Economists are people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I will still venture to put forward my thoughts on the current moment of glory for Latvian musicians on the global stage. There are important reasons why we got so far. Moreover, these achievements could affect the future of our nation in interesting ways, including very practical ones.

(This article was originally posted in Latvian in the Delfi.lv portal on March 11, 2017.)

Roughly a month ago I tuned in to the programmes of France Culture radio station. One of the best is called L'Actualité du disque classique. It is scheduled for two hours every weekday, so one gets an idea of a typical broadcast rather quickly. In this period Latvian musicians have filled roughly a tenth of its total broadcast time. I have heard Iveta Apkalna, Mariss Jansons, Elīna Garanča, Andrejs Osokins, Andris Nelsons, Gidons Krēmers, maybe I forgot somebody. As regards composers, France Culture has devoted its waves to Pēteris Vasks. By comparison, the share of Latvians in the global population is 0.027%.

My initial reaction was – well, the good recent track record of Latvians in this area is quite well known, stuff happens, nice, but never mind. That lasted until the third episode. As the good run continued, I went through flashes of joy, respect, amazement, even fun as well as intrigue – who will be the next?  Some of my classmates are globally known musicians. No news about them so far from Paris, but it seems to be just a question of time.

I do not want to say that the world is fully run by economic considerations, though exquisitely managed greed is definitely a great way to motivate people. Money surely is a factor that affects the probability of great music. For example, if all children from seven years of age herded farm animals from dawn to dusk, that would leave them little time for music studies. On the other hand, too much of a good life can spoil. Music from 17th to 19th century that survives on the stage was rarely written in the economic great powers of the age – Netherlands and UK. Instead, it (or its authors) mostly came from Germany, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland and Russia. Also the contribution of France is not one you would expect, given its share of the European population at that time and its high level of culture in general. Jamaica produces so many great sprint runners because poor kids and their parents see in legs an opportunity to get ahead in life. An economist will see a hint to convergence principle here — in countries that are not so rich people are motivated to work harder, to put it simply. Distinction in music seems to be a speciality of middle income countries.

Here we arrive at a possible explanation of why Latvia has produced so many outstanding musicians. Becoming an artist was one of the few opportunities to give a sparkle to the greyness of Soviet everyday life. Thus the middle -income country effect was further enhanced by limitations on other opportunities of self-expression, courtesy of political regime. Some of the aforementioned musicians studied mostly in the post-Soviet era, but perception and behaviour lasts for a while after systems change, in this case with positive repercussions.

There is also a story floating around that the marvels of music performance in Latvia have been helped by the intersection of two great musical traditions — German and Russian, their artistic wisdom and ways of passing it to the next generations. I will add my interpretation on top of that — in places like these, freed from the hierarchical weight and drinking habits of geniuses in originating countries, the best threads can be combined in a unique, locally coloured pattern.

The unbelievable, incredible over-representation of Latvian musicians in the global elite has also been helped by the high birth rate in 1980s.  Here one can hear a sigh about the maybe not-so-great future. The number of children is smaller, thus the selection base for geniuses is narrower. In these days more ways are open for self-expression, which is nice, but this can reduce incentives for studying music, as well as the profession’s prestige. Another reason for pessimism — maybe we have just been helped by a run of good luck. The listed factors are important indeed, but if achievements are so outstanding, perhaps also luck has played a role? As sports people say, the ball is round. Why can Estonia and Lithuania not boast results of this magnitude? So far I have heard only one Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt (of course!) and one Lithuanian pianist (forgot the name) on France Culture.

Fortunately, there are also rays of hope. Musicians grow up, go to the big, open world, come back, leave again, then come back once more — the exchange of knowledge, experience, creative intuitions happens. Centres of excellence sometimes are where they are because they have been there before. For example, as hard as other European states try to grab pieces of London’s financial centre, most of it is likely to stay put. The presence of a large number of professionals in one spot is simply so important. Because they cannot all leave at once, every individual who leaves abandons significant opportunities. If all cannot leave, it means that (almost) no one leaves. There is a name for this in economic matters — a “cluster”.

A successful cluster needs developed production, education and science as well as a competent and demanding consumer, reputation, inertia. Moreover, production needs to be like a network structure, with many supplementary parts. In the area of music in Latvia it is more or less the case. There is no doubt that the starlight era in the first half of the 21st century (or the whole century?) will strengthen the cluster even more. For example, it might attract a larger number of foreign students. Foreigners might start to ask – what on earth are they doing there to produce such outstanding musicians? Foreign students bring their experience and creative nerve, also help to co-finance the teaching of music to the locals. Latvian education exports are growing rapidly, by double digits, but so far mostly in medical studies and technical sciences. Maybe also our Academy of Music can increase the number of students. In this area language is not a great barrier. These students would also become messengers of our music in the world.

For the Latvian music economy to grow, it needs to maintain the good old things and to develop good new things. Taxpayers will have to continue to finance our sprawling creative education system, the big rake and sieve of talents. Once we have inherited something good, it must be kept, even if it comes from the Soviet era. Riga, our capital, definitely needs a modern concert hall. Tourism is a very important favourable factor. Its development since the EU accession has been amazingly fast and persistent, hardly anyone could have predicted it. It still has a long way to go; far from having too many tourists (never try to visit the Pisa tower in July, apart from early mornings when the statistical average camera-lover is still fast asleep). Quite the opposite, the arrival of every additional tourist finances factors important for the further development of this sector — larger diversity of hotels and restaurants, good music. Financing concerts just with ticket sales is a long shot, but sophisticated tourists cut the subsidy cost to the Treasury. Furthermore, related money flows might make the whole thing profitable one day.

Last but not least, achievements in music endow the country’s image with a gleam and glamour not achievable through other polishing methods. I cannot prove it, but I believe that there is a positive correlation even between music and IT exports, at least in the long run. People like to simplify and categorize, thus it requires less effort to perceive faraway nations as simply rather smart or rather dumb, without delving into excessive detail.

As a growing share of world’s total cash flow will go towards media content, copyright, inspiration and feelings, the role of music in the Latvian economy and exports will grow. When goods are made by robots made by other robots, humanity will face a tough fate — an almost unending entertainment. Unlike other areas, in music one and the same product can be produced over and over again, first by writing music and then by performing it. Neither of these activities will be accessible to robots.

Economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing. However, if price can be attributed to value, this is not a big deficiency, at least from other people’s point of view. The cynicism of economists lowers their quality of life, fogging their perception of beauty’s nuance, but it also helps to make decisions that improve the chances of enjoyment for others.

Pēteris Strautiņš, economist of DNB banka, 19.04.2017