|Andre 3000 in Outkast's "Hey Ya" video|
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
“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.