Paradox or Paradise

Music Choice in the Digital Age

By Kyle Bylin | @kylebylin


THERE ARE MANY reasons to believe that the web has created a “paradise of music” for fans, but that is not necessarily the case. Psychologist Barry Schwartz suspects that a culture plentiful with music has the potential to lessen the amount of satisfaction that fans get from their choices, and increasingly causes them to opt out of the process altogether. In a paper titled “Can There Ever Be Too Many Flowers Blooming?” Schwartz outlines three of the paradoxical effects of choice overload in the cultural domain.

First, when fans are overloaded with cultural alternatives, Schwartz says they will “Opt for the same old thing as a way to avoid facing unlimited options.” Similar to the reaction a consumer has to abundance in the material domain, fans will opt for the same old music for a number of reasons. Many fans, out of comfort, do not deviate too far from their favorites. That way they are free from the disappointment they might experience in listening to music that is dissimilar from their established taste. So too, fans tend to have a deep memory of being burned. When purchasing music, they are more prone to remember all the times the music did not work out as opposed to the times it did. Also, fans stick with what they know because there is instant gratification in that music; it never ceases to fit their mood or remind them of when they were growing up. Lastly, fans opt for the familiar because they are genre loyal and often have rigid tastes. In music, this paradox can be readily observed every day. Most passive fans are not interested in new music, unless it is propped up by commercial radio stations or the clubs they frequent. Those of previous generations, especially since most of the new songs out there are not targeted at them anyway, do not want to hear new music nor do they care about it at all. In effect, older fans would rather just listen to the songs that came out when they were younger.

“Think about what ‘knowing what you want’ means that you are not so open to cultural diversity or serendipity. Instead, you put blinders on, and walk straight ahead until you find what you’re looking for.” With the explosion of music choice, the splintering of genres into niches, and the fracturing of the album format, making a truly informed selection from this plethora of music becomes difficult if not entirely impossible. Fans might be able to find out about some of the artists, but not all of them. In the place of a considered decision, Schwartz says fans end up falling back on “a variety of labor-saving heuristics which ‘solve’ the choice problem by making them much more passive decision makers.” His fear is that when a fan is overloaded, they will just stay with the same old music and decide that venturing into the cornucopia of music online is not worth their time, since, at least in their minds, they have already done the best they can do.

The Filter Problem

Next, Schwartz argues that when fans are overloaded, they rely on “filters rather than on themselves.” Like many fans, I listen to music on Pandora, and while their suggestions as to what I might enjoy listening to are not always perfect, I do value them. In effect, I am using Pandora to be my filter — my “professional DJ.” Pandora will suggest music that is similar to songs I have already heard. Its aim is the opposite of diversity. What Pandora promotes is micro-specialization. It delves deeper and deeper into Miniature Tigers, Anthem of Silence, and Joe Pug — music I already enjoy — in hopes that it will find a more obscure song that is equally satisfying. But, unless I feed Pandora a new station, it will never attempt to broaden my taste with a suggestion to listen to a pop or hip-hop song.

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Schwartz believes that the “twin phenomenon” of relying on filters or only purchasing culture you think you want is spreading. He further argues that this is a response “to overwhelming choice in the world of culture.” This paradox, along with fans opting for the familiar, may explain why radio remains relatively popular despite the prognostication of the death of radio by media futurists.

Yet, the emergence of many sites and services as answers to this plethora of music online tells us something very important. “Our cultural experiences will only be as diverse as the filters we use to help us select them. With all that is available to us, unmediated browsing is impossible,” Schwartz forewarns. “We are more reliant on filters now than we ever were before.” To which he adds, “But unless people are deliberate about the filters they use, their own cultural experiences will be anything but diverse.” What is more, based upon what we’ve learned so far about how paralyzing unlimited choice can be, Schwartz’s suspicion is that, “in the realm of culture, the more options there are, the more driven most people will be to settle on the most choice-simplifying filters they can find.” This is not a good thing. Remember now that it was Chris Anderson in his book The Long Tail who made the argument that if this multitude of choice could be organized in a way that was more meaningful, fans would not find it oppressive. It would be less overwhelming. However, what he did not seem to anticipate is that this “rearrangement” of choice could have the effect of making fans even more passive consumers of culture.

Passivity, Not Activity

Third and worse still according to Schwartz’s research paper, a consequence of a culture abundant with music is that it causes fans to become “more passive in their participation in cultural life.” Initially, the plethora of music online has the potential to turn fans into relatively passive decision makers. What Schwartz argues is that when choice gets overwhelming for fans, they turn from “choosers” into “pickers.” The distinction between these terms “is meant to capture differences in how active and engaged people are as they make their decisions.” Choosers are fans who make active choices that revolve around their musical experiences. They critically evaluate the music they listen to and are willing to take the initiative and attempt to uncover songs they will truly like. Their degree of engagement bears fruit, but it is demanding. On occasion, they may even come to the conclusion that none of the songs they have discovered will satisfy them, and they will continue searching. Pickers, on the contrary, are much more passive fans. They do not want to take the time or make the effort to seek out their music, nor will they ever decide that none of the music they are presented with will do. “Picking” is what happens when a fan logs onto Amazon and scrolls through the section of “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” Here, fans are not interrogating their options. They are merely selecting their favorite albums from the musical conveyer belt Amazon provides. Recall again Anderson’s argument that too much choice is only “oppressive” when it’s ordered wrong, as in a record store, but ordered right, as in Amazon’s recommendations, and “it’s liberating.” The reason fans find this to be so “liberating” is because they are no longer active in the decision-making process, only more passive.

