Quality Is Overrated: The Mechanics of Excellence In Music

In “Everything Popular Is Wrong,” Stefan Goldmann claimed that the more artists deviate from the known and established, the better their chances are for success. But why should this be so? Now he offers a detailed examination of the psychosocial framework that underlies what we listen to, looking into the factors that decide what is culturally relevant and what is not — with surprising results: exploring the unknown is not only more fun, but also more rewarding.

The amplified champions

In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Bluebeard, its protagonist Rabo Karabekian muses on the origin of special talents and the diminished opportunities in modern societies: “I think that could go back in time when people had to live in small groups of relatives – maybe fifty or hundred people at the most. And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically, to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn’t afraid of anything and so on. […] of course a scheme like that doesn’t make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communication has put him or her in daily competition with nothing but the world’s champions. The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness.”[1]

Science has had a thought on this subject, too. This development has been named the Superstar Effect[2], in which presumably only minuscule differences in talent or slight advantages in competitive situations snowball into the domination of a whole market by one or a few performers. If you want to buy a recording by a soprano opera singer, you’ll most likely want to buy one by the best — the number two soprano will have a hard time moving any CDs, since the presumably slightly better number one will have preempted the market. The CDs cost about the same, so why spend any second thought on lesser talent? The superstars obtain what I’d like to call a “first call” position: it is not just about income, but mainly about opportunities. That’s where things strike culturally. Everybody prefers the top performers. A festival wants to present and a label wants to sign the best artists, a movie producer wants to hire the best actors and playwrights, someone who goes to court wants the best lawyer, and so forth. Only affordability and availability seem to give the rest of the list any chance. That’s why the superstar gets the greatest choice to pick from the best opportunities, earning disproportionately more rewards and spreading out to even wider recognition, while the other contestants service whatever is left over.

This cumulative aspect of superstardom has been described by sociologist Robert K. Merton as the Matthew Effect[3], named after the verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath, more shall be given, and he shall have abundance, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” In other words, the rich get richer, the poorer get poorer and success breeds success.

What are rewards?

An artist feels rewarded when she receives the attention of the audience and of those mediating between artist and audience. Rewards are people coming to hear a performance, spending time listening to recordings, learning the specific style, recommending the music to others and following the further offerings of the artist. Rewards are receiving critical acclaim by experts and peers, finding followers who copy the style, getting the aesthetic message distributed with the help of those who service the media or manage the venues where artists meet the audience. In short, the more social interactions the artist’s efforts produce, the more those efforts have been rewarded. That’s the way society views an artist to be “excelling.” On the economic side, all these interactions produce fees, royalties and other sorts of material exchanges. People pay to attend concerts, to listen to recordings or to consume media coverage. In varying shares, these payments eventually reach the artist. Usually income will develop in parallel with these social interactions. Respectively some economists have argued that social relevance and monetary rewards match, i.e. whoever ends up earning more is also the better artist, offering the higher quality works of art[4]. Such reasoning makes most of us cringe simply because we don’t trust the market to be a good judge on matters of quality and relevance. Investigating this assumption, in what follows I’ll discuss some theories that separate quality, relevance and the rewards system and examine how they interact.

Birth of the star

But how do we decide who is “best”? Even experts often disagree on the qualities and talents of top performers. And we all have encountered the notorious prevalence of some cultural product that no one we know in person seems to consider even “good,” yet it is inescapably all over the place. It’s not as if we’re all listening to the Rolling Stones or whoever dominates the stadium act category in music. There are many artists who comfortably occupy a place of their own without having the reach of a stadium act. So there must be something else going on as well.

Reasons given for the emergence of superstars range from differences in talent, amplified by mass media[5], to the need to communicate about the same topics when socializing with others[6]. I don’t think these models match what we experience in reality. I’d like to offer a different explanation based on the effects of mental shelf space limitation and social proof. The concept of mental shelf space is analogous to the shelf space limitations in retail: a shop can store only so many CDs, books or brands of cereal. In any given category our minds only comfortably deal with between three and seven items and zone out on the Long Tail, limiting the number of names we can memorize[7]. Most people will not bother to regularly follow more than a few novelists, musicians or movie actors. There are simply not the psychological capacity, enough time and funds to compare thousands of contestants in order to figure out who should receive our limited attention. The search costs would be too high. Therefore we try to minimize them by employing shortcuts. Sticking with the best is one of those shortcuts. And in order to quickly identify the best we look out for social proof. Social proof is a psychological principle that states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct[8]. We assume that enough of the others have gone through the search process and have identified the best when choosing one over the others. Whenever we are uncertain of what to look for, we’ll try to figure it out by looking at the choices of others.

