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Adventures in Ideas: How Music Gets Popular, Q&A with Jennifer Lena

I recently read a terrific book by sociologist Jennifer Lena, Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. She explores the factors that influence the spread of musical taste — why some genres, bands, etc., gain popularity. Jennifer’s research is impressive because of the range of her exploration — according to her publisher’s website, she covers “rap to bluegrass to death metal and South Texas polka.”

Jennifer is helping redefine our understanding of social influence — what and who matters, and how ideas and tastes spread in complex social networks. I had a chance to ask Jennifer a few questions about her work.

Q. You are interested in factors that determine whether particular musical styles, genres, etc., will gain mass appeal — or remain circumscribed to a small niche. Have you discovered something about the process of “influence” or “contagion” that the social network scholars have ignored or underemphasized? What does your work tell us about the role of networks in shaping popular tastes?

A. The most common way for music to blow up from a small scene into global pop is for a controversy to erupt. Music history is littered with examples of “moral panics”: be-bop jazz was blamed for white-on-black race riots in the mid-1940s, just as rap music was blamed when riots erupted in Los Angeles following the Rodney King trial. In both cases, sensationalized news reports and especially a focus on the “dangerous” elements in the music attracted young people in droves. Moral panics, like magnets, repel and attract. This is also true when disputes involve dueling scenes, like the fights between “mods” and “rockers” in the U.K. in the early 1960s or the battles between fans of heavy metal and punk that played out on the pages of Creem magazine in the early 1980s. It is equally true when outsiders attack: the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s efforts to ban heavy metal and rap music resulted in those Parental Advisory stickers. When rock fans staged the infamous Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park they may have kept disco in the limelight for an extra year.

In my book, I try to understand popular tastes, but also niche communities. By looking at how the communities that support music grow and change (or wither and die), I realized that people’s tastes depend as much on the characteristics of the community as the music being played. Some people are into local music scenes because they like to interact with the musicians and other fans on a regular basis. They like that ticket prices are low and that the music is relatively unknown outside of their core group. They’re so invested in this kind of relationship with music that they’re open to different styles.

In contrast, the global pop music experience is almost totally mediated by screens—blogs and music videos, for example—and most Pop fans have no unmediated interaction with the performers. Even concerts rely on screens to make the performance visible. In other words, the fan who prefers local, “underground,” or “independent” rap music has different tastes than the fan of pop rap, and that difference doesn’t reside only in the songs.

On the face of it, this is counter-intuitive. We tend to think about taste as being all about aesthetic style, but ask someone what kind of music they like and they are likely to say, “Oh, I like a little of everything.” Of course, we don’t actually like all music, indiscriminately. Instead we choose what bluegrass we like, or what kind of rock appeals to us based on our preference for one kind of music community over another.

Q. You are studying phenomena that are simultaneously artistic and commercial. What economic arguments or theories do not apply as a consequence — or, perhaps you feel that some economic explanations for “success” (however defined) are better than others?

A. Being a pop music fan is an emotional rollercoaster, and it’s fueled partly by this fantasy that there’s a fundamentally antagonistic relationship between the artistic and the commercial. Yet any reasonable person knows that pop music is, by definition, produced and staged by teams of professionals. Should we really be surprised or care that Nas used a professional songwriter; or Lana Del Ray was bankrolled by a wealthy, marketing-savvy father; or that Rick Ross manufactured his crime boss bio?

Even Karl Marx, champion of workers, argued that “the artist must earn money in order to be able to live and to create, but he must by no means live and create for the purpose of making money.” To my way of thinking, it is criminally ignorant to suggest that some people’s labor shouldn’t be viewed as labor. In promoting the idea that musicians should make “art for art’s sake” we condone a system that essentially eats its young. I think cultural economists know this. And the really sad thing is that the chronic poverty of artists has been transmuted into some kind of heroic vision of producing art for art’s sake. We simply shouldn’t view poverty as a noble choice.

In the post-Napster era it has become harder for would-be pop musicians to earn a living. They are now expected to develop a large fan base through touring and the free internet distribution of their music in order to “earn” a contract with a label. They do so without having access to the voluminous market research database and marketing expertise that big labels can offer artists. Artists shoulder the risks and start-up costs associated with music making, and are rewarded with recording contracts that rarely provide a living wage. Once artists get signed, labels have become so bad at artist development that they churn out a constant stream of acts producing albums that don’t recoup the cost of production, or albums with only one hit. Record labels have set up a system that actually produces new risks and profit volatility. Anecdotally, there’s evidence that record label staff with musical know-how are also being cut or de-skilled. The running joke on 30 Rock about NBC-Universal shifting executives from the microwave to the television division is funny because it’s true.