Think about Genius playlists on iTunes, where, according to Apple, “perfect mixes come automatically.” The paradoxical effect of a feature like this is that it takes “pickers” — those who rely upon radio to expose them to music — and makes them more engaged and less passive. On the other hand, it also has the same potential to take “choosers” — those who rely on themselves and seek out music — and make them less engaged and less active. “My fear is that overwhelming options turn all of us into pickers, at least much of the time,” Schwartz cautions. “If so, it is having an effect that is the opposite of engagement with the life of our society. The paradox is that the more diverse and vibrant cultural offerings become, the more passive and stereotyped the selectors of those offerings become.”

“The possibility that overwhelming choice turns people into relatively passive decision makers,” Schwartz continues in his research paper, “is the additional possibility that this passivity will carry over into the way they interact with whatever they have chosen.” In music fandom, what this relates to is the distinction between casual and true fans, and the orientation they take to the music they listen to. Casual fans are, by definition, passive consumers of music. They have little interest in having a relationship with the artist and feel no need to champion their songs to friends. At the extreme end, it could be said that their experience of music begins and ends with consumption. True fans are actively engaged with the music they experience. “They think about it, they feel it, they talk about it, they bond with one another over it, they interpret it, and they are changed by it,” says Schwartz. “To the extent that culture has positive effects on a society, it is surely only when people bring a ‘highbrow’ orientation to it.” To be sure, as Jeremy Schlosberg of Fingertips Music argues, “popular music depends upon the existence of casual fans.” Their value is underestimated. After all, the existence of casual fans is what makes true fans possible. They are what make the songs of the day a part of our collective identity. Even if casual fans don’t speak in the language of the tribe and become actively engaged with it, they still facilitate the capacity for a tribe to continue to grow and gain new members.

The paradoxical effects of choice overload in culture provide insight into why it is that most fans in the digital age are still characterized by their passive consumption of music, especially at a time when many artists are trying to provide them with endless opportunities to become actively engaged in their careers. If the future of the music industry depends on increased prevalence of actively engaged fans — as many thought leaders have argued — then it’s worth asking: Is there such a thing as a “paradise of music?”

Paradox or Paradise

In a research paper published in 2003, Professor Alexander Chernev found that “large choice sets are preferred to small ones when people know what they like and thus know what they are looking for.” This effect he called “preference articulation.” When a fan enters a record store, if they already know what music they like, or what album they are going to buy, they just keep searching until they find it and the more selection the store has, the more likely it is that one of those albums will match their taste. Schwartz writes about Chernev’s findings, “a larger choice set increases the chances that what you are looking for actually exists. And finally, technology has enabled us to search through large sets about as rapidly as we search through small ones.” In this case then, it could be argued that for the fans who know specifically what music they like, the web has created a “paradise of music.” Yet, much of the reason why these paradoxes of choice overload in culture exist is because “the ultimate nature of human taste is irrational and depends on factors impossible to capture with computer systems,” says Anthony Volodkin, founder of the Hype Machine. The bias of the Internet-era music consumption system is aimed towards personalization, specialization, and relevance, while also enabling a much more rapid evolution of taste. This has the effect of only blurring the preferences of fans further, making them even less sure about the differences between music they like and that which they do not. Thus, in culture, the effects of overwhelming choice have the potential to cause all fans to opt for the same old thing, rely on filters, and become more passive participants in their musical life. This is not good news. And if the arguments that Schwartz makes about the effects of abundance in the material domain are true of culture as well, he contends that “people will also get less satisfaction out of the cultural choices they make, and they will increasingly opt out altogether.”

Not long ago, I made the inference that perhaps this occurrence of fans opting out of the decision-making process is related to file-sharing. “Decision paralysis,” in the words of Made to Stick co-author Dan Heath, “is a finding from psychology that says: The more options that we’re exposed to, the more likely we are to kind of freeze up and go with the path of least resistance.” When a fan is faced with a multitude of desirable options, immobilization is possible, and rather than trying to differentiate between the options and deciding which is the best bet (i.e. making a purchase) they either opt out or file-share the music they desire instead. To them, file-sharing becomes the “path of least resistance” — a coping mechanism for decision paralysis — where they can experience all of the options at once and forgo the symptoms we associate with choice overload. The problem with this (beyond the legality of file-sharing) is that once they do have all the options at their disposal, choice overload doesn’t just go away. The fan still has to make a decision. After experiencing all of the options, and probably having considered additional ones, they may still opt out entirely and choose not to choose at all.

As we’re starting to see, the plethora of music online seems as though it is much more of a paradox than a paradise. Not only does it seem to have the potential to increase the frustration and confusion faced by individual fans, but it also causes them to become more passive rather than more active. And if the future of the music industry really is moving towards the creation of a “middle class” of musicians who market their music and other creative works directly to their fans, they are going to need all of the actively engaged fans they can get. We may never be sure as to whether or not the web has created a paradise or a paradox of music for fans. Nor can we be certain that the benefits of seemingly endless music contributions to society are worth the price of the difficulties fans may experience in making cultural choices.

This brings me to my final, yet most important, question: Shouldn’t we also be trying to understand the effects that choice overload has on the satisfaction we get out of the music we already have? Put differently, does having thousands of songs on our iPod lessen the enjoyment we get out of the song that is currently playing? On the iPod, is more music really less?

June 23, 2010

Excerpted from Promised Land: Youth Culture, Disruptive Startups, and the Social Music Revolution. Follow or contact Kyle Bylin on Twitter at @kylebylin.

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