2009-02-15

What would music sound like without the market?

Well, similar in a dictatorship, I guess. But what would music sound like if capitalism was suddenly wrenched free from today's western society? What would people listen to? (I'm beginning to feel like Professor What If here.)

The market is the classic way to measure popularity in music. In a lot of (bad) books on the history of popular music, music that's sold well is considered more important than music that's sold badly, the idea being that music that sells well is what people actually listen to. But is that really the case, even if we discount the file-sharing part of the audience? How would you go about determining what music is actually popular? And even if we could, how would we discount the effects of capitalism from the results?


A statistical survey sounds like a good starting bet, if someone was willing to pay to conduct one (companies are, of course, only interested in the market). Interestingly, Sweden pretty much has a standing one that's been going on since 1962: the survey that's the basis of public radio chart show Svensktoppen. (Are we a country of bureaucrats or what?) It's conducted pretty much like a proper statistical survey with randomly selected respondents conforming to the demographics of the whole population, who then get to vote on their favourite music of the moment. It's hampered a bit by having been restricted since 1974 to only include music by Swedish songwriters and by some silly selection rules, but it still produces interesting results, quite different from the official sales chart.

Inevitably it's much more static (with one song right now that's been on the list for 241 weeks straight, and another for 75), and the average voter is older and more rural. The mixture is also, perhaps surprisingly, much more eclectic, with everything from awful post-grunge to nashville-recorded country. The genre that dominates the sales chart, normal commercial pop, barely makes an appearance. A radically different picture of popularity appears, where adult contemporary music and dansband are suddenly king... Correct picture? Incorrect? Well, someone who's into experimental economics (which is the only branch of that discipline I respect, for its results if not its interpretations) would probably tell you about the lack of any motivation on the respondents' part messing up the results. Another factor which means the market is hardly erased is the continuing presence of marketing, where a lot of radio plays (for instance) can easily warp the reception.

Perhaps to some extent both problems are solved in another public broadcasting arena: the national selection for the Eurovision song contest. I've expressed my love for this pseudo-experimental arena before. The semi-finals for this have just started, and already a lot of established stars and songwriters are being knocked out for having weak track material or voices. Voting costs money, and with over a third of the population watching and a tenth voting the significance is probably not totally off. It's a sort-of democratic selection with the market only marginally involved - and the results produced are generally pretty decent.

Yet another reason to love Eurovision so much. Come the revolution, if it's fair, this is what we'll all be listening to. :)

1 comment:

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