The measure of all things

Surviving as a qualitative enterprise in a quantitative world

The day after the 2022 Grammys were awarded I received an email entitled “The Grammys, Corrected: ‘Montero’ Is the Song of the Year.” It came from a music analytics company called Viberate, which specializes in “streaming, airplay, and social media monitoring,” according to the company web site. The concept makes a lot of sense in a music landscape as fragmented and streaming-based as we now have. Clearly the old-school idea of what is a “hit song” has been disrupted by new listening habits generated by 21st-century technology.

But in their enthusiasm to promote their analytical prowess, the brain trust at Viberate has ignored the fact that quality and quantity are (news flash!) not the same thing. “We finally have the winners of the 2022 Grammy Awards, with the coveted Song of the Year title going to Silk Sonic’s ‘Leave the Door Open,'” begins the Viberate press release. “However, data tells a different story.”

Actually, no. Data cannot tell a different story. The Song of the Year award is given to a song perceived by those who vote for such things as the “best” song of the year. No amount of analytics, however sophisticated, can change the fact that the voters thought that the Silk Sonic song was better than Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and therefore Silk Sonic received the award.

Note that I’m not defending the voters’ choice. Lil Nas X may have the better song here, or may not. Awards of this nature are subjective; arguments afterwards about who deserved this or that award are part of the territory. To promote the “‘Montero’ was more popular so it has to win the Grammy” story line reveals either ignorance (do the Viberate folks not realize that awards in the arts are tied to quality not quantity?), misguided bravado (our numbers are better than your opinions!), or outright cynicism (we can measure this objectively so let’s pretend subjectivity doesn’t exist). You choose!

And okay on the one hand this is a small and ignorable circumstance, just another fledgling tech company trying to boost its profile. But the mindset underlying this press release is all too common. I’ve discussed this before, most directly in an essay making the case for quality as an essential cultural concept being routinely devalued by Big Tech–read here if you’re interested. This time I’m going to take the discussion in a more personal direction, as I have lately been pondering my fate not only as the creator of qualitative content in a quantitative digital environment, but as a human having lived a life in which I have consistently fallen short of quantifiable measures of what is typically deemed “success” in our Western, late-capitalist culture. I have never earned a serious-looking salary; I spent many of my middle-adult years both as a primary caregiver and a freelance writer landing whatever modest assignments I could hustle up. All the while, at a more fundamental level, I have felt out of sync with the general concept of having a so-called career in the first place–a “career” itself being a stand-in for an accepted level of human success in our culture.

Hijacked by metrics

Emblematic of my standing in the world is this web site, a carefully constructed but (let’s face it) simple-looking operation, offering thoughtful, well-written (I think) reviews, downloadable songs, and mixed-genre playlists that either a) relatively few people are interested in or b) relatively few people have discovered in the first place. Each option appears discouraging for different reasons: either I’ve been spending the better part of two decades doing something no one really cares about, or doing something that more people might care about were I more capable of attracting attention to myself.

Dig deeper, however, and the two different explanations for the ostensible failure of Fingertips can be seen as rooted in the same circumstance, which is a culture hijacked by metrics at every level of effort. On the one hand, yes–I could have worked (much) harder over the years to market this site, which by the 2010s would have involved mastering the art of social media promotion and/or search engine optimization. But on the other hand: note how quantitative such endeavors are, how the ineluctable, reductive point is to generate big numbers of clicks. If one’s original goal is an off-the-beaten-path enterprise–that is, not something that is ever going to appeal to millions of people–attempting to generate millions of page views is a fool’s errand from the get-go.

And, were it not a fool’s errand, there’s the off-putting reality of the surveillance-capitalist tricks I’d have to piggy-back onto to effect any sort of far-reaching promotional campaign in the first place.

