Gold!

Gold!

Before 1849, California was by all rights considered a frontier outpost like many other desolate frontier outposts in the West. Most of America still existed at the East Coast, with the country’s population scattering westward like sand under a door crack. Among the denizens of north-central California, near the American River and about fifty miles from Sacramento, was John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who’d hocked himself to the eyebrows in order to find wealth and power in the soon-to-be-state.

Already in those days, California was known as a rich, fertile land, and Sutter, who owed money as far away as Russia, had dreams of building an agricultural empire in the territory. He was getting there too, had over ten thousand cattle and a fort, when he sent James Marshall up the river to build a sawmill. Marshall was nearly done when on January 24th, 1848, he spotted something shiny in the dirt. A gold nugget, about the size of a corn kernel. And then another one. Marshall realized right away that this was trouble.

While Sutter and Marshall tried to keep the secret as best they could, rumors about gold inevitably leaked out. Still, they were only rumors, easily dismissed because of their fantastic nature. Until Sam Brannan, a local merchant, came up with a brilliant idea. He proceeded to purchase every pick-axe, every shovel, every pan, every implement of mining and excavation in the area. Then he ran through the streets of San Francisco (pop. about 400 at the time) with a jar of gold dust (origins uncertain), screaming at the top of his lungs, “Gold! Gold in the American River!”

Well, there went the neighborhood. Soon, Brannan was the richest man in California. Twenty cent cooking pans were now fifteen dollar gold sifters. Not everyone could afford to be a miner, but those who could marshal together the resources to proceed were determined to find that gold or die trying. Most of them did.

Sutter, who had stubbornly tried to maintain his agricultural empire (instead of having a go at a mining one), fled the state. An uncountable and uncontrollable multitude of immigrants, not only from out East but from around the world, were plundering the pristine hills of the area, quickly extracting all the gold to be easily had and creating the West’s first widespread ecological disaster.

But this isn’t a story about the California Gold Rush, is it? It’s about the wealth of wishful thinking, like the easy wealth that those weary Chicago urbanites dreamed about while trudging to the West, 20-30 miles a day for four months. Like the wealth of a career in the Music Industry, an objective both as fantastic as it is evanescent.

Wealth in a successful musician is not a new thing. In a lot of cultures, where material possessions are few and the coin of the realm is more psychological than physical, the musician/griot/poet is given high status and plenty of respect. Many monarchies, both Western and Eastern, delighted in court musicians — who might not be enjoying all the same luxuries as the King, but certainly were far better off than their cousins who were plowing the fields.

What’s the problem? Is it wrong for a musician to be compensated on a grand scale? Should we deny Elvis his Cadillacs, Rick James his cocaine, or George Tabb his menagerie of rare high-altitude Peruvian alpacas? Just because they were mere musicians? Of course not. They all made money the old-fashioned musician’s way, because they happened to have certain talents that a lot of people really liked, which generated an incredible amount of revenue that was sliced and diced many times but still yielded a fat chunk once everyone took their cut. It’s not like they went from door to door, rifling underwear drawers for stashed mad money.

So no, we can’t begrudge the successful musician (or songwriter, producer, drummer, etc.) his piles of moolah. Similarly, we can’t complain about the talented musician’s influence and respect. It’s a more primitive type of wealth, but a wealth nonetheless. We can’t fault them any more than we can a plot of land that yields no gold (but plenty of good carrots!), when its neighbor is overflowing with nuggets.

The problem is that a lot of people — not everyone, thankfully, but nonetheless a lot — are trying to stake that claim and earn that wealth. And there just isn’t enough to go around.

Wait. Music is an inexhaustible resource, a philosopher’s stone bound only by imagination and creativity. There is an infinite number of sounds that can be recorded or performed, and even a small portion of infinity is still infinity. It’s not really fair to compare music to an exhaustible natural resource like gold. However, it is a lot like carrots. You can always grow more carrots. People will pay for carrots the same as they’ll pay for gold. The problem is that there’s only so many carrots people will buy in a single year. Or gold jewelry, for that matter. If you plant twice as many carrots as you can sell… well, that’s not too smart is it?

In order to bust out of this ludicrous vegetable analogy (can you believe at one point it involved infinite set theory?), we should safely assume that there’s a fixed amount of attention (and therefore money) that people will spend on music — whether it be via records, concerts, radio, what have you. Granted, it’s a growing number, steadily keeping pace with our population, but in contrast, the amount of records being put together and released to the public has skyrocketed — over 30,000 different albums in 1997 by some counts. This is directly related to the increased accessibility of the technology used to record music and produce a finished CD. For about $10,000, you can own a digital home studio that would have cost $25,000 last year, and $250,000 ten years ago. Another grand, and bam! you have one thousand of those shiny round things.

