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. You can read Part 1 here.
Life cycle: crystallizing fields and the avant-garde
For an obscure speech, held in 1961 in the German city of Lübeck, anthropologist Arnold Gehlen designed one of the most accurate descriptions of how culture works in the big picture. If there ever was a valid explanation of how cultural styles emerge, grow and die, that’s the one. Let’s have a look:
He called the concept “crystallization”: any new, emerging field of culture grows to the point where its boundaries, basic rules and antitheses are found. Once these are accepted, the field “crystallizes,” which means it doesn’t grow further beyond but develops ever smaller subdivisions and variations within ever smaller categories. Novelty and some surprises still occur regularly, but the field’s boundaries are not crossed and the basic rules don’t get violated anymore. Basically any metacategory of 20th century music of the western world seems to have reached the stage of crystallization, be it jazz, rock, contemporary classical or techno. Since all big subcategories within these have been discovered and occupied a long time ago, we now have shallow novelty of the kind of disco edits or “slowhouse.” When there is no clear path ahead, moving back and searching for the overlooked crumbs is just as good an option (in the earlier stages no one bothers looking back). Becoming aware of crystallization effects is the reason why we feel there was greater music being created in the past. When a new cultural field opens up, exciting new categories emerge and those discovering and promoting them have a far greater time at it than later explorers of the field.
Along these lines we can also define a widespread term: Those pathfinders traveling virgin roads are described as the “avant-garde.” In the language of the military, avant-garde used to refer to those troops of the cavalry who went into the battle first. In the arts, avant-garde means nothing but identifying a new category and occupying the lead position in it. Then it is all about waiting for the flood to set in. It is the only definition I can think of that makes sense in conjunction with the military meaning of the term. It is not about making weird sounds and shocking the public as often assumed. Once something has been established, it doesn’t make much sense to label mimicking or preserving efforts avant-garde anymore. The association of avant-garde with earpain is grounded in a different observation: every truly new aesthetic seems alien and unpleasant at first. Only later we learn to process it and enjoy its characteristic features. That usually happens when more artists enter the scene. When no one follows the avant-gardist, things stay alien.
Extended cycles: museum categories
Categories emerge, grow and eventually fade away. So do the careers of their inhabitants. When no one is interested in one category, leadership doesn’t mean much. Even most successful styles and fashions in music disappear sooner or later. Those categories that survive along their representatives often exist for the lifespan of the fans that spent the time to learn the category’s cultural codes. You know those concerts where everyone is 60+. Some categories are so strong that they live on for centuries, if not almost infinitely. Probably ever since someone beat a stick on a stone for the first time there has been some equivalent to the 4/4 beat we call techno today.
Every generation rediscovers the category and feeds it with its own stars. This is most obvious with classical music where every few decades there is the new superstar soprano, conductor or violin virtuoso. It is also a “museum category” preserving the live performances of works written sometimes centuries ago (a recording is still a poor substitute for an acoustic live performance). So does every new generation form its own rock superstar and a lot of electronic music seems to enter a similar road. In a crystallized environment eventually a prototypical subcategory is deemed worth to become a museum category. Then there come musicians who want to sound like the prototype from back in 1715, 1923 or 1988.
Case study: Minus vs. Richie Hawtin
Let’s examine the story of the Minus label. When Richie Hawtin founded it as an outlet for his own productions, he already was the main exponent of minimal techno with a string of hit singles and extremely refined albums under the moniker of Plastikman (most notably Sheet One, Concept 1 and Consumed). The Plastikman project was so influential and successful that people had its logo tattooed. When he opened Minus up to other artists, two things had happened: The first wave of minimal was over, leaving basically only Hawtin and Basic Channel as still widely reknowned artists. And Hawtin had almost stopped releasing new original material (except for the artsy album Closer and two mix CDs). Minus formed a crew around Magda and Troy Pierce, and facilitated associates like Marco Carola and Mathew Jonson. A second wave of minimal techno swept the world, much bigger than the first one and went on to dominate dance music almost to a degree only trance had reached before. The Minus crew was probably at the top of it, accompanied by the likes of Ricardo Villalobos, Luciano and many others. Intriguingly Richie Hawtin, who hadn’t released one track contributing to the renewed minimal style, peaked his career in terms of reach and reaped rewards, becoming techno’s number one DJ. Compared to stadium rock, minimal techno is still a miniscule niche market. Yet its leading artist mentioned in a recent interview that he sometimes plays up to three performances a night, often in different countries, which is only made possible by employing the services of a private jet.