The bottom line is that a media environment requiring the pursuit of a mass audience seems always to subsume the quality of what is being promoted to the overarching effort to trigger mass quantities of reactions, as instantaneously as possible. There seems no space on the web for the modest success; if something works, it’s supposed to work bigger, and bigger still. It is a media environment that gives birth to an enterprise like Viberate, with a mindset that the only thing that matters is quantity. One person’s hype-free effort to offer quality content–say, a boutique music-curation site–has little place in the metric-tilted environment propagated by our 24/7 information flow and feedback loop. Millions of page views or it didn’t happen. The most popular song is the best song.

The internet didn’t have to develop this way. Things were quirkier and gentler in the late ’90s into the early ’00s, when I started this site. But once the corporations gained a foothold, intoxicated by the power latent in a largely unregulated marketplace, the current situation became steadily inevitable. Fortified by unprecedented amounts of data and the potential to reach more or less anyone anywhere, the internet is a quantitative wonderland; for better or worse, small-scale, qualitative enterprises are more or less irrelevant here.

Facing the music
Chelsea Cutler has criticized the industry’s social media fixation

The fact that the internet reduces to quantity over quality at every turn has had a notable impact on the music industry, both for listeners and for the artists making the music. Singer/songwriter Chelsea Cutler generated headlines at the beginning of the year for posting, on Instagram, her thoughts on what seems to have gone wrong with the music business, focusing on her discomfort with the industry’s mindless embrace of social media for promoting musicians. She wrote: “With the way social media has evolved the last year, I don’t know how to keep up with how insatiable our content culture has become.” In particular, she said, “it feels exhausting to be constantly thinking of how to turn my daily life into ‘content’ especially knowing that I feel best mentally when I spend less time on my phone. It also feels exhausting to be told by everyone in the industry that this is the only effective way to market music right now.”

I’ve long been criticizing the way that musicians have been forced into being social media performers–why assume the most talented musicians are also the most talented attention-getters?–but it’s the logical end result of an online environment in which pure and immediate quantity has become the only meaningful measure of success. (The most popular song is the best song.) The fact that record companies have taken to signing musicians based on one (count ’em, one) TikTok clip is perhaps the apotheosis of quantity mania in the music world. Forget whether an artist has developed a consistent following, has a proven performance and songwriting track record, and shows other important signs of being worthy of serious investment (including whether the music is actually any good!)–nope, let’s throw big bucks at a rando who attracted a one-time crowd on a social media app catering to the shortest of short attention spans. Makes sense to me!

Meanwhile, this over-focus on quantity affects listeners in so many subtle and not-subtle ways that it should be the subject of another essay, and perhaps will be. But let’s start here with the reality that every single recommendation you receive via the streaming service of your choice is based on popularity. And while this isn’t terrible in all cases–sometimes it’s helpful to know which songs of an unfamiliar artist have been most popular–the fact that a basic, quantifiable characteristic (number of streams) is the engine driving the music listening environment of our current day to the exclusion of other factors is not just distressing at a soul level (for what that’s worth), it has opened up a blatantly corrupt can of worms regarding the prevalence of fake artists on streaming services like Spotify.

The fake artist phenomenon is, among other things, proof positive that not everything that’s popular is good and/or worthy of attention; streaming stats will conversely illustrate that not everything that isn’t popular is bad and/or undeserving of attention. But this appears to be too nuanced a concept for a digital world in which everything is ultimately rendered as a 0-or-1, yes-or-no reality. In a way, one might consider quantity to be a digital fact, quality an analog fact.

The tyranny of quantity

Where this tyranny-of-quantity situation leaves me personally is an ongoing question. As of now there are two reasons why I keep Fingertips going despite its longstanding failure as a digital enterprise. The first is that I like the work–I like discovering great songs, many of which are somewhat under the radar, and writing about them in a way that illuminates the listening process. When I’m engaged with it I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. The second reason is somewhat tautological: I’ve been doing it since 2003; to stop now seems to make all the previous years of work even more meaningless than they may already be. If I think too hard about this second reason, however, it also turns into a reason to stop–why continue the meaningless work for one day longer?

