I love ska punk. The horns, the guitar parts, the lyrics, the mosh pits filled with people frenetically skanking to the beat. I’ve long been a fan of third wave ska bands like Reel Big Fish, Mustard Plug, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Streetlight Manifesto. Lately I have been getting into more recent ska punk bands, especially those around Bad Time Records, an independent ska record label. These include Catbite, JER, We Are the Union, The Best of the Worst, Abraskadabra, and Kill Lincoln.
But where did this wonderfully upbeat, aggressively danceable music come from? Answering that question can help us understand some key insights from economics. Welcome to e-ska-nomics 101.
Our story begins in Kingston, Jamaica. As Evan Nicole Brown explains:
Toward the end of the 1950s, “there was quite a bit of rural to urban migration … and as more people transitioned to the city there were some shifts [away from mento and calypso music, the more folk styles in Jamaica],” says [Nina] Cole. Local musicians married the African rhythms of Caribbean mento, a genre all Jamaicans would have been familiar with, with the popular beats of R&B and jazz music: sounds more closely linked to the black American experience. Though sound systems were getting these American records shipped to the island, they were generally limited and severely delayed (sometimes arriving up to three years after they had peaked in the States). The working-class people of Kingston could not afford radios, which effectively cut off their access to non-local music, and the prices American record manufacturers demanded from DJs to import R&B records to Kingston grew increasingly steep. Sound system operators like Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and Duke Reid recognized this gulf, and filled it by using nearby music studios to record a new sound that blended elements from both local and imported music to create ska—an undeniably new sound with familiar enough influences to make it an instant success.
As an economist, a couple of things stick out to me here. One is that ska was developed in the city. This is an example of what economists call agglomeration effects. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser explains, “Agglomeration economies are the benefits that come when firms and people locate near one another together in cities and industrial clusters. These benefits all ultimately come from transport costs savings: the only real difference between a nearby firm and one across the continent is that it is easier to connect with a neighbor.” In other words, when people are closer together it is easier for them to cooperate. We see this in many commercial contexts, such as the concentration of tech companies around Silicon Valley. We observe this quantitatively in the fact that population density is correlated with higher wages. But we also observe it in the emergence of music scenes within cities, whether that’s New Orleans jazz, Seattle grunge, L.A. nu-metal, D.C. hardcore, or Kingston ska.
The second thing that sticks out to me is that the high price of American records created entrepreneurial opportunities for DJs and musicians to produce affordable substitutes for the masses. Today’s failures are tomorrow’s profit opportunities, and alert entrepreneurs seize those opportunities. Or, in this case, they see the opportunity and pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!
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