Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Art and ROI

Eli Horowitz muses about the costs and benefits of entertainments:

* $45 for a console video game per 30 hours of play time = $1.5/hr
* $20 for a hardback novel per 5 hours of reading = $4/hr
* $30 for a decent concert ticket per 1.5 hours at the concert itself = $20/hr
* $15 for a CD per 1 hour of music = $15/hr
These are only on the first run through, of course. With live concerts and movies there is only the one run through, but with the others you could re-experience them as many times as you want. Does that, then, make those the worse investments? The other thing that sort of jumps out in the list is that video games are, relatively speaking, incredibly cheap - does that make them the least valuable as art?

An alternative interpretation (and unsurprisingly my preferred interpretation) is that the cost-benefit analysis just isn't very useful for making fine-grained distinctions. But it sure is interesting, because I suspect that many of us sort of lump all purchasable art forms together without thinking about it very much. I don't really have any strong conclusions about this, I just think it's worth mulling over for a minute or two.
At the risk of validating a crudely cash-nexus-y view of things, I think cost-benefit analysis has plenty of promise for placing value on forms of entertainment. A film, recording, book, game (etc.) that stands up to repeated viewings, listenings, readings, playings (etc.) is tantamount to a valuable one, and even live, one-time-only experiences -- a play, a concert, a live TV spectacle -- stand out by replaying in the memory, as though happening over and over.  

Van Halen's 1984 included such oft-played songs as "Panama," "Jump," "I'll Wait," and "Hot for Teacher," but "Girl Gone Bad" is etched just as strongly in my memory, for better or worse. (Answer, for what it's worth: surely worse.) Whatever might be said of 1984, there can be no doubt that I got my money's worth out of it, as it almost certainly stands as the recording I've heard the most times of any. Soon after discovering this "music" thing everyone was always gibbering about, and after cobbling together enough cash to buy it (and concluding I wouldn't be able to shoplift it), I bought it and proceeded to listen to it more or less non-stop between, oh, early 1985 and early 1988. Other recordings came and went in the same period, of course, but this seminal work of 1980s cock-rock never left the short list, and no, I am not proud to say so.

All that said, the value I place in these terms is sheerly subjective, as I hope the instance of 1984 establishes: one can get a recording down to vanishingly small fractions of a penny per listen, and enjoy it all the while, but it doesn't follow that critics of the future will similarly prize it. I would only say that the popular appeal of a work of art can only be a noteworthy data point for judicious critics: it suggests that something is attracting eyes, ears, and minds of human beings, but the something could turn out to be nothing more than a glitzy advertising campaign or the self-propelling madness of crowds.


Eli said...

Actually, I was almost motivated enough with that post to go find the research about going on vacations. You'd think the vacation itself and the period afterward would be the most rewarding, but I seem to recall some empirical study about how people's happiness increased the most in the run-up to the vacation.

So, like I said, I was almost motivated enough to look that up and then connect it to the post somehow, but then I turned out not to be. Maybe I'll do more on this in the near future - something about the philosophy of decision theory, kind of thing.

Sean G said...

As a long-time book, video game, and movie lover I've often used this same formula in rationalizing my video game purchases. Certainly they provide the greatest entertainment-per-dollar ratio, although paperback books give them a run for their money. Modern times have skewed the ratios a bit, with Netflix moving DVD entertainment close to the front... possibly 60 hrs of entertainment monthly for $20 is a good ROI. That won't stop me from buying Shogun 2 Total War in the spring.

Dale said...

Sean G - you're right about Netflix -- it's a fine, fine thing, and it changes the calculations. I just wish they'd add more titles to their streaming thingy!

Eli - I've seen similar research on vacations, and I have to say I am an outlier -- I spend a large portion of the time leading up to a vacation worrying about what will fuck up on the vacation, especially when it's a "real" vacation where you go somewhere. But maybe that kind of worrying is, in a weird way, part of the good of it, if only because my mind is on something other than The Daily Grind. I doubt it, but maybe.