This can go to bizarre lengths: Participants in an experiment were told that two shown, obviously different geometrical objects were the same. Astonishingly, when social proof is overwhelming (actors pretending to be other participants identified the objects as being identical), an MR imaging of the brain indicated that the objects were actually seen as being identical[9]. In other words: In the right social context, we override our own judgments and rewire our brains to see, feel or hear what’s actually not there[10].

Music is a means of social distinction, too. We actually do want to associate with certain groups of people and disassociate with others. With social proof we can figure out what others do and match our behavior accordingly. Social proof is so attractive because it helps us socialize, identify our group and save a whole lot of time, too. We might end up watching a mediocre movie, but we’ll enjoy the company of like-minded friends. In cultural contexts we rarely ever experience severe pain from following that strategy. Well, unless the movie was “Cowboys & Aliens” of course. In the bigger picture, social proof and limited mental shelf space promote diversity of categories and monoculture within categories at the same time.

These psychosocial factors are the reasons why the Long Tail doesn’t work (within one category) and people flock to the upper end of the scale. Against what a lot of propaganda claims, no distribution model or technological measure has ever changed this. Only a few geeks and professionals will ever bother to check out more than a few alternatives, and we all end up with the superstars. In a self-fulfilling prophecy these eventually do get better than the rest since they are exposed to better opportunities, get more funds to reinvest in their work and education, as well as better access to and allocation of other supportive means.

Quality is overrated

The Académie Francaise, photo by Niviere/SIPA

A nineteenth-century French novelist named Arsène Houssaye coined the phrase “the 41st chair” to describe the plight of talented individuals, deserving of rewards or recognition, who are nevertheless bypassed as these rewards are garnered by a select few. Houssaye’s phrase was inspired by the Académie Francaise. This elite institution, founded in 1635 during the rule of Louis XIII, was designed to identify and reward the nation’s greatest talents. If you are elected to one of the 40 seats you retain your position for life. These positions are so important to French society that the members of the Académie are called the “immortals.” The immortals that have held seats include some of France’s most famous citizens, from Dumas to Poincairé to Voltaire. It is intriguing though that the likes of Descartes, Molière, Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Diderot, Stendahl, Flaubert, Zola and Proust never got in. It was not that they lacked the ability. It was just that the limitation in numbers made them inhabitants of the “forty-first chair.”[11]

Houssaye’s phrase is a good analogy to what happens to the other contestants within one category. Once the shelf is full, they are relegated to the forty-first chair no matter how great or valuable their actual contributions are. Mental shelf space has two varieties though, a vertical and a horizontal one. Vertically, within one category there are a few superstars and many inhabitants of the 41st chair. Horizontally though there are many more individual categories, each with its own superstar structure. That’s why we don’t all listen to the Rolling Stones exclusive, but also Theo Parrish, Carsten Nikolai, Pierre Boulez, Meshuggah or Fred Frith. This is intriguing, since horizontal mental shelf space for anything seems to allow for the coexistence of much more items than vertical: we know more separate supermarket product categories than brands of ketchup for instance. In marketing theory the according strategy is known as category positioning: if you can’t be number one in an existing category, create a new category. That might be a good explanation why culture is always changing. The contestants’ determination to reach “first call” status (and the impossibility to get ahead on crowded paths) makes them invent categories. Whoever creates a new category into people’s minds is likely to be associated with it due to social proof snowballing effects.

The horizontal dimension is a social one in the first place. Individuals don’t follow all categories available, but have preferences of a few, becoming “fans” of a style and its representatives respectively. Still, whenever we decide to engage with something less familiar (“let’s go to the opera tonight”), we consult social proof again. Then we join the already existing fans and skyrocket the chosen superstars’ social exposure. That is why the artist who is considered best by the public is not defined by talent or social chatter, but by category leadership, which is usually obtained when the category receives its initial public recognition (“Oh, that’s interesting — who does this?”). That’s why the actual quality, say of works in a new style of music, doesn’t matter much for success. This explains why often artists creating great works later on receive seemingly unjustly little recognition, while others reap the rewards. Some had their names identified with the category earlier on. Deepening a category is an activity that leverages those already on top. It is a paradoxical situation in which increased competition actually helps the predetermined winners by inflating the category’s rewards (more attention and funds flowing in).

This failure of readjusting the “class” structure within a category once the positions have been distributed is also named the Ratchet Effect[12]: those on top do not fall much behind. It would cost the audience too much brainpower to readjust regularly. If you wonder why someone is still around artistically despite failing to keep up the quality that’s the reason. “Once a Nobel laureate, always a Nobel laureate” as Merton put it.

