A few weeks ago I read a clickbait piece on mic.com, “How The Music Industry Is Brainwashing You to Like Bad Pop Songs.” It linked to a study showing how the emotion centers of the brain light up in fMRIs when familiar tunes were played to the test subjects. This isn’t a particularly surprising result. The phenomenon has been well documented in psychological studies and is one of the most robust psychological phenomena around. The seminal research was done in a recall test using Chinese characters. It showed that test subjects could only recall characters they were shown previous at little better than chance levels, but when asked which characters the subjects liked, invariably the characters they were shown earlier were picked.
This is an aspect of human psychology that gives interesting ammo to both sides of the Classical Music Crisis debate. The idea that Pop music is somehow more relevant to contemporary culture loses some of its force when we realize that the constant bombardment of [Euro-American] pop tunes insures that a relatively big audience will “prefer” them to Classical Music, or Bollywood Music, or whatever genre happens to not be dominant in the US at the time. It’s simply a reflection of the “mere exposure effect.”
Couple this with the phenomenon studied by Matthew Salganik and Duncan Watts documented in their paper, “Leading the Herd Astray: An Experimental Study of Self-fulfilling Prophecies in an Artificial Cultural Market,” and we have a perfect recipe for creating a music ranking landscape which has more to do with luck and economic power of large corporations (such as the media conglomerates which many big labels are a part of) than it has to do with “true popularity” (if any such thing exists), quality, and relevance. As economist, Alan Krueger, stated:
Now let’s see what happened when the download counts were flipped, so that the new participants thought the least popular song was actually the most popular. As you can see, the download count for the least popular song grew much more quickly when it was artificially placed at the top of the list. And the download count for the most popular song grew much more slowly when it was artificially placed at the bottom of the list.
In the alternative world that began with the true rankings reversed, the least popular song did surprisingly well, and, in fact, held onto its artificially bestowed top ranking.
Sadly, for the non Classical Music Crisis folks, these phenomena don’t help some of the arguments for their side either. One of these arguments deals with the idea of Classical performing Organizations as curators or preservers of so-called “High Culture”–Orchestras shouldn’t have their funding or size cut because that would cut into the quality of their performances and their ability to produce the great masterpieces with the huge orchestras they’ve become accustomed to using.
I recently got a copy of Jan LaRue “Catalogue of 18th-Century Symphonies: Volume I” and was quite amazed to find 16,558 symphonies listed. These are works from 1700-1799, so all the big masterpieces from the 19th and early 20th centuries aren’t listed. This wouldn’t even include any Beethoven Symphonies (his first wasn’t officially published until 1801 though sketches from the late 1790s have been found). The argument would go something along the lines of “well, those works aren’t performed because they haven’t survived the test of time,” or something similar.
As Krueger noted (see link above) in his piece about the economics of Rock and Roll, we rarely take into account the role of luck (or, Survivorship Bias) in determining the canon of popularity or quality, which means that we don’t take into account how systems of socio-economic power play into creating the canons of quality and popularity. I think that when the SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) stop trying to be something for everybody and get back to the business of being specialists in preserving a very specific musical niche, they’ll all be better for it.
Let the “young and hip” folks create their own Video Game and Film Projection Orchestras, their Laptop and Mobile Phone Orchestras, their Soundpainting and Telematic Orchestras. This is simply the next iteration of a specialist split that we saw in the post 1950s Orchestra expansion when Baroque/Early Music groups and New Music Orchestras and Ensembles formed. There’s no need to turn the traditional Classical Music Institutions into the next HIP (sic) thing and constantly chase that elusive Savior Demographic. Focus on doing what you do best and don’t be apologetic about it. But also don’t make the mistake that what you’re doing is the only form of High Musical Art Culture out there.
Similarly, since we’re in a Post-Pop age, maybe we need to get over the Anglo_American popular music that isn’t really dominant anymore. I find it curious that the call for populism invariably ends up referencing the same tired old White-Euroamerican-Male tropes, if only because nearly all the popular culture industries in the US have been dominated by that demographic. In a country with an ever increasing hyphenated American population, you’d think we’d like to get past that in our popular entertainment. That’s when we realized the socio-economic structures still favor (albeit, in a more fragmented way) a certain demographic which happens to be coincident with a majority population. For a supposedly younger and more socially conscious demographic, it’s a bit ironic they seem content to replicate those dominant socio-economic structures. For example, the Classical Music Crisis folks don’t seem to be advocating Orchestras start playing Arabic and Chinese Repertoire like the numerous US based Arabic and Chinese orchestras are doing.
When all that is said and done, I think it’s not hard to noticed that on both sides of the debate, there’s still the implicit understanding that the only art (wither high or low or middlebrow) that matters is simply the art of the Majority White Euro-Anglo-American which is predicted to become a minority soon anyway.