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Thread: Quality Is Overrated: The Mechanics of Excellence In Music

  1. #1
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    Default Quality Is Overrated: The Mechanics of Excellence In Music

    I remember reading this at the time, but went back to it recently after reading entertainment's music writing thread. This bit still sticks out:

    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.
    http://www.littlewhiteearbuds.com/fe...in-music-pt-1/

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    Quote Originally Posted by luka View Post
    and how much richer our cultural life would be as a nation if more (equally talented as you say) had managed to do the same. one of my core beleifs is that talent far outweighs vaccancies for talent. and huge unconscionable amounts of it are squandered.
    .

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    As long as the music's good

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