When Good Music Is Bad Business
NPR recently ran a story, “Put Away The Bell Curve”, covering new research that challenges, however inadequately, the traditional understanding that in most activities, we expect performance to fit a the bell curve whereby a few people are very good, a few people are very bad and most people are average.
In the end, the study suggests that the bell curve is not an accurate model of human performance; rather most of us actually perform below average, while a majority of the output comes from a couple superstars.
The study looked at over 633,000 people, and multiple segments including entertainers and musicians. Now, this is where my feathers start to get a little ruffled.
Where they lost me, was when they decided to measure this so-called “output” by counting Grammys, Billboard hits and Rolling Stone lists.
My qualm is two-fold. First, it’s very difficult to measure qualities of artistic merit, and you certainly won’t get anywhere by looking to these sort of commercial institutions. Second, in today’s global, Internet culture, just because you’re not one of the “superstars” doesn’t mean you’re not a major player in the music world.
The study’s failure to acknowledge the implications of these measurement tactics leads me to believe that they were comfortable with it, or perhaps that the beneficiaries would be. Because to most any music fan, the idea that Grammy Awards are in any way exemplary of an artists’ performance is preposterous.
It’s a matter of integrity. Take Justin Vernon of Bon Iver’s uncomfortable acceptance speech for the Best New Artist Grammy earlier this year, for example. As he said to the New York Times, “98 percent of the people in that room, their art is compromised.”
So who are we awarding? And why are we modeling the development of the music industry around systems that fail to value artistic integrity?
As Seth Godin, author of “We Are All Weird”, put it, “The word normal … started in statistics and what it says is there is a distribution bell curve. Most people are in the center. And most people who make music…care about the middle of the market because there’s more people in the middle.”
It’s this mass market mindset that drives so many superstars’ careers – these hit factories that reach 10s of millions at a time with palatable pop music – and pacify audiences everywhere into thinking this is it, this is music.
But as the article suggests, the bell curve no longer applies. It’s deflated. However, for me what it fails to acknowledge is that we’re a smarter, more empowered audience now.
Again, to quote Godin, “For a 100 years the model was really simple, we make stuff you get to watch it, we cut records, you get to listen, if we add up the hours spent watching YouTube, culture is created by the public and consumed by the public. And the professionals are running some sideshow over there.”
So there’s hope.
The study claims that their selection of ‘performance measures‘ was decided upon for their ability to affect important outcomes; but Grammy awarded, albums sold, and even Rolling Stone (any more) are not indicators of good musical performance. They indicate good business.
One cannot truly measure the performance of artists by counting awards or sales.
Case in point, NME just ran a story “50 Massively Depressing Facts About Music.” Here are a couple highlights:
- In the US, the cast of Glee has had more songs in the charts than the Beatles.
- Jack Johnson has sold more records (18 million) than The Strokes, Arcade Fire, MGMT and The Smiths combined.
- David Gray’s ‘White Ladder’ has sold 14 times as many copies of Ryan Adams’ ‘Gold’ album.
In weighing this idea, I began to wonder – what could we measure to adequately reflect artistic performance? The only things I could come up with were dancing, goose-bumps, or other symptoms of arousal.