The Price of Culture

Radiohead is one of my favorite bands. Besides their disruptive, original artistry and ability to push the boundaries of expectation and convention, one of the reasons I love them is what they did in October 2007.

This was the date Radiohead released, unorthodoxly, their album “In Rainbows”. What was significant about this record was not just that it was self-released outside a commercial music label but that it was a “name your price” consumer model. Admirers of their music could pay for the album by deciding what price they would pay. The experiment was adopted years later by U2 when they released their very personal “Songs of Innocence” album as a complimentary download on iTunes.

There were as many critics as champions of these experimental releases, but it was the first time I felt I was a contributor instead of a consumer. I had a choice. I could name the price I was willing to pay and to get something I valued in return.

It was empowering.  

However, in the real world, where culture is created and shaped, it doesn’t work this way. We don’t get to name our price for the everyday items we purchase. And yet we tend to consume more than we contribute. Our consumerism is often the mirror that reflects our culture and, more importantly, our place within it. Sometimes it feels as if the culture just happens to us, and we are mere spectators without any influence or agency. But, is that true?

Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, generated his wealth by creating the ultimate consumer platform. With one click on our phones, we can purchase whatever we want, whenever we want, thriving off the dopamine surge, knowing an image on a screen would materialize in the physical on our doorstep the next day. And yet, Bezos understood the dark side: “What consumerism really is, at its worst, is getting people to buy things that don’t actually improve their lives.”  

Why do we buy things that don’t actually improve our lives? One obvious answer is: advertisers, marketers and social media giants tell us we need them. For me, a confessed sucker for branding, packaging, and any unboxing experience (Apple, for example), I know, deep down, when I am consuming things that don’t actually improve or benefit my life.

There is a void, perhaps a guilt or shame for the subtle imbalance between contribution and consumption. Yet, when I turn around months later and give away or donate that same item I purchased, there is shift back to peace and contentment. This sense that I will be okay without it.  

So, what is consumerism at its best? I think, like with anything important, it starts in our hearts and provokes challenging questions. After all, if our culture is the larger system of our collective beliefs, practices and values, how can we generate benefit for others by what we consume? How does what we purchase reflect the best version of ourselves? How do we live a richer life instead of becoming poorer consuming it? How do we use our purchasing power and power of choice to consign what we buy to improve the health and growth of our culture?

As a creative who has spent my entire life ideating and creating things, I have a special place in my heart for the street musician, the poet who sells her books in a local coffee shop and the artist displaying his canvasses at a flea market. I always try to make an intentional purchase to support the creative work of others. Consequently, I am finding it more rewarding to consume based on experiences and relationships versus sweaters and sneakers (ask my wife if need more shoes).  

“Price is what you pay, value is what you get”. If I could be so bold and paraphrase Warren Buffet, I would say, “price is what you pay, value is what you give”. If we approach our consumption with the spirit of giving, there could be a transformative shift in our culture. Our consuming could start to look a lot like contributing.  

Now, when is Amazon Prime Day this year?

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