When all is said and done, a lot of what I’ve written about here over the years has advocated either directly or indirectly for the ongoing importance of quality in a world transfixed by quantity. This may be a little ‘woo-woo,’ but I believe that the physical reality of digitalia–the fact that all computerized information, however complex, whether textual or visual or musical, is reduced to a series of electronic gates that are open or closed, no in between–is if not the direct cause of the interrelated humanistic crises provoked by our having given ourselves over to this black-or-white world, then is in any case a powerful metaphor for what’s rotten here at the core. The world is relentlessly analog: there is nuance, there is gradation, there are grey areas, there is verticality and depth. Anything digitized, deep at the bottom of all the arcane code, possesses none of these characteristics. We can’t change that but we also ignore it at our peril–if not physical peril (it may yet come to that) then certainly emotional and spiritual peril.

This is a lot of writing to arrive at no particular conclusion, but so far I don’t have one. Quantity continues to stamp its cold hard boot on the tender face of quality. Fingertips is a small effort in the quality camp. The question remains whether small-scale quality on the internet is inevitably tantamount to the proverbial tree falling in the unpopulated forest. Some days the thought of how invisible I am here drives me nuts–not because I yearn for fame (at all), but because I know there are a lot of people out there, including people far further up the chain in the music industry than I am, who would dig what I’m doing if they would only stumble upon it.

Other days, I tell myself that’s still my ego talking. I tell myself that the only legitimate reason to keep doing what I’m doing is if it comes from deep inside of me and wants to get out. Whether there’s anyone else in the forest is, in theory, beside the point. I gain some solace from something Toni Morrison once said: “You are not the work you do, you are the person you are.” And, hell, if you think about it isn’t that hard enough? Being the person you are? If the words I write and the music I offer on this web site helps me at least try to do that, then that will have to be enough for now.

8 thoughts on “The measure of all things”

  1. Maybe it’s boundless optimism, but I think what we have seen with the resurgence of vinyl hopefully offers a glimpse into the future of the industry. Vinyl growth is still rapidly growing and does not seem to be slowing down, at least according to Statista.

    https://www.statista.com/chart/7699/lp-sales-in-the-united-states/

    Dedicated music fans began to realize analog sound is better than digital sound. This isn’t nostalgia either, the people behind the vinyl resurgence grew up with CDs and digital downloads. I think it goes to show there is a growing amount of music fans who actively seek out quality and I think it’s only a matter of time before this trickles down into other areas of the industry, no matter how niche it is. Quantity is out there produced for the masses but it has no staying power; quality finds a way to the masses (or vice versa) and sticks around forever.

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  2. Oh! Unrelated. I’m friends with the guy who designs Spotify’s recommendation algorithms and genre classifications — a man whose own tastes reach deep into obscurity (he wrote the liner notes for the best-of album by the obscure ’80s jangle band Pop Art, for example). It’s not true, in my experience, that Spotify only recommends music based on popularity. Its algorithms have latched onto certain peculiarities of my taste and done rather well, for example, at telling me about caffeinated pop-metal Japanese girl groups, or arty prog-rock bands, who have 750 monthly listeners but whom I, for one, will turn out to adore.

    I feel like I most often find these if I check the Sound Of (Genre Name) playlists for a minor genre, or look at the Fans Of (Band) Also Enjoy tags at the bottom of their page, for a band that’s not popular to begin with.

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    1. Thanks for reading and thanks too for the input, which I appreciate. I do understand that not every recommendation is based on widespread popularity. But I suspect that within each genre or micro-genre it still comes down to what’s popular within that particular slice– which of course may not be something that’s “popular” at all in the broader sense of the term. The more effectively Spotify can slice and dice their data, the more it may well be that an artist with 750 monthly listeners is still the most popular in a given micro-niche. At this level, of course, this kind of recommendation can, as you note, be really great. I’m certainly not against that! I will always, however, be wistful about the robotic nature of any algorithmic process. I don’t love receiving input from something that is not reaching into its own actual consciousness to interact with me. I’m old-school that way I know.

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