The rewards structure of the academy is always under attack from one side or another, but certainly low on the list for most universities is what is derisively called “popularization,” which means writing not for one’s peers but for the broader public. Writing for the public — a public, after all, that avidly watches reality TV and seemingly endless sports competitions — adds nothing to the store of knowledge, nor does it necessarily help out in that secondary activity of the university, the education of undergraduates — who may graduate and go on to successful and lucrative careers in reality TV and the sports industry. I am on the other side of this debate; in my view, bringing the authority of the academy to a broad audience should be second only to original research itself, especially if the research community hopes to retain or even increase the public’s support for the esoteric work that goes on behind the laboratory walls. I seek out the talented popularizers (Lisa Randall, Stephen Pinker, Jill Lepore, et al.,) and I am pleased to report that in the posthumously published Rockonomics: A Backstage Tour of What the Music Industry Can Teach Us about Economics and Life, we have a superb instance of popularization. I am putting my friends on notice that they may see a copy of this book under the Christmas tree.
The author is the late Alan B. Krueger, a former professor at Princeton and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. Krueger’s aim is to explain the economics of “superstar” industries (sometimes called “winner-takes-all” businesses) and, by extension, how the superstar structure of the world economy leads to great disparities between the tiny number of the truly rich and the stagnant incomes of all those in the middle or below. What Taylor Swift is to music, Google and Facebook are to tech industries — and, I believe, what Elsevier is to scholarly publishing. A superstar industry arises when a very large, especially a global, market can be addressed, with all the economic benefits of operating at enormous scale. That huge market generates superstars when someone or an organization has an essential differentiator (in music we would simply call this talent) that enables the superstar to leap far ahead of even the second player in the game. We then find that #2 significantly outstrips #3, #3 significantly surpasses #4, and so on, until we get to the barely compensated denizens of the Long Tail. (Among other admirable accomplishments, Krueger demolishes the argument of Chris Anderson’s fatuous book, The Long Tail, which fails to recognize that in a networked environment such as a global economy or the Internet, economic benefits flow disproportionately to the “short head.”) I first encountered this principle back in 2003 in an essay by Clay Shirky on “power laws,” and it has never failed me. All those seeking to create a distributed infrastructure of small entities for scholarly communications take heed. The tendency to power laws — to industry consolidation and superstars — is like the current of a huge river, which can be challenged only by the continuous injection of great and costly amounts of energy.
Krueger’s accomplishment can be divided into three categories.
- A primer on “superstar” economics. This is the primary reason Krueger wrote this book. In my view, he is wholly successful. There is barely a page that does not have a concise explanation of a principle in economics. I would think that this book will find a large audience in undergraduate classrooms, shouldering aside the Freakonomics text to which its title alludes.
- A study of the music industry. Krueger explains how superstars get that way, how contracts with record companies are constructed, the disruptive nature of streaming music, the place of piracy, and just about everything else. Musicians must read this book to understand how the business works and to protect themselves from the many colorful, unscrupulous characters who continue to haunt the industry.
- As an instance of popularization. That is the book’s genre — popularization. I hope it will inspire more academics to bring their special authority to popular subjects. We should not leave to journalists such important topics as, say, the problem with drinking water in Flint, MI; the environmental implications of fracking; or the emerging field of study of the microbiome.
My one reservation about the argument in this book is Krueger’s view of the role of luck. Luck, chance, whatever you call it undoubtedly plays a huge role in all of our lives, and not just that of superstars (“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”). A focus on luck, however, can too easily dismiss real talent and drive. What if Paul McCartney did not show up when Ivan Vaughn sought to introduce him to John Lennon on July 6, 1957, at a church fair? Would John have ended up as an illustrator for a tabloid (“She’s the kind of a girl/That makes the News of the World”)? Would Paul have taken his good grades all the way to law school, perhaps representing entertainers? If Paul Allen had not attended the same private school in Seattle with Bill Gates, would Gates be working in tech support for a local real estate company? The Beatles might not have happened, and Microsoft would not have happened, but Lennon, McCartney, Allen, and Gates would have happened. The real issue of talent is what it makes of luck.
I was terribly sad to learn that Krueger committed suicide just prior to this book’s publication. What drove him to it, I do not know, but I was deeply affected by the book’s dedication to his wife, Lisa: “Just the way you are.” The words are taken from a song by Billy Joel. I quote the verse in full:
I said I love you and that’s forever
And this I promise from the heart
I could not love you any better
I love you just the way you are