Listening to the music that makes money

Do you remember Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories? It borrows from riffs and melodies created by more than a dozen other artists, and an orchestra, who were invited to participate in the album’s production. The electronic musicians duo arranged this because they wanted a repertoire of ‘new sounds’ — something they hadn’t created on a computer — to help stimulate and inspire their own compositions.

This gamble for novelty placed Daft Punk squarely outside electronic music’s ‘safe zone’. After all, it had been risky to introduce new specialized skills in a genre whose listeners already knew what they wanted. At the same time, it could be Daft Punk was underestimating the risk it was taking, if a new study by an international team of scientists is to be believed.

Affiliated with the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, and the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, the scientists have found that, over the last five decades, the combination of instruments composers have used have been prophetic of their success. Some combinations have been more successful than others over time, with rising and falling popularity as their audiences kept moving to the next big thing.

The scientists used two variables with which to compare songs released from the 1960s until 2010. The first, instrumentational variety, was described by the number of instruments used in a song. The second was instrumentational uniformity, described by the different kinds of instruments associated with a particular genre.

So, Random Access Memories could be described as having high instrumentational variety and low instrumentational uniformity. By comparing sales numbers with these two variables, the scientists were able to deduce how they affected each other.

Steven Thurner, a professor for Science of Complex Systems at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, and two others constructed a music production network that connected music styles to the instruments they were typically associated with. This network gave them a picture of various musical styles clumping up in groups based on the similarity of their instruments.

Examining these clusters over time, Thurner found that there was a “negative correlation between variety and uniformity of musical styles that was remarkably stable over the last fifty years”. Particularly between 2004 and 2010, he found that the ratio of uniformity to variety had been even in each genre.

It was as if to say all the reggae albums released in those six years didn’t venture beyond using a fixed number of instruments. This was true not just for reggae, but blues, electronic, funk, hip-hop, jazz, Latin, pop and rock as well. Musicians in all these genres composed their music with a very specific set of instruments between 2004 and 2010, making their success very predictable.

The study, unfortunately, didn’t end before making a more heedful observation.

Ask yourself this: how much does the commercialization of music production influence what music musicians are willing to compose, and in turn what tastes are they encouraging their audiences to cultivate?

For instance, some styles of music, such as indie rock, disco and synth-pop, went through cycles of rising and falling popularity. Accordingly, after they were first introduced, the variety of their instruments was “relatively high at the beginning, when the genre is first invented, and then often drops over time,” said Thurner. “Sometimes really dramatically.”

As the study’s paper says, “indie rock gained complexity steadily from the 60s to the 80s and remained on high complexity levels ever since”. Similarly, “the style [called] new wave increased in complexity rapidly and was popular from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, after which it decreased again”.

In all these cases, once they reached a peak variety and low uniformity, they slipped back up, as if mellowing to suit the audience. “It could be that this is to adapt to their tastes” — music’s own counterpart of the invisible hand of the market.

Arguably, it is the purpose of the music consumption business to install this feedback mechanism, but Thurner’s study prompts the discomfiting realization that the “popular” music we usually listen to is simply only the music that makes money.

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