Q. Is there an advantage to remaining a niche? I recall Lady Gaga‘s rise to power was predicated on consumers marketing on her behalf. She cultivated tight groups of music consumers, and when Kanye West infamously canceled their stadium tour, she weathered the storm. Isn’t this a lesson that artists should not always go big — at least, not right away?

A. This is a good point. There are lots of good reasons that fans and musicians would want to limit the size of their community. According to several histories of electronic and dance music (EDM), being seen as passé or “selling out” to commercial interests is so universally loathsome that DJs will cycle through different names and logos during their careers in order to stay ahead of the media and the mainstream. This strategy of “planned obsolescence” is one way that small communities can retain control over the
ir size, since only the most committed, hard-core fans and musicians will even try to keep up with new names and styles.

But to speak more directly to your example: very few bands actually keep their core fan base once they become popular. After the initial thrill of attention, their original fan base tends to become disenchanted, and instead of engaging with the new music, they’re apt to spend their time celebrating and preserving older music — the stuff made before the corrupting influences of the music industry arrived. That disenchanted group — whom I call “traditionalists” in the book — invest a lot of significance in being and remaining a small group. They’re historians, and what prestige they have flows from the fact that they were “there,” back “then.” They position themselves as the true fans, the core fans, and the authentic fans. And to speak to one of your other questions, they join the chorus of voices criticizing the artistic qualities of popular music.

In the book, I talk about a few other reasons that music communities stay small including the limited appeal of the music to a broad public. Death Metal and White Power music, for example, have trouble attracting a large group of fans for obvious reasons. Styles that use unconventional instruments or rely on ethnic identification to attract fans also have a limited appeal. I wouldn’t say that the musicians necessarily view their small size as a good thing, but their fans might see it that way.

Q. If you were advising an artist on their career, what business decisions would you tell them to make or avoid? Or stated differently, what impresses you about the business savvy or some artists — and not others?

A. It is really hard to finance an album or a tour without label support, so I am always impressed when a band makes that happen. Small market artists work in a situation of incredible ambiguity, with limited and largely untrustworthy information about how to build a successful career. Pop artists, on the other hand, work in a situation of information overload, with powerful factions vying to control their careers — both situations are hard to navigate.

There are some common mistakes that all artists make, not just musicians, which are easily avoided. For example, musicians should never rely on the label’s lawyer when negotiating their contracts. They generally shouldn’t agree to a lower percentage of revenue in exchange for a larger advance, nor should they agree to a percentage of net receipts if they can negotiate a percentage of list price.

Music departments and conservatories and MFA programs desperately need to add more courses on grant writing, contract negotiation, and business management. In lieu of that, and for artists that don’t have access to formal schooling, they can teach themselves the basics online and in the library. In this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Q. If I wanted to be very cool at a SoHo party this holiday season, what musical groups or artists can I say are in my playlist — that others aren’t necessarily listening to?

A. Truly “cool” playlists have a half-life of about a week, but being cool is something you can endure for decades. Most of us see “coolness” as a kind of charismatic genius — a special ability of special people. But “coolness” is really a combination of two things: access to new information and the credibility to get others to agree you’re cool. Cool people often belong to two groups of otherwise disconnected people and function as messengers, bringing “stuff” like music from one group to the other. The key is that your friends view the new stuff as cool, not eccentric or idiotic. Gaining credibility as the “cool” one in your group is complicated but you can increase your chances of success by relying on experts.

You’re in luck if your friends don’t read Pitchfork, because their writers tend to predict trends pretty accurately, and early. This is, and has always been, the role of pop music critics — to influence the culture. You just need to figure out which critics your friends don’t read, but should. Holiday parties should be easy to navigate because the internet tubes are clogged with critics’ “Best of the Year” lists, and these provide great cheat-sheets for the uncool. If I had to pick two, I’d go with Sasha Frere-Jones and Ann Powers. Listen to their Top 5 songs, read a few articles about these artists or songs so you can demonstrate you know your stuff, put on your Spanx, and hit that party.