Hit Programming: Assumed Audience Approval

Recently on the Whitechapel forum, somebody posted a link to America’s ‘most unwanted song’ that got me thinking (and ranting, on Twitter – if this seems familiar to you, that may be why). This weird yet strangely compelling composition was based on a survey asking people what they really wouldn’t want to hear in a song. There’s a companion piece, the ‘most wanted song’, based on the other end of that survey. Read about the method here.

The method may seem strange, taken out of context like this, but it’s actually quite common. I wouldn’t be surprised to find most of this week’s pop charts following similar formulas. Consequently, this survey’s poster child sounds a lot like what’s on the charts anyway, only more generic and almost annoyingly boring. Really, it creeps me out, whereas the unwanted tune is wacky, over-the-top, funny, extreme. I liked it.

Of course, I don’t know that most music production works like this – I haven’t been there. I do seem to recall that marketing works like this, though. Anyway, the principle holds for just about any form of art. Comics, too, in case you’re wondering why you’re reading this on a comic site. How many of us have heard a publisher turn down a pitch, saying: “I love it, but our audience won’t go for it”? Different method, same idea.

But why is the tune that’s destined to be liked ‘unavoidably and uncontrollably’ by the vast majority of listeners so horrible? Well, it’s not really a surprise if you think about it. It’s trying too hard to please by catering to what the composer thought was the middle ground of mass perception. Any individual spark that makes a song unique wasn’t part of the equation – by definition. There are four ways for this survey to be a recipe for desaster:

  • First of all, the elements collected as popular have been pre-programmed by what’s popular already. People don’t suddenly ask for surprises.
  • Even if people want to be surprised, having them define exactly by what won’t get you there. Which is pretty obvious, if you think about it. They’ll just give you samples of what worked before.
  • The 72% of listeners who will ‘unavoidably and uncontrollably’ like the generic song are probably mostly people who don’t really care about music. You see, most people like music. Not quite so many care about it. Those who don’t care will be content with whatever the radio offers. When asked what they want to hear, people who don’t really care won’t bother to think beyond what’s already there. Only enthusiasts do that.
  • A song based on a poll will unavoidably aim for the middle ground of whatever variety in tastes was surveyed. Ask too many people, you’ll wash off all the edges. But the edges are what makes a song remarkable. That’s where its character lives.

It’s the old difference between beauty and prettiness. About a century ago, a photographer/scientist whose name I’m too lazy to look up right now merged large amounts of prisoners’ photographs in order to find the typical criminal face. The result didn’t look like a criminal. It looked like an unremarkable, but pretty face. That’s what our perception of prettiness is: a mashup of all the faces we’ve seen so far. The middle ground. Beauty? That’s what makes a face stand out. Or a song.

I’m not saying you won’t have a hit doing what the survey says. Most Top Ten material is stereotypical, uninspired, generic crap that’s targeted to as large a middle ground of individual tastes as possible. You don’t get to the top if you don’t reach the masses.

But you’re going to annoy the hell out of everybody who cares about your line of work if you do. Especially if it’s all you do.. It’s the definition of a sellout.

What’s more: Most of the music custom-made for mainstream success fails. Record store junk shelves are full of music that tried too hard to aim for the middle ground and ended up with nothing worth remembering. Only ten at a time get to be in the Top Ten. Out of how many?

If you don’t have the marketing budget to carry your stuff to the top, mass compatibility won’t help you. Worse, it’ll brand you as a sellout and ruin your reputation along with your budget. The further down the Long Tail you are, the more advisable it is to follow your own inspiration and create something that stands out, even if there isn’t anybody around to see it stand out yet. You may still fail. Actually, your chances at failing are still overwhelming. But it’ll be your failure.