It is a wonderful example of how categories develop. After helping to form a first minimal subcategory of techno, Hawtin was recognized as its leader. Branding the Minus label and opening it up to others, their efforts accelerated his position as the one “owning” the style in the minds of the audience. With thousands of enthusiasts and artists jumping on the bandwagon and deepening the category to gargantuan proportions, Hawtin got leveraged proportionally to the size of the category itself. Once it outgrew the other subcategories of techno, he automatically became the leading artist of “all techno,” although the thousands of tracks that actually formed and defined the second wave of minimal were all produced by others. The critical point was making the transition of personal “first call” status from old minimal to new minimal. As we see, this can be achieved even without actually producing any new music in the style in question. This is not to be misinterpreted as unjust recognition though. Hawtin had shifted away from primary production to pushing new means of production, presentation and distribution. He spearheaded promoting a whole industry from Native Instruments to Ableton to Beatport, shaping the infrastructure of new minimal and beyond like no other artist. He’s also a really nice guy.
The gap between the category leader and the next on the ladder might be so wide that it even tolerates severe flaws in the primary sector: you might get away with continuously unexciting or even bad performances. In several interviews Hawtin cultivated an attitude of method over content, claiming he doesn’t even listen to the tracks anymore before he plays them and instantly forgets about them afterwards. I listened to a three hours set of his recently and indeed it seemed like watching a factory production line rather than a performance of music. It’s alienating and amazing at the same time, truly avant-garde in its dedication to taking things to the extreme. A new arte povera (a 60s Italian movement of making art from trash materials) seemed to have formed. As you see, at the end of the case study we are not with the label anymore, but with its leading artist. That’s what category leadership does.
The artist: category elasticity and time factors
Most great categories are discovered rather quickly by those who manage to move in boldly without giving it too much second thought. Whatever is possible will eventually be done. That is also why the audience doesn’t grant artists too much time to prove their talent. For visual arts, Chris Dercon, head of Munich’s Haus der Kunst museum, once estimated an artist has about seven years to break through. In music it might be less. Especially after you have some initial success there will be limited time for your full “potential” to unfold. Slow growth is a concept punished severely by the social environment. If people come to your concert in order to find a half empty room or you deliver a poor performance, they are unlikely to try again unless they have some very good reason to believe next time will be dramatically different. If you already spent a couple of years on the circuit that’s an unlikely scenario. Also the media and promoters will think you aren’t “hot” anymore if you don’t deliver accelerating results early enough. That is also why a cover story or other overblown exposure too early in an artist’s career might bring things to an early end: rewards associated with fully shown potential require just that. It is of benefit to an artist’s development if rewards and recognition lag slightly behind her actual level.
Then also once you have your name associated with a category, it is extremely hard if not impossible to move on to a different category. Once people know you as a black metal goddess, you won’t seem credible in pumping out dubstep tunes. It is actually easier to change when you are below superstar status. The only super-prominent historic counterexample that comes to mind is Miles Davis, who changed over the whole jazz world every couple of years throughout a career that lasted half a century: Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, On the Corner and Decoy are just a few examples, all differing wildly from each other. Yet they include some of jazz’s biggest (including the biggest) commercial successes ever plus separately inspiring thousands of musicians to follow and deepen the styles Davis designed. Although he regularly alienated his fans, he also managed to build up new followings every time change stroke. If the fans stay, it usually indicates that you didn’t leave your category.
On a side note, superstars also regularly fail to take into account that they are such only within one category at a time. Jeff Mills and Ellen Allien are still all over as DJs, but their fashion lines never went anywhere for instance. Miles Davis’ appearance in “Miami Vice” didn’t quite make him a Hollywood celebrity and his much advertised late paintings haven’t make it into the MoMA so far, too. The ultimate fallacy is when established artists try to reposition themselves by reacting to new developments imposed by others: they regularly fall to the bottom. When wild pitch pioneer DJ Pierre started to play the post-minimal hits of the day, it was the last time we heard of him. Unless you have pioneered the new thing, you’d better ignore it entirely.
Do we still need marketing?
Don’t expect a description of how hits are crafted or what kind of supportive promotional efforts are necessary for an artist to actually get his categorical findings into the minds of the audience. That’s a slightly different thing that’s too deep to discuss here. Yet the relation between category leadership and marketing efforts should be clear: no marketing effort will get an obvious “me too” artist’s profile sufficiently off the ground (this is the one point 100% of music marketing books fail to discuss). Within the range of the possible, the avant-gardist of a new category will have the biggest chances to be considered the best and therefore will be the easiest to promote. All categories are not created equal though. Some will have bigger potential than others, since they will address a need that is culturally relevant to more people. That’s usually where trial and error begins and predictions fail. Categories compete, too. The bigger the gap between them the smaller become the competitive effects. An isolated, small category might have bigger problems initially communicating the means necessary for understanding and enjoying it. So the initial promotional effort will have to be bigger. Once it is established though it will be more stable because fewer other categories will overlap with its position. Vice versa, a new category closer to existing ones is easier understood, but also more threatened by competition. It is quicker to establish and quicker to be forgotten. Closeness to the known is the prerequisite for hyped fads. That’s why we regularly encounter two word style names that start on “new” (or “nu,” for that matter).
