Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pancho, Lefty, and the Free Market

Townes Van Zandt
 Someone in my Sunday Introduction to Management class raised the point that the original creators of a musical work are not always the ones who profit. Is this a shortcoming of capitalism?

In response, I mentioned Townes van Zandt. The Wikipedia article about Van Zandt's life is here.

In 1983 Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson made Van Zandt's most famous song, "Pancho and Lefty," a number one hit on the country charts with their Pancho and Lefty album. In contrast, Van Zandt had suffered from bipolar disorder and alcoholism, and he died at 53 in 1997. Mostly touring bars and other small venues, he was little known during his lifetime, although he gained some fame because famous artists, including Bob Dylan as well as Haggard and Nelson, performed his work.

Even if you dislike country music, you'll enjoy these two versions of the song. See if you agree that Van Zandt's version, which appeared in the documentary Heartworn Highways, is better than country giants Haggard and Nelson's.

Haggard and Nelson's version:

Van Zandt's Version:

Is it a failure of the market system that creators like Van Zandt are often not the ones to benefit financially  from their creations?  Westinghouse, not Tesla, profited most from Tesla's discovery of AC electricity, for example.

It is only the free market system that allows innovation to flourish on a broad scale; even under the Rome-like state capitalism of today's America, artists often do profit to some or a large degree. Could Townes Van Zandt or Jackson Pollock have existed in North Korea or the USSR?

In her classic novel The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand describes the life of an innovative architect Howard Roark, who is modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright.  Roark is not as successful as his less talented but more conformist colleague, but he creates major new concepts in architecture. Like Van Zandt, Roark gradually wins recognition. 

Those who seek profit over greatness may be the ones making the suboptimal choice; only in a free society is the choice to innovate possible.

No comments: