A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet that Swedish House Mafia (SHM) released a new song titled “Greyhound”. Unlike their last few releases, I didn’t feel the need to rush out and get it. For some reason, I held off and it slipped my mind. Eventually, my obligation to stay up-to-date on the music world forced me to give in, but before I listened to it, I wanted to try an interesting experiment on myself. My objective was to work out how much of the fame and recognition that big artists get is due to successful branding and listeners’ expectations, and how much is due to the real noticeable differences in their music.
The Experiment Set-Up
I put “Greyhound” into a playlist of twenty other house/electro songs that I hadn’t previously heard. These songs were randomly chosen from a variety of torrents and music blog compilations. I did not read descriptions or reviews for any of these songs. All I had seen were their titles, artists, and where I had downloaded them from. I recognized some of the artists like Jack Beats, Dada Life, and Alex Metric, but most of the songs were by artists I had never heard of. That way, I wouldn’t be able to identify every song with a specific artist’s style or signature sound. Also, I had not seen any promotional material or reviews of “Greyhound” yet; I just searched for it on Hulkshare and downloaded it.
I played the playlist on shuffle without seeing the song order, wrote out the numbers 1 through 20, and wrote brief notes as each song played. I listened to the full playlist once on a pair of Pioneer HDJ-2000s, and once on my car speaker system turned up loud. Afterwards, I wrote a rough order of preference for the songs in the list.
The point of this little test was to work out something that’s been bothering me – to what extent does branding, publicity, fame, and name recognition play into my perception of these artists and their music? Here’s what I found out when I compared my notes to the playlist order:
I hadn’t even come close to selecting “Greyhound” as my top choice.
In terms of my order of preference, I placed it 11th of the twenty songs, with a note that read “Average build-up, crowded and over-produced sound sometimes, nice chord progression halfway through. Overall, nothing special.”
Many of the other songs were also just average. Out of the twenty house songs in this playlist, I only really liked three or four of them. That’s the way it is with most of the music I listen to. As a blogger and music-lover, my usual workflow is to download dozens or hundreds of songs at a time, go through them in a few days, and mark the ones I like or want to blog about. Usually, I only approve 10 or 15 songs for each 100 I download.
I don’t want to try to generalize too much from this little test. After all, it is entirely dependent on my own preferences, my mood and surroundings at the time I listened to it. And the fact that I’ve been able to avoid hearing this song for weeks after its release suggests it wasn’t as impressive as previous releases, like “One” or “Antidote”.
What I can say with confidence is that my perception is skewed before I ever hit play on any of their songs. The combination of the promotional material, the knowledge of how hugely popular SHM is, other blogs’ reviews and enthusiastic recommendations, and my own wish that they really have come up with a magical orgasmic song — all that comes together in my subconscious and encourages me to like the song, to reinforce my existing beliefs, to go along with what others are saying.1
But strip away the expectations, and you expose how the music itself really feels to you. Presentation matters. When one of the greatest violinists in the world dressed inconspicuously and played in a DC subway stop, only three or four people out of hundreds even stopped to listen to him. If I had read some blogs’ opinions of “Greyhound”, and listened to it knowing that it was an SHM song, I’m damn sure that I would have thought it was a great song and I would’ve written about it here on S+G.
I believe this also explains the phenomenon of indie bands that shoot to fame, propelled by the rabid support of a few influential blogs, before being abandoned once they become too well-known or mainstream. It’s not so much about their actual music as it is about the brand. Finding an underground band that are amazingly talented and completely unknown is like winning the lottery for a music blogger. It doesn’t even matter if they turn out to be not so talented after all. It’s the idea and the brand that counts.
I once had a conversation with another music blogger, who co-founded a high-traffic site that covers mostly indie and electronic music. We were discussing our process for choosing what songs to write about, and in a tone that implied he was only half-joking he said, “I just look around Youtube and SoundCloud – the fewer pageviews the better.”
After one or two big music blogs and magazines write about these indie artists, they quickly reach buzz band status. Then once the glamor of their underground feel and niche tastes have worn off, once they are known by too many people, they are discarded and forgotten, or even derided for being talentless and selling out.2 It’s like that classic Yogi Berra quote, ”Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
So what does all that mean?
It’s damn hard to be objective.3 And no one can ask for perfect objectivity – it’s impossible. But this helped me cement some of the ideas I’ve had on how to be a better music blogger. As much as possible, listen to music blindly, knowing as little as you possibly can know about the song. Don’t read any reviews, don’t look at its position on the charts, just listen and write your own thoughts.
I promise that I’ll do my best to be objective. I want to find and show you the best damn songs that I can find. If that turns out to be an acoustic cover on YouTube with 26 views, then that’s what I’ll write about.4 And if the best songs I hear are by David Guetta and Coldplay, well then I won’t shy out of writing about them just because they’re obnoxiously famous. And if you think I’m neglecting some great music? Feel free to tell me what I’m missing out on.
- Becoming ‘One’: Anatomy of a #1 Hit
Beatport wrote a comprehensive analysis showing just how effective the SHM marketing is. A must-read article.
- Lana Del Rey – perfect example of a former music blog darling who is now laughed off as fake, simple, and untalented. For an insightful detailed breakdown on how and why this happens, see The Problem With Blogs on The Decibel Tolls.
- I realize that music is primarily a subjective experience. Every person will react to the same song differently. What I mean by being objective is to not let yourself be influenced by factors other than the music itself.
- Although I would love to have the time to actually go through every promising YouTube/SoundCloud/myspace artist with 26 pageviews, I’m pretty sure that would take me decades. I’ll try my hardest though.