Many people might argue that the creative arts as a product is considered a luxury, and that the government has more pressing issues to spend their budget on, whether education, infrastructure, healthcare, security, etc. I don’t disagree with that argument, but wanted to present a different point of view that there are possibly other ways for the government to spend their budget if we can all see the creative arts in a different light. Let me guide you through my thinking process.
1. Art is a necessity, not a luxury
According to the Thai-Buddhism teaching of the 4 Necessities of Life (ปัจจัย 4), which is similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs‘ physiological needs – is comprised of food, clothing, shelter and medicine. Anything other than these four items is considered a luxury – including art. However, I think that it is because we see medicine as a tangible thing to treat a physical illness, we tend to look over psychological/mental health and so-called intangible medicine.
Let me ask you. Have you every had a bad day and felt better after listening to a song? Have you ever felt inspired to create something new after seeing a piece of art? Have you ever wanted to change your life after seeing a good movie or read a good book? There may not be many studies out there confirming art to be a form of medicine, but there are some examples that make me believe so, like music therapy and how it can can improve health outcomes in premature infants and people with depression and Parkinson’s disease.
If we can see that art is a form of medicine, we can rank it higher in our minds.
2. Art is not a commercial product
Humans have created art probably since the dawn of humanity. The oldest known cave painting is estimated to be at least 44,000 years old. However, come to think of it, I think art was probably not a commercial product until recent history. Music and other creative arts were most likely created by the people for the people. It was integrated into social gatherings, rituals, customs and culture. Art was like a glue that held a society together. But then when societies became bigger and more complex, people’s skills and duties became more specialized, and the arts became a service or product – thus, the profession of “artist” is born.
When you put art in a capitalist system, it has to follow the same rules and compete with other products and services. Economy-of-scale is what most businesses thrive for – to create a lot of the same cheap stuff to sell to a lot of people and make a lot of money, but that could create a lack of variety, creativity and inspiration when it comes to art.
The Pareto principle states “for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes”. This principle can be used as a basis to explain how wealth is distributed in a capitalist society as well, i.e. 20% of the richest people have 80% of the population’s wealth. However, in reality, it may be far more than that according to the above video.
If we let the market decide what they want (or more likely, what they think they want), it is natural that it will skew towards a small group of products produced by big corporations. Look at the music industry as an example, 3 of the biggest music labels have a combined 70% of the global recorded music market shares.
3. Society Prospers from Art
I hope you can believe me when I say that creativity fuels innovation. But if you don’t, here’s a research paper that might convince you.
I hope that you will also believe me if I tell you that happiness can increase productivity. According to this paper, it says that happy employees have 20% higher productivity.
Now, if I say that happiness alone cannot lead to the increase in productivity without creativity and innovation, I hope you can believe me, too.
I personally believe that happiness is one of the factors that fuels creativity. Some might argue that there are studies that show the relationship between depression and creativity, but I think it isn’t sustainable. For a normal human being, it is rather difficult to be happy if their basic needs are not met (remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from above?), which brings me to my first diagram shown below.
I think that for a society to be sustainably productive, its people must have at least sufficient food and water, clothes on their back, a roof over their head, be able to get treatment for their illnesses and feel safe. Then they would be able to climb up the hierarchy of needs and follow the subsequent steps towards better productivity.
But yet, according to psychologists Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, happiness consists of three distinct elements: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. They explained that the pleasant life can be attained by enjoying daily pleasures that add fun, joy, and excitement. The good life can be achieved through finding out what we’re good at using our skills, abilities and talents to enrich our lives. Those who achieve the good life often absorb themselves in their work or recreational activities. Lastly, the meaningful life requires a deeper sense of fulfillment that comes from using our talents to benefit others, give back to society and make the world a better place.
After looking at the 3 elements closer, I felt that they were a part a cycle of taking and giving back. If everyone were able to contribute some of their income to the artists they like, those artists could keep on creating art that sustains the pleasant life, which can help give them the mental energy to keep working everyday and achieve the good life, and then have the resources to contribute to society – the meaningful life, and the cycle can go on and on and on.
If the cycle can be done for real, we should be able to achieve a more happy and sustainable society with higher productivity, which shall create significant financial returns. However, because music and the arts are seen as non-essential products and services, thus are not valued as much as they should from the eyes of the general consumer, resulting in insufficient resources returned back to the artists preventing the cycle from being perpetual.
I believe that many musicians and artists don’t have a stable or sustainable career, and very few are successful enough to live a wealthy life. In order for artists to be able to create the art that is vital to a society’s happiness, creativity, innovation and productivity, should the government step in to support these artists? Will the investment be worth it?
4. Government benefits directly from the arts
Do you know that the UK has seen a return of over £10 to its economy for every £1 invested in music export? Between 2014 and 2019, the UK government invested over £2.6 million in the Music Export Growth Scheme (MEGS). through the Department for International Trade (DIT) (source: BPI.co.uk). And here’s another interesting story. SXSW, an annual conference and showcase festival held in Austin, TX, USA – although not funded by the government – in 2019, created an economic impact of USD 355.9 million to the city, which generated USD 1.9 million for its City Government in hotel occupancy tax revenues alone.
There is currently no study or research paper available about the Return-On-Investment (ROI) when the Thai Government invests in the arts, so it will be very difficult to convince them to do so. But, here’s my argument.
Bangkok Music City (BMC) can somewhat boast that we have generated a good amount of tax money for our government since our first edition, BMC 2019. Brainfield – an independent market research and consulting company that specializes in database and data-driven strategic solutions – was commissioned by TCEB (Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau) to conduct an economic impact report on BMC 2019, which was revealed to be around THB 500 million (approx. USD 16.7 million). I don’t know the method to calculate how much return the government gets from this event, so I just assumed that they were able to tax the transactions. Thailand’s VAT rate is 7%, so it is possible that the government were able to collect around THB 35 million (approx. USD 1 million) in tax money, which is many times more than the money required to cover the costs of organizing the event.
BMC 2019 was under funded, but we (the organizers) think of it as an investment for the country’s music industry and hope that we will be able to get more support in the future. But for now, due to the nature of BMC being a conference and showcase festival, it is viewed as an educational event and music festival that features non-mainstream artists, which commercial brands do not see a significant ROI if they were to sponsor the event. However, if the government can see the value of the event and also the financial gain they would achieve from supporting similar events, this is definitely a no-brainer investment decision.
Currently, the Creative Economy Agency (CEA) is conducting socioeconomic research on the creative industries. When that is complete, I do hope that the central government will write up new policies to develop and fund the arts for the prosperity and wellbeing of the Thai people.
I strongly believe that music and art should be as diverse as possible, because I believe that it will expand the human creativity and imagination. So, if the music industry were run purely on the capitalism model, it has a tendency to become more monolithic as I have argued above. And from the case studies mentioned above, the government benefits directly if the arts prospers, which they could use that tax money to reinvest into the country and its people, which is the main reason why I think public money should be diverted to supporting the creative arts because the private sector may not be willing to do so…
Author: Piyapong Muenprasertdee – Co-founder of Bangkok Music City