What marked the 1849 Gold Rush as different from previous gold rushes was the free availability of the metal. Previously, gold was a rare mineral which had to be extracted from the bowels of the earth. In California, it was laying around in the dirt, and all you had to do was pick it up. A lot of gold also lay silted up in riverbeds, and though it was a bit more difficult to pan it out of the water, it still beat having to dig mines and tunnels. It wasn’t the fact that gold had been discovered in California that brought immigrants from around the nation and the globe — there were many well-known places that had plentiful reserves of the metal — it was the gold’s easy accessibility that deluded many into imagining untold riches, waiting to be picked. Of course, getting to California was the hard part. But if you survived the journey, and were able to set up your claim, and got there early enough to grab the easy gold, your fortune was made… right?

It’s certainly easier to produce a CD these days, but it’s also harder to make it in the business. The lowered entry barrier has made CDs the realm of anybody who’s relatively thrifty or moderately over-paid, whereas in ye olden days, committing to a record meant spending a lot of money and making a lot of sacrifices. Before all of this updated technology, getting there was half the battle, and having your own record or label was a matter of self-sufficiency that inspired pride and admiration, like growing your own vegetables or building your own house. All this blood, sweat and tears poured into your album may not have affected the quality of the music, but it certainly counted for something in the eyes of the people who might purchase your record.

The easy gold ran out not long after the first large wave of immigrants arrived. Those who did find themselves a good supply of the metal soon fell prey to a topsy-turvy economy. While there were plenty of miners around, there were few people around with other skills. Women were rare, and their domestic talents were in high demand. Home-cooked meals could fetch as much as $10. Chicken farmers could charge fifty cents an egg. The real fortunes in the Gold Rush were made not by miners and not with gold, but by people like Sam Brannan, Levi Strauss (who outfitted the miners with canvas pants) or John Studebaker (who after saving the money from his wheelbarrow business returned home to Indiana to build covered wagons). The truth was that while not everyone found gold, those who did found out soon enough that it really wasn’t worth as much in California as it was back home.

Today’s record buyers are less easily swayed by home efforts. It’s not that they realize how easy it’s become to put an album together, just that there are now far more albums to choose from, by a factor of ten, a hundred, a thousand. Many bands are releasing CDs because they can, creating the supply and assuming the demand will follow, a fallacy that shows a view of the music business that’s distorted and optimistic. The origins of the DIY movement come from bands who became frustrated at being unable to provide their packed-to-capacity audiences with the records they demanded, so they had to take matters into their own hands. Doing it yourself was not something you did because you could — you did it because you had no other options.

Comparing the 1849 California Gold Rush with the current state of the music industry might lead one to think that we’re headed for some sort of huge market bust. Certainly, the Gold Rush brought nothing but grief to the miners and devastation to the landscape. But look at California today. It’s impossible to deny that the state’s genesis lies in this landmark event — yet California is one of the richest states in the country. Historians attribute California’s success to two factors brought in by the Gold Rush.

First, it attracted an amazingly diverse group of people into the same geographic area, over a very short period of time. The mad dash for the gold was not limited to residents of the United States — it attracted a global community. The American melting pot was not a new phenomenon, but it had never taken place so rapidly and under such high-tension conditions. Indubitably, this effect has molded the character of the Californian into what it is today, and it provides a template for newcomers into the area, the fabled West Coast state of mind.

Second, it created an environment where high risks were acceptable, because of the potentially exorbitant returns they promised. California has given us Hollywood, the aerospace industry, and Silicon Valley, all business concerns that required an amazing amount of commitment despite their highly volatile natures. These three industries define America’s global leadership in the Twentieth Century, and they couldn’t have taken place without California’s unique character.

Fortunately, the current music glut has not lowered the overall ratio of good music to bad — a lot of talented people who had interesting ideas but no way to share them with the public have benefited from this drastic change. And though not everyone can come up with an original idea, the greater volume of music allows for a greater amount of diversity and creativity. I like to think that we’re living in a time of adjustment. We’ve yet to adjust to the fact that we now must wade through a lot of dreck and failures in order to find the good stuff, but this is the price we must pay. There will be many winners and many more losers. While the musical superstar will never disappear, a lot of musicians will find that it is increasingly more difficult to “hit the jackpot,” and they may have to content themselves with a modest income from their music, or none at all. The real winner in all this? Music. With an exponential increase in the sharing of musical ideas, things can only get better.

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