That effect is not always obvious. For instance, I recognize that virtually all techno superstars of the last decade now seem to lose their grip on dominating the distribution of recorded music. Their singles and albums don’t move that much anymore and their labels are shrinking to levels where they have to be cross-subsidized (even if that’s through the cheap labor of and endless supply of new interns). Still, their touring schedules are packed to the max. They do lose some ground, but no one replaces them. The Ratchet Effect applies to the internal hierarchy, not to the category itself. Categories often decline or get repositioned by other (sub-) categories, but even the captain of a sinking ship is still its captain.

Categorical morphology

In music, categories are often defined by but not limited to styles. One might be the leader of post-minimal technocumbia, but acting in a movie or wearing a mouse mask might do the job, too. “Gimmick categories” like these are usually exactly one artist deep, but at the same time they are subcategories of wider styles of music, too.

Things often get mixed up and attributes from outside music often define what artists stand for. A lot of pop has been highly influential with unimpressive musical foundations and inflated political, social or other agendas. Eventually such agendas help to break new aesthetics, too. Punk’s social and political relevance was probably earlier understood than its groundbreaking musical implications.

An initially small stylistic category might grow big and then split up into subcategories. Think of rock, having branched out in tree-like fashion with countless levels of subcategorization. It is sometimes hard to draw the line whether contestants happen to be in the same or in separate categories. Each of the 40 members of the Académie has his own story, and so have the artists on top in a bigger category. They share an audience, but develop individual profile in order to make it worthwhile for the audience to engage with more than one artist (even if that means putting on the mouse mask). The clearer the differences are the more likely we look at separate categories.

At a higher level, a subcategory might grow to become so enormous that entire other subcategories get repositioned. Once minimal outgrew loop techno (you know, the stuff Adam Beyer used to do), the leaders of minimal automatically became “bigger” than those of loop techno. The personnel’s structure within the subcategories didn’t change, but the metacategory (“techno”) found itself being transformed.

Read Part 2 of “Quality Is Overrated: The Mechanics of Excellence In Music” here

Stefan Goldmann is an electronic music artist, DJ and owner of the Macro label. stefangoldmann.com


[1] Vonnegut, Kurt: Bluebeard (1987).

[2] Rosen, Sherwin: The Economics of Superstars, in: American Economic Review 71 (1981): pp.845-858.

[3] Merton, Robert K.: The Matthew Effect in Science, in: Science 159 (1968):pp.56-63.

[4] Grampp, William: Pricing the Priceless. Art, Artists and Economics (1989): p.37.

[5] Rosen (1981).

[6] Adler, Moshe: Stardom and Talent, in: American Economic Review 75 (1985): pp.208-212.

[7] Miller, G.A.: The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, in: Psychological Review 63 (1956): pp.39-50.

[8] Cialdini, Robert B.: Influence (1984 / rev. 2007): pp.114-166.

[9] Berns, G.S.; Chappelow, J.; Zink, C.F.; Pagnoni, G.; Martin-Skurski, M.E.; Richards, J. : Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation, in: Biological Psychiatry 58 (2005): pp.245-253. For the pioneering study on conformity see Asch, Solomon: Studies of Independence and Conformity, in: Psychological Monographs 70 (1956).

[10] Now that’s just what Adornians have been waiting for. Before you get too excited having found the proof that we are all brainwashed, don’t forget that conformity phenomenons occur in any social group, including any gathering of non-conformists.

[11] I owe this to Cal Newport, who uncovered Houssaye as the author of the 41st chair equation in: How to be a college superstar (2010): pp.132-133.

[12] Duesenberry, James S.: Income, Savings and the Theory of Consumer Behaviour (1949): pp. 114-16. Also see Merton (1968) p.57.

kristan caryl  on November 16, 2011 at 12:11 PM

really interesting and worthwhile read, thanks

paul frick  on November 16, 2011 at 2:59 PM

great analysis and great read

Per Bojsen-Moller  on November 16, 2011 at 3:08 PM

Excellent read, and heartening for all those in the 41st chair

DJ Johnny Jamz  on November 16, 2011 at 3:53 PM

Spinning your intellectual wheels and getting nothing but ashy skid marks.

mark  on November 16, 2011 at 4:21 PM

A very clear and well written piece.

“Whoever creates a new category into people’s minds is likely to be associated with it due to social proof snowballing effects.”

that’s a gem right there. All music journalists need to have this tattooed to their face. “post-techno” indeed.

pipecock  on November 16, 2011 at 8:59 PM

LOL some journos seem obsessed with defining a style and riding that to popularity. That’s how it worked for Phil Sherburne and Simon Reynolds! I think that’s pretty different from artists actually trying to do music that doesn’t fit into other categories.

