Musing on scalability and hit cultures and long tails and all that jazz

The kernel for this post came from my gently meandering back and forth through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan; I’m still reading through it for the first time.

I quote from the book, page 29

Now consider the effect of the first music recording, an invention that introduced a great deal of injustice. Our ability to reproduce and repeat performances allows me to listen on my laptop to hours of background music of the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (now extremely dead) performing Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, instead of to the local Russian emigre musician (still living), who is now reduced to giving piano lessons to generally untalented children for close to minimum wage. Horowitz, though dead, is putting the poor man out of business. […….] If you ask me why I select Horowitz, I will answer that it is because of the order, rhythm, or passion, when in fact there are probably a legion of people I have never heard about, and will never hear about — those who did not make it to the stage, but who might play just as well.

I’ve considered this innate “injustice” many times, apparently caused by the introduction of cheaper reproduction and transmission technologies. But I’ve tended to take quite a different view to that espoused by Taleb.

For me, the unfairness lay not in the reproduction and transmission technologies, but in the bottlenecks, the “experts” whose patronage was required. The people who made the stars. The people who gave the performers airtime, signed them up to record deals, promoted the works, and so on.

The way I looked at it, technological advances had consistently lowered the barriers to entry for various types of artist, only to find that someone else in a downstream process raised the barriers again. And it was these “someone elses” that I tended to look at with great suspicion.

[An aside. The roots for this suspicion were planted while I was still an undergraduate reading Economics, hearing about the concepts of “merit goods”. I could not believe that I was going to join a group of people arrogant enough to decide what was good for others. A few years later, I found myself seemingly on the other side of the fence, working as a technical writer. My boss wanted me to write the manuals so that a “Sun reader” would understand them. I felt it was my duty to raise literacy and refused to succumb to the pressure, and wrote the way I wanted to write, not explicitly highbrow but unwilling to become lowest-common denominator.]

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Taleb’s injustice is based on the evils inherent in hit cultures and prodigiously absent in long-tail cultures; evils often spawned by “experts” who believed they had a God-given right to decide on others’ behalf, a problem often avoided by wisdom-of-crowd approaches.

We used to live in a world where a street musician was a nobody until and unless some expert God came along and patronised him. The factors of “star” production were all in the hands of the expert.

Now, the barriers to entry are significantly lower. The street musician has the opportunity to burn his own CD, make his own YouTube demo, and make it to the 21st century variant of stardom driven by wisdom-of-crowds. Why 21st century variant? Because stardom is now a long-tail concept. Instead of a very small number of winners and a very large number of losers in a very big winner-takes-nearly-all pool, we now have many pools, many winners, albeit in smaller pools.

The same is true for blogs and wikis and films and books. The expert-as-judge will pooh-pooh the mass creation of culture, because he is being rapidly disintermediated. Sure there are many bad blogs, sure there are many poor wikipedia articles, sure there are many crap videos on Youtube.

But let’s not forget there are many crap newspapers, many crap TV programmes, many crap encyclopaedia articles, many crap films.

We’ve always had crap. Now we have the opportunity to allow stuff that’s not crap to rise to the surface. Let’s not give that opportunity up just because the disintermediated expert whinges.

8 thoughts on “Musing on scalability and hit cultures and long tails and all that jazz”

  1. JP, I suspect this will get under your skin; but I read Taleb as a shining example of that “cult of the amateur” against which Andrew Keen has railed so vociferously. However, to set a more favorable context, let me invoke the words of Igor Stravinsky (which happen to be quoted in David Schneider’s book about the San Francisco Symphony that I recently recommended):

    To be a good listener, you must acquire a musical culture, as in literature. You must be familiar with the history and development of music. To receive music, you have to open the ears and wait, not for Godot, but for the music, and to feel that it is something you need. Others let the ears be present and they don’t make an effort to understand. To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

    Just as the printing press provided an opportunity for more people to learn how to read, recorded music has provided an opportunity for more people to learn how to listen; but neither offers any guarantee that those people actually WILL learn. Taleb writes as one of Stravinsky’s “ducks.” To push the metaphor a bit further, the title of his book reminds us of the final text of the madrigal, “The Silver Swan:” “More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”

    Does this say anything about the market? Well, at least one of the participants in “Bloggers’ Night at the San Francisco Symphony” seems to have learned enough about how to listen from his collection of recordings to appreciate the merits of a “live” performance. Having grasped that insight, he blogged of his intention to go back to Davies Hall for more Symphony performances. So, in his case at least, there was no injustice in the products of recorded music; but that was because he did not draw upon his recordings for “hours of background music.”

    Now, for all that, there IS considerable injustice in the merit system of classical music; and that injustice cuts across the entire scope of performers (living and dead) and composers (living and dead). What this means, however, is that classical music is not so much a CAREER as it is a CALLING. Merce Cunningham once took on the question “Should my daughter be a dancer?” with the reply, “If she has any other choice, tell her to run for it!” There is little difference between answering the call of music (or dance) and answering the call of dedication to a religious faith; and new technologies are not going to change that fundamental axiom.

    The proof of this pudding lies in the fact that there is no more virtue in a long-tail culture than there is in a “hit culture.” Like him of not, Keen has taken on the naked emperor by asking for examples of those who have successfully made a career through offerings that are out there on the long tail; and, to the best of my knowledge, he has yet to come up with enough data points to merit statistical significance. To invoke the example of the street musician, the long tail may enable more people to pass by the hat; but that does not mean that more people will throw in enough coins to make a difference. In other words “the opportunity to allow stuff that’s not crap to rise to the surface” is no greater than it was before Internet technology broadened the opportunities for distribution.

    Let it looks like you called it right on my opinion of Taleb. On the basis of your excerpt, I read him as yet another pundit who cannot quite get his head around the realities of the social world. Those realities are much more evident, where music is concerned, in the memoirs of a practicing musician!

  2. Agreed with most of your rant, Stephen. The place I differ is where you say that the opportunity to allow stuff that’s not crap to rise to the surface being the same before and after the internet.

    I am convinced that barriers to entry for reproduction and transmission and distribution have been lowered; I am convinced that the “hit culture” approach picked fewer “winners” and let many talented artists go unrecognised, regardless of the form of art they practised; I am convinced that the “long tail” approach, connecting niche buyers with niche sellers, is here to stay.

    I like the Merce Cunningham quote, by the way. I too believe in callings. And covenants.

  3. Stephen

    the hearing v’s listening is an interesting metaphor and the challenge to Taleb equally so. Are the comments confined to his musical dispositions or are they more general ?


  4. JP, if you are convinced out of an act of faith, then, obviously, I cannot argue with it. However, the point I wished to raise was that Andrew Keen threw down a gauntlet when he said he could only be convinced by statistically significant data, rather than the odd anecdote. I, for one, am not prepared to pick up that gauntlet on articles of faith alone!

    Dermot, as a published (in print) critic of the performing arts and a former card-carrying member of the Society for Music Theory, I feel I have the authority of challenge Taleb on “musical dispositions.” When it comes to more general issues of social theory, my authority is not as sound (although I shall continue “rehearsing” my efforts to build its strength)! However, as a matter of personal taste, I doubt that THE BLACK SWAN will be on my reading list any time soon!

  5. Hi – I think the problem may be even worse than the whingeing of disintermediated experts – it is the idea that there is some loss related to not knowing. This is the conflict between the statment: your welfare is lower than it might be, if only you knew what was better versus what you enjoy enhances your life, do it and don’t worry. In other words the cost/benefit isn’t just related to loss of turf or to the opportunities that arise from many smaller crowds, it is a basic question of one’s philosophy of the meaning of life and how people learn to find meaning. — BTW, I like your musings. Thanks.

  6. Riel, in light of your observations, I think it is worth noting that all forms of “mainstream mass media” (particularly television) reject BOTH alternatives (“the whingeing of disintermediated experts” AND the freedom to find your own meaning of life). Commercial television is probably the most authoritative social structure out there. IT’S gospel is that your welfare can only be increased by purchasing the advertised goods and services! As a corollary, it HAS to be a hit culture, because that leads to the highest number of eyeballs per commercial message!

  7. The intermediary who always seems to step into the relationship between artist and audience appears to be a parasite.

    Howver, it seems to me that they do provide something useful to the artist. They “deliver the crowd”.

    Record companies gave musicians access to record stores nationwide. Disc jockeys gave them access to listeners nationwide. To assemble these crowds, they had to provide a reciprocal service on the other side of filtering through all of the wannabees to find those worth hearing.

    Nowadays, the old intermediaries are rapidly becoming irrelevant due to the emergence of the long tail. However, there will no doubt be a new set of intermediaries who will step in to deliver the crowd to musicians and to provide a filtering service for the crowd members. The filtering may be provided by software algorithms rather than domain experts but it must be there just the same. As usual, the intermediaries will enjoy the lion’s share of the financial reward for the artists’ work.

    I believe that these new intermediaries are most likely to be either operating system vendors , social networking websites, or wireless carriers.

    If the wireless carriers can be bothered to put long term profits ahead of next month’s profits, I believe they would have the greatest chance of dominating this space.

    A mobile phone with integrated mp3 player that
    people actually want to use would be an amazingly powerful tool for marketing music.
    The key is to get people to use it by making it actually useful. There are definitely ways to do this right now. The phone just learns what you like and provides a continuous stream of your favorite music in any context. This could be done with today’s lower end music-playing phones with the right software and network services.

    It does not require a $600 laptop shrunk to the size of a brick.

  8. I agree entirely with your argument in favor of the need for an intermediary. However, I think it is interesting to read it in the light of the post that JP put out today:

    More specifically, I want to call your attention to a single sentence from that post: “Which means we have an increased reliance on people who can do the interpreting, although in most cases the final call will be personal.” Mediating between an artist and a potential audience is very much an act of interpretation through which the audience can “make sense” of what the artist is doing. I built up my own chops by doing this sort of thing for the music of John Cage and his colleagues in the “New York School” and for the choreography of Merce Cunningham. (In the latter case one of my texts got anthologized by Richard Kostelanetz.) These days we take it for granted in the Bay Area that a “serious” concert will be preceded by a talk (usually half an hour long) of such an interpretative nature. (I initiated a program of such talks for the Singapore Symphony when I lived in that country.)

    From this point of view, it should go without saying that any enterprise that is in the business of DELIVERING the signal is probably not particularly committed to INTERPRETING it. Having an MP3 player on your mobile phone is not necessarily going to encourage you to listen to new things (from out on the long tail) on it. Indeed, this reflects on my earlier comment, that an MP3 player does little for your commitment to LISTENING; it only gives you something to HEAR.

    Social networking COULD bring the “interpreting mediator” into the picture. However, this is not a matter of HAVING a social network but of what we choose to DO with it. What is most important is that the mediation is a COMMUNICATIVE ACTION. My fear, based on recent Nielsen/Net Rating statistics released by the Online Publishers Association(OPA), is that most Internet users are not that all interested in participating in such communicative actions:

    If that is the case, then that necessary need for mediation between artist and audience may find itself satisfied less and less in the “brave new world” that the Internet has made.

Let me know what you think

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