I love ska punk. Horns, guitar parts, lyrics, mosh pits filled with people frantically jumping 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’ve been getting into more recent ska punk bands, especially the ones around Bad time record, 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 these questions can help us understand some key insights from economics. Welcome to e-Ska-nomics 101.
Our story begins in Kingston, Jamaica. Evan as Nicole Brown explains:
By the late 1950s, “rural-to-urban migration was quite a bit … and there was some change as more people migrated to cities. [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 with which all Jamaicans were familiar, with the popular beats of R&B and jazz music: more closely associated with the black American experience. Although sound systems shipped these American records to the island, they were generally limited and severely delayed (sometimes taking up to three years before they reached the top stateside). Working-class people in Kingston could not afford a radio, which effectively cut off their access to non-local music, and the prices American record producers demanded from DJs to import R&B records into Kingston became increasingly steep. Sound system operators such as 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 of both local and imported music to create ska – with considerable influence from the familiar. An undeniably new sound to make it an instant success.
As an economist, a few things stick out to me here. A hall is formed in the town of Ska. This is an example of what economists call agglomeration effects. As Harvard economist Edward Glaser explains, “Agglomeration economies are the benefits that come when firms and people are located close to each other in cities and industrial clusters. All of these benefits ultimately come from transportation cost savings: the only real difference between a nearby firm and one across the continent is the ease of connecting with neighbors.” In other words, it’s easier for people to cooperate when they’re closer. We see this in many commercial contexts. See, for example, the concentration of tech companies around Silicon Valley. We observe this quantitatively as population density correlates with higher wages. But we also observe this in the emergence of music scenes within cities, be it New Orleans jazz, Seattle grunge, LA nu-metal, DC hardcore. or Kingston Ska.
The second thing that stuck out to me was that the high price of American records created entrepreneurial opportunities for DJs and musicians to create affordable alternatives for the masses. Today’s failures are tomorrow’s opportunities for profit, and careful entrepreneurs seize those opportunities. Or, in this case, they see the opportunity and pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!