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Sunday, November 23, 2014

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence because an international cartel of executives have scientifically determined what shade of green you prefer.

An article by Derek Thompson from the Atlantic  looks into the ways the major media companies use Shazam, Spotify and other digital music services to quantify the audience's preferences, and use them in the marketing, and sadly, even the production of what he calls the "dispiriting sameness in pop music".

I encourage reading it as the article confirms several suspicions of mine. But, I'll break out a few points for comment. 

While most users think of Shazam as a handy tool for identifying unfamiliar songs, it offers music executives something far more valuable: an early-detection system for hits. [...] Shazam searches are just one of several new types of data guiding the pop-music business. Concert promoters study Spotify listens to route tours through towns with the most fans, and some artists look for patterns in Pandora streaming to figure out which songs to play at each stop on a tour. In fact, all of our searching, streaming, downloading, and sharing is being used to answer the question the music industry has been asking for a century: What do people want to hear next?
The old-fashioned way of collecting this sort of data would be interactions between DJ's and their audience, requests, "what's that song?" calls, and that sort of thing.

 It's long been my position that people will like new and different music (or movies, or food, or whatever) if they are exposed to it in a matter of fact way. Or, at least a no-one-will-think-you're-a-wierdo kind of way.
[R]esearchers sent participants to different music Web sites where they could listen to dozens of tracks and download their favorites. Some sites displayed a ranking of the most-downloaded songs; others did not. Participants who saw rankings were more likely to listen to the most-popular tracks. [...] In a follow-up experiment, some sites displayed the true download counts and others showed inverted rankings, where the least-popular song was listed in the No. 1 spot. The inverted rankings changed everything: previously ignored songs soared in popularity, and previously popular songs were ignored. 
 Ah, but here is the scariest part.
The top 1 percent of bands and solo artists now earn 77 percent of all revenue from recorded music, media researchers report. And even though the amount of digital music sold has surged, the 10 best-selling tracks command 82 percent more of the market than they did a decade ago. The advent of do-it-yourself artists in the digital age may have grown music’s long tail, but its fat head keeps getting fatter.
Which brings us back to our old friend, at least my old friend, the long tail (OK, Chris Anderson's old friend). The basic idea is that if you plot sales out on a graph, you'll get a curve showing that a mere few items (music, books, blenders, etc.) will sell lots and lots of copies (the head), while lots and lots of things will sell a mere few copies (the tail). Since the stuff closer to the head is much more cost effective, the media companies want to sell as much of that stuff as they can. Now, on the one hand, who can blame them? That's business. But on the other, it used to be that the profits from the head were, at least in part, invested into the tail. That's where the sounds and the stars of tomorrow were, or there was some cultural prestige to be gained by supporting highly esteemed, but low selling artists. Think of Tim Berne's two albums on Columbia from the 1980's. They were either paid for - or depending on your point of view, had their losses absorbed - by the success of folks like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. The same for Anthony Braxton's 70's albums on Arista. Today the thinking is instead of giving money to Tim Berne to make his weird music that doesn't sell, I'm going to keep it for myself.

One thing that gets overlooked is that if people are using Shazam to identify what they are hearing, the music has already gotten over the first hurdle, that is getting played in a public place or on the radio. Hurdles these companies already influence, if not control outright. In other words, they're seeing which of their own bets are paying off.
And not only are we hearing the same hits with greater frequency, but the hits themselves sound increasingly alike. As labels have gotten more adept at recognizing what’s selling, they’ve been quicker than ever to invest in copycats. People I spoke with in the music industry told me they worried that the reliance on data was leading to a “clustering” of styles and genres, promoting a dispiriting sameness in pop music.
All of this is focusing the attention (and, let's face it the money) into a smaller and smaller point. It's not so much that a smaller group of people will hit the big time, but that a smaller group of people get to make a decent, let alone a comfortable, living making music. David Byrne has made this point quite well.

Getting back to the long tail for a moment, the existence of the tail suggests that a plurality, if not a majority, is not interested in the most popular songs. Each member of the audience has developed a highly individualized personal aesthetic. In what was ostensibly his obituary for Elvis Presley for the Village Voice, Lester Bangs wrote what is my go-to explanation for this phenomenon of how the pop music audience which had once consolidated around artists like Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, fragmented into several, if not thousands of individualized points. (And remember, this was written in 1977.)

along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others' objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation's many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis's. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.

Essentially, the point I'm making is while the industry throws all their behind weight a handful of artists who provide a healthy return on investment, these artists still only reach a relatively small band of the potential audience, a plurality, sure, but not a majority. But if all the resources go into this small but profitable sub-section of music, how will the rest of us, creator and audience, get by?

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