Steve Martin  on November 17, 2011 at 10:29 AM

well written article Stefan, i’ll be sharing this with all other musicians. this makes all of us non-celebrities feel a little bit better about our art and music. glad to see someone else thinks lady gaga and deadmau5 are more flashy and trendy than talented

nubian mindz  on November 18, 2011 at 5:26 AM

Great stuff again Stefan. Looking forward to Pt.2

Bleimann  on November 18, 2011 at 7:10 AM

The article appears to take as a given that “excellence” and an idea of being the “best” are natural ways of viewing the music industry or the way we approach music; I don’t think they are, and consequently I don’t find this particularly enlightening. This doesn’t strike any chord with the way I approach music, much less dance music: yes, there may be a few ‘artists’ who I follow in a particular way, but a huge element of what I listen to is records picked up in bargain bins with one incredible track on an otherwise uninteresting record by an otherwise unremarkable producer. It’s the latter type of record which I find the most exciting and most challenging to the modes of discourse applied to other types of music.

stu  on November 18, 2011 at 8:08 AM

@ ‘DJ Johnny Jamz’: “intellectual wheels” and “ashy skid marks” eh?

just a few more syllables and Johnny’ll have a real pretty haiku

Stefan Goldmann  on November 18, 2011 at 8:33 AM

@Bleimann: Yes, I totally agree there are zillions of individual approaches. The interesting thing though is what happens when they all are summed up and viewed as social functions. The very existence of “discount bins” is quite a proof of the structures I tried to describe, isn’t it? I’m not overlooking phenomena like “counterculture” here, too – it is just another approach set agains majority positions (and it’s a category… integrating it right back in).

In this regard, a term like “natural” really doesn’t work for me here.

boom  on November 19, 2011 at 6:05 AM

Good read thanks

Isis Salvaterra  on November 22, 2011 at 8:50 AM

Amazing. Thanks so much Stefan and LWE. We should have more features like these on all our websites and industry in general. Culture, quality, education.
Much obliged. x

Dave  on November 24, 2011 at 1:02 PM

Another great article on human behaviour. I guess how we use this to move things forward is the question, on to Part 2!

MS  on December 6, 2011 at 9:49 PM

Nice commentary. I’ll be citing this in a paper I’m writing for grad school. Thanks!

LeMel  on January 7, 2013 at 12:18 AM

Great piece. A quick note on the Miller, G.A. study you sited (7 plus or minus 2): that study dealt with limits on the short-term memorization of strings of numbers for immediate recall, and arrived at the magical number 7. No one to my knowledge has ever suggested a limit on the ability to categorize items over a lifetime, which appears to be functionally infinite. That’s a different memory store (with different mechanisms?). That study has always gotten misused a lot, to the late Miller’s constant chagrin.

Stefan Goldmann  on March 12, 2013 at 7:36 AM

@LeMel: Thanks for this! Yes, you’re right in regards to Miller’s study (and Miller wrote it’s rather 4-5 anyway in less organized contexts than the numerical experiments he ran). As for lifetime categorization and memorization within categories, the situation seems as follows: with more expertise, more categorial differences are identifiable. Thus, instead of just “electronic music” you can recognize “Cologne techno” vs. “NY slow house” or whatever. With out categories being distinguishable, memory (short & long term) is limited to very few items per “list” = category. What’s similar enough to a preexisting pattern doesn’t enter LT memory on its own.

Categorization means you are able to see fundamental differences, and respectively memorize short lists according to this difference (“green apple, red apple”). “Memorizing categories” is something in the domain of relatively huge numbers, while memorizing items in the same category goes by small numbers. (If you can name 500 rock bands, you’ll also know the sub categories of rock those bands stand for).

Such limits imposed by missing expertise are not inevitable “lifetime limits”, since theoretically you could sit down anytime and acquire such expertise in almost anything. A practical limit here comes from the “10.000 hours rule” (Ericsson) though, which is the time you are supposed to need to acquire expertise in any field. Most people don’t ever use 10.000 hours on ANY particular piece of knowledge, so you usually won’t do this more than once in a lifetime. So theoretically you probably COULD memorize more than you ever actually DO. Time and money prohibits. Then music being a leisure activity for most, such limits are quite obvious socially. I think here’s one limit of “building perceptual categories” for an individual.

I guess the relevant research and theories about such limitations would be those concerning attention limitation and categorial perception. I found these discussed by D.Kahnemann (1973), Csikszentmihaly (1996) and many others. In cognitive neurobiology I’ve found more fun stuff about this with G.Roth (1999) and an overview of the subject at Karnath / Thier (2012). For music perception, Snyder (2000) argues that when it comes to “nuance” no categorization is possible since these is no way to store nuances in long term memory (a reason a recording can sound interesting on repeated listening). That would be a “hard limit.”

To become aware of limitations for one category, we can also just run a test on fields of knowledge we know better and less good:

How many shredding guitar virtuosos can you name? How many brands of ketchup do you know? How many synths do you recognize by their sound on a recording? (If you come up with more than 5 names in any of these, you probably can group them in categories too, which is my point here).


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