Friday, December 26, 2014

Who Killed Good Music?

We were four hours into our shift when our local Top 40 station began playing Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” for the fifth time. Not an exaggeration. They play that song, on average, once every forty-five minutes. That’s an average, though; I’ve heard them play it twice inside fifteen minutes. Christopher, another line worker who’s been a semi-pro musician, looked over at me. We rolled our eyes in unison. No words even needed spoken.

Andre 3000 in Outkast's "Hey Ya" video
Late in The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg describes how record executives salvaged Outkast’s genre-bending single “Hey Ya” from collapse. Though it’d later spend eight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, in Duhigg’s telling, it languished at low levels, embraced by neither audiences nor DJs, for quite some time. This despite having been analyzed by studio executives, music professionals, and elaborate computer models, and deemed a surefire hit. The song’s incipient failure puzzled everyone.

Duhigg focuses his storytelling on how music professionals turned it around, which, from a psychological perspective, is downright fascinating. Yet the fact that credentialed professionals, not the music-buying public, really stuck in my mind. “Hey Ya” is, in fairness, a really good song, and deserves its success. But its success didn’t arise because ordinary customers enjoyed the song; it happened because corporate executives, with the radio industry’s tacit collusion, manipulated the market behind the scenes.

First, they analyzed “Hey Ya” through sophisticated computer algorithms that compared it to known past hits. According to Duhigg, Arista Records’ proprietary software determined that it sufficiently resembled significant ranking hits that audiences would, supposedly, embrace it. A computer simulation, y’all! Arista records believes they can distill your aggregate buying habits into a predictable template, predict your opinions, and make artistic decisions based on that outcome. Artistic initiative? Independent creativity? Screw you, who needs ‘em.

Anybody who has actual musical taste will understand why, in Duhigg’s account, “Hey Ya” initially failed: it wasn’t bland enough. Top-40 audiences seek comfort, familiarity, and harmlessness. The frustrating part is, when audiences initially failed to embrace the song, industry executives didn’t accept that their predictions were wrong. For all today’s rhetoric about the ineluctable will of free markets, when massed humanity expresses its particular tastes, the powerful respond by attempting to change the market.

Duncan J. Watts recounts running an experiment made possible only by advanced Internet technology. By collecting thousands of participants into groups, and keeping each blind to the others’ choices, he successfully recreated the digital music market. This allowed him to run the same songs through statistically similar populations and assemble significant results. Music listeners completely blind to anybody else’s buying choices gave good indications of which songs were actually “good.” But that wasn’t the end.

None of Watts’ artificial music markets made bestsellers of actually bad music. But being merely good didn’t guarantee market success. Buyers made decisions based on multiple factors: which songs got streamed frequently, what others bought, what fellow buyers recommended in conversation. Published bestseller lists caused bandwagon buying. Importantly, no two markets created identical, or even statistically similar, bestseller lists. No response, not even positive acclaim, was a foregone conclusion… assuming buyers made their own decisions.

Meghan Trainor didn't actually kill good music;
she's just an accessory after the fact
Arista Records couldn’t accept such unpredictability. If markets didn’t embrace their determined product, markets needed manipulated. So, using technocratic interventions designed to integrate edgy new content into their subconscious, and attracting the collusion of DJs and other cultural gatekeepers, they simply got listeners accustomed to “Hey Ya,” until it joined the panoply of other, interchangeable, mundane songs populating our heads. They created a hit by defanging it, deadening its impact upon its intended mass audience.

“All About That Bass” is a guided tour of everything safe, cozy, and bland about contemporary music. Its synth-driven backbeat, highly repetitive lyrics, and extensively borrowed musical motifs, are designed to get audiences dancing, without particularly paying attention. One co-worker thought “That Bass” meant the rhythm. Listening to this music is an abnegation of taste, an abnegation abetted by top-down social engineering which only wealthy, powerful corporations can perpetrate. It’s a failure of aesthetic capitalism.

Christopher and I shook our heads, not because our co-workers jammed along with a deeply unimaginative song, but because that jamming represented a willful obfuscation of art. Sinatra and the Beatles made music which was often tough listening, but rewarded audiences with artistic integrity and improved taste. That ethic, in today’s very wealthy music industry, is dead. If Top-40 programming sounds like a barrage of repetitive insipidity, that isn’t accidental. Industry is killing our taste.


  1. If you widen your perspective beyond bland commercialism, you'll find that there's plenty of good, exciting music being made.
    The real struggle isn't for artistic success, it's for ear time. That's where corporate backing really carries the day.

  2. This statement is very much true. Christopher and I seek out good music, and like discovering new species in the jungle, we often find something engaging within minutes. However, that takes a conscious effort of will, which too many people, weaned onto passive media consumerism, don't attempt.

  3. Vocal harmony has gone AWOL. The talk/sing lazy studio 'artist', contorting their one note, off key vocals with various filters and electronic algorithms to appeal to the brain dead masses have killed music. The 'look at me' pop singers with their vocal gymnastics, bouncing around the scale like a superball in a cement box, are no better. During live performances they wear headsets with unusually large microphones in front of their mouth or make a fist around the top of a handheld microphone so you can;t see them lip-syncing...because they can;t sing a note without running it rhough the electronic gizmos that can make a stone-deaf, can't-carry-a-tune-in-a-bucket singer into a pop star. Bring back the harmony and learn how to handle a microphone.