Scarcity, Abundance, and Community: The band As a Microcosm

Submitted by Chris Mills on July 2, 2013 - 7:38am

The band that I am in ( has rather gained some momentum in the last six months or so; we’re playing higher profile venues, and we’re starting to get asked to play shows (as opposed to actively going out and looking for them, that is) which is totally awesome! We’re also starting to get a little buzz happening around town, and for the first time ever (and I’ve been in a lot of bands in the past!) I am even getting recognized on the street occasionally. Wow.


                                   The Rolling Blackouts at the 2 Rivers Festival

We’re an unusually large band, eight people. That’s got to be just about a record for Guelph, I’m thinking. And although we have a variety of talents, and differing roles in the band, there is inevitably some overlap. As we work on material, especially original songs, the questions come up: who’s going to sing this part? Who’ll do backing vocals? Who does a solo, and where? Who plays rhythm guitar? Is there a percussion part, and if so, who’ll play it? And sometimes, depending on the nature and structure of the song, the following question also arises: who sits this one out?

Now me, I’m the lead guitarist. I rarely sit a song out, because almost every song we do has a fairly important lead guitar part in it. Apart from our drummer, I am probably the only musician who plays almost non-stop throughout an entire evening (and believe me, there are times I wish I could sit one or two out!)

But with eight performers, it’s sometimes difficult to find something for everyone to do in every song. Although we are committed to nurturing each other’s creativity and musical development, and we want everyone to spread their own musical wings as much as possible, the bottom line is always that The Music Comes First. Sometimes, a sparser arrangement is what the song calls for.

This leads to an interesting dynamic, and it has struck me more than once that it can be very much a reflection of a larger paradigm of human behavior, one which has a lot to do with the our perceptions of scarcity, or of abundance.

Of course, everyone wants to perform; everyone wants to have the fun of rocking the hell out of a great tune, particularly in a live situation, where—especially if it happens to be a good gig—the energy on-stage can be palpable. It’s definitely a rush.

But sometimes, someone in the band may find themselves feeling as if there are simply not enough parts to “go around.” They might develop the sense that they are sitting out more songs than they like, or that someone else is getting more of the juicier parts. This may, or may not, be true in reality. But that’s not the point. The key issue is the perception.

And what can happen then is that, subtly at first, but then perhaps not so subtly, people start to get a bit "grabby." What does that look like? Well, perhaps someone will just start to strum along, even when the person arranging the tune hasn’t actually given them a part to play. Sometimes someone might insert a solo where there was none before. Perhaps they might play their solo for longer than the song calls for. Or they might start to sing a backup vocal part that someone else is already singing, or one that makes the song unnecessarily dense.

I’m making this sound a whole lot worse than it is, because in reality we are a very close-knit, friction-free and egalitarian band. We’re friends first, band-mates second. We’re almost always kind to each other, we enjoy each other’s company, and we all look forward to Tuesday night rehearsals. And we do share the value that The Music Comes First. It's rare, if ever, that anyone will do this sort of stuff aggressively. It's usually done more in the spirit of "experimentation," to see if they can come up with a part that works. But I believe it is, at least partly, rooted in the feeling that they're not getting enough fun stuff to do.

Most of the time, when it does seem like there’s enough satisfying musical work to go around, everyone is very generous, nurturing and collaborative.

But we humans tend to respond to our perceptions of scarcity or abundance at a preconscious level. It’s part of our survival instinct, and like so much that’s instinctive, it really hasn’t kept up with where we are now as socially-developed creatures.

Perception of abundance is important to the grocery trade, by the way. There’s really no need to make a pile of zucchini two feet high, or a giant display of thousands of fresh strawberries in a heap, in the produce aisles. In fact, it can be counterproductive in that sometimes the produce at the bottom of the stack can get rather roughed up and wind up being thrown out rather than bought.


But it’s more important that people have confidence in the food system. It’s obvious in times of scarcity, or potential scarcity, that hording goes on; people rifle the shelves looking for anything they can get—jar of olives, can of anchovies, bouillon cubes—until the shelves are bare; it may seem that this benefits the grocer, but it’s really a case of short-term gain, long-term pain. The food supply is disrupted and/or depleted, just-in-time inventorying can’t keep up, and more importantly, people lose confidence in the system. It has happened repeatedly at times of social disruption in places like Cuba and the Russian Federation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many other places during political turmoil, and it never ends well—at least not in the short term.


                    A store in Tokyo just 24 hours after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami

The perception of scarcity becomes the overriding motive for behavior. And that can be destructive. Because arguably, in times of scarcity—even times of perceived, as opposed to actual, scarcity—that's when we need community the most. They are the times when a strong community can pull together and provide mutual support. That’s what got us, as a species, through some pretty tough times in the past: times of famine, times of plague, times of social or environmental disruption, war, flood, drought. And when we begin to compete instead of cooperate, it can tear apart the very fabric of this essential support network just when it's most needed.

So how can we respond to this imperative? Well, one thing to consider is that we are one of the few (perhaps the only) species that has the ability to consciously override our instinctive wiring. We do that all the time; we weigh decisions about how to act based on moral or ethical considerations, and when we do so we can supercede our purely selfish motives. The reason for this is that we, through the power of our intellect, have come to understand that acting in the collective good also benefits us ourselves.

And that is the very foundation of community.


We can do that in our band, and we do. We have learned that by deliberately shifting our perceptions and sharing equitably what there is to be shared, the band functions much more smoothly, songs come together more quickly, sound better, and everyone has more fun.

And we can do that in our communities. We can flip that mental switch, and we can choose to see the abundance around us, regardless of the circumstances; abundance in community, in mutual support, in friendship, in collaboration, in resilience. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Pretty cool, huh?


Thanks for bringing scarcity and abundance language into the conversation, Chris. Peter Block uses this a lot and I have found him and his work particularly influential this spring.

I love how you have used your band as a metaphor for this construct- brilliant!

Nice angle on this. Creative

Nice angle on this. Creative mind.