It seems somewhat quaint now that some people from some record companies paid off some people at radio stations to give audible visibility to acts.

Get a Mac. Get GarageBand. And there are countless variants and methods that one can use to create their own music, just as there are endless outlets for those who are interested in sharing their written musings.

Everyone into the pool!

Earlier this year, Billboard ran numbers of the views of some of the top music videos on YouTube. The digits are nothing if not startling.

As of February 25, 2017, “Gangnam Style” by PSY had 2,773,175,584 views. Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” 2,470,579,822. And 2,281,185,652 for Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.”

Let’s say that those three videos were viewed for one minute each. That’s 7,524,941,058 minutes. Or 14,317 years.

To be sure none of those videos were made by anyone in a garage. But there are those, too. And YouTube is just one outlet.

The internet may be infinite. But any of us only has a certain amount of time available to listen to music.

Now isn’t it conceivable that given the explosion of the amount of music that the “bad” will drive out the “good”?

This is not to make an argument for A&R people to return with big wads of cash or baggies of something else and the resurrection of terrestrial radio stations in each and every locale in multiples. Nor is it a plea to wind back the available tech that make it much easier to produce and record music.

But it is a call for people to be aware that there is a lot out there that isn’t worth their limited funds of time and that they actually need to make efforts to find the good. The bad will find you.

3 thoughts on “Listening to Gresham’s Law”

  1. But more to your point, I think the infinite availability of everything has led to more people falling back to the mainstream as opposed to seeking out obscure stuff. With everything at your fingertips, people resort to curated or automated playlists, often created to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    Stuff made by people in garages (or via GarageBand) is never going to end up on the “big” playlists that comprise how most people listen to music now. The big get bigger, the rich get richer, the lame get lamer, the dumb get get dumber, ad infinitum.

    1. Perhaps the real spelling of the ‘N Sync song–which, of course, is on YouTube along with a multitude of other pieces from the boys–is “Buy Buy Buy,” and this is not a suggestion for the stuff that’s performed in venues other than stadiums and arenas: “Everyone into the mainstream!”

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