Of course, marketing allows for some severe distortions, too. The most notorious is known as “payola,” referring to purchased exposure. In its contemporary form, usually ad money leads to overexposure of certain artists (attention they wouldn’t get without money being exchanged). When a song is on rotation on the radio it must be popular, social proof teaches us. Even in cases in which the connection is obvious we seem to assume that if an artist is willing to invest more than others there must be a reason (i.e. his talent justifies the investment). And we move along too often. I know of concert promoters who booked artists on the basis of the number of “fans” on their social networks, even when they did know those numbers were manipulated by a piece of software adding random people.
Randomness and self-regulation
Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus (circa 460–379 BC) used to define “chance” as the ignorance of the hidden cause of an event. Often we attribute some unexpected outcome to random factors, since we don’t see any pattern that would allow us to explain what happened. The arts seem to be a field whose dynamics we regularly fail to understand, which results in a constant stream of surprising events. The very nature of competing categories means the other rules are constantly changing, making exact predictions regularly sound idiotic. One would wish to have clarity at least that the arts are a contest of ideas and the bolder new idea shall win. In reality, crossfire comes from even more factors than just marketing abilities. Someone figured out that pianists competing at a piano competition regularly had greater career chances if they played later than others. Juries happen to be in a better mood in the afternoon. Years later those who played in the afternoons had more concerts and better recording deals. It is impossible to identify all such biases. When you hear someone lamenting that “the time wasn’t right,” he might be referring to this complexity of the unknown. The deep insecurities of which outcomes to expect actually promote diversified culture. Many attempts that turn out to have no chance to succeed nevertheless do get initial support (“trial and error”). A lot of category depth has been gained by the belief that what worked once might work twice. And a new category’s reach won’t be obvious before it has been actually built and tried.
Yet the concept of category leadership by definition works for a minority only. When it seems to install the same hierarchical structure in any new category, this is only true as long as the majority wastes its time chasing categories that already exist. Innovation seems possible because we clearly know what the mainstreams are. If every artist would first and utmost try to differentiate from all others, we would face a self-regulating process. If the mainstream gets fragmented new rules will emerge, requiring new approaches.
The garden of the closing paths
If the above descriptions hold some truth, it is not the most hostile environment to be in. Most musicians have marveled over which marketing strategy would help them and how to adapt their sound to fit “the market” — just to wonder why what worked for someone else simply doesn’t work out for them (exactly because it worked for someone else). In the light of the mechanics of category leadership such considerations seem plainly wrong. The need to differentiate from the established encourages experimentalism and individuality — not the worst things around. On a sad note, going deeper in an established category is not rewarded. For the cultural (and economic) success of any piece or style of music quality is overrated. Eminence is gained because of the potential for social distinction. Any social group within a new generation builds its identity to differ not only from previous generations, but also from its social peer groups. That’s why it will embrace anything that seems new and different, no matter how stupidly new or different that might be. Listening to a “better” song never did the job, exactly because it lacks the effect of clear cut social distinctiveness.
Our culture is not so much cluttered with successful bullshit because we have no taste, but because our brains are built to pay more attention to novelty of form than to variety within a form. The stone age application: your chances of survival increase when you recognize clearly unfamiliar patterns rather than variations of familiar patterns. It’s some kind of deer, so eat it. But beware of that new snake, insect or other tribe with unclear intentions. Quality helps only later on to sustain the life of a category (not necessarily the life of the one who delivers it). Once we grow aware we’ve been listening to trash, we eventually move on and the category fades. On the other hand our culture is cluttered with unsuccessful bullshit, too, because we simply don’t learn about how our minds function. It is a default on the side of the musicians, concert promoters, labels and distributors of culture, deeply misunderstanding the audience. Instead of pursuing individualism, they keep searching for repeatable formulas. As the joke goes, “I don’t understand why nobody is interested in my music. It sounds exactly like anybody else’s.” Ironically, what is called “commercialism” regularly fails in the market at an astonishingly high rate.
Once we learn the aesthetics of one category, we stick with it. People are very loyal in their tastes of music. We only change our preferences on flat fads and fashions. Search and learning “costs” are too high to change complex, deeply built tastes regularly. That’s why our parents still enjoy the same music they enjoyed when they were twenty (“gerontorave” becomes a less futuristic outlook every day). This encourages artists to build categories aesthetically as deep and strong as possible in order to engage their audience “for life.”
Stefan Goldmann is an electronic music artist, DJ and owner of the Macro label.
 Gehlen, Arnold: Über kulturelle Kristallisation. In: Anthropologie und Soziologie (1963): pp.311-328.
 Berlyne, David: Aesthetics and Psychobiology. New York (1971): p.193.
 Dercon, Chris: Wir sind eine Marke. Interview, in: Sueddeutsche Zeitung (10.5.2006).
 Compare Frank, Robert H. / Cook, Philip J.: The Winner-Take-All Society, New York (1995): p.192.
 Quoted in Bennett, Deborah J.: Randomness (1998): p.84.
 Ginsburgh, Victor/van Ours, Jan: Expert Opinion and Compensation: Evidence from a Musical Competition, in: American Economic Review 93 (2003), pp.289-298.