Paradox or Paradise: Music Choice in the Digital Age

I. The Same Old Song

At first glance, it appears as though the benefits of a culture abundant with music outweigh the drawbacks tenfold—a rich culture has the potential to whet a fan’s appetite for even more, and may further encourage them to become, themselves, creators of culture.

More choice is always a good thing, even if in the end, it adds to the frustration and confusion faced by individual fans. But is that true?

So far, we have only investigated choice overload in culture through the narrow lens of a record store and have yet to explore the digital sphere.  While there are many reasons to believe that the web has created a “paradise of music” for fans, as we’ll soon see, that may not necessarily be the case. It is worth noting that many of the paradoxes of choice overload that I elaborated on in my previous essay were found to be most prevalent in the material domain.  And, while psychologist Barry Schwartz suspected that the paradoxes we experience in culture are quite different, he asserted that the end result might be the same.  That, much like in the material domain, a culture plentiful with music has the potential to lessen the amount of satisfaction that fans get from their choices and increasingly causes them to opt out of the process all together.  In a paper titled Can There Ever Be Too Many Flowers Blooming, Swartz outlines three of the paradoxical effects of choice overload in the cultural domain.

First, when fans are overloaded with cultural alternatives, Schwartz says they will, “Opt for the same old thing as a way to avoid facing unlimited options.”  Similar to the reaction that a consumer has to abundance in the material domain, fans will opt for the same old music for a number of reasons.  For starters, many fans, out of comfort, may not deviate too far from their favorites.  That way, they are free from the disappointment they might experience in listening to music that is dissimilar from their established taste.  So too, fans tend to have a deep memory of being burned.  When purchasing music, they are more prone to remember all the times that the music did not work out as opposed to the times that it did.   Also, fans will stick with what they know because there is instant gratification in that music; it never ceases to fit their mood or remind them of when they were growing up.  Lastly, fans opt for the familiar because they are genre loyal and often have rigid tastes. In music, this paradox can be readily observed every day.  Most passive fans are not interested in the new music, unless it is propped up by commercial radio stations or the clubs they frequent.  For those of previous generations, especially since most of the new songs out there are not targeted at them anyways, they do not want to hear new music nor do they care about it at all.  In effect, older fans would rather just listen to the songs that came out when they were younger. 

“Think about what ‘knowing what you want’ means,” Schwartz challenges.  “It means that you are not so open to cultural diversity or serendipity. Instead, you put blinders on, and walk straight ahead until you find what you’re looking for.”  Indeed, with the explosion of music choice, the splintering of genres into niches and the fracturing of the album format, making a truly informed selection from this plethora of music becomes difficult if not entirely impossible.  They might be able to find out about some of the artists, but not all of them.  In the place of a considered decision, Schwartz says that fans end up falling back on “a variety of labor-saving heuristics which ‘solve’ the choice problem by making them much more passive decision makers.”  His fear is that when a fan is overloaded, they will just stay with the same old music and decide that venturing into the cornucopia of music online is not worth their time.  Since, at least in their minds, they have already done the best they can do.


II. The Filter Problem

Next, Schwartz argues that when fans are overloaded, they rely on “filters rather than on themselves.”  Like many fans, I listen to music on Pandora, and while their suggestions as to what I might enjoy listening to are not always perfect, I do value them.  In effect, I am using Pandora to be my filter—my “professional DJ.”  Pandora will suggest music that is similar to songs I have already heard; its aim is the opposite of diversity.  In essence, what Pandora promotes is micro-specialization; it delves deeper and deeper into Miniature Tigers, Anthem of Silence, and Joe Pug—music I already enjoy—in hopes that it will find a more obscure song that is equally satisfying.  But, unless I feed Pandora a new station, it will never attempt to broaden my taste with a suggestion to listen to a pop or hip-hop song. 

“The twin phenomenon of buying only the culture that you want, or relying on filters to tell you what you should want,” Schwartz believes, “is becoming pervasive…”  This is a response, he further argues, “to overwhelming choice in the world of culture.”  Despite the prognostication of the death of radio by media futurists, this paradox, along with fans opting for the familiar, may explain why radio remains relatively popular.

Yet, the emergence of many sites and services as answers to this plethora of music online tells us something very important.   “Our cultural experiences will only be as diverse as the filters we use to help us select them.  With all that is available to us, unmediated browsing is impossible,” Schwartz forewarns.  “We are more reliant on filters now than we ever were before.”  To which he adds, “But unless people are deliberate about the filters they use, their own cultural experiences will be anything but diverse.”  What is more, based upon what we’ve learned so far about how paralyzing unlimited choice can be, Schwartz’s suspicion is that, “in the realm of culture, the more options there are, the more driven most people will be to settle on the most choice-simplifying filters they can find.”  This is not a good thing.  Remember now, that it was Chris Anderson who made the argument that if this multitude of choice could be organized in the way that was more meaningful, fans would not find it to be oppressive, it would be less overwhelming.   However, what he did not seem to anticipate is that this ‘rearrangement’ of choice could have the effect of making fans even more passive consumers of culture.


III.  Passivity, Not Activity

Third and worse still, a consequence of a culture abundant with music is that it causes fans to become “more passive in their participation in cultural life.” Initially, the plethora of music online has the potential to turn fans into relatively passive decision makers.  In effect, what Schwartz argues is that when choice gets overwhelming for fans, it can turn them from “choosers” to “pickers.”  The distinction between these terms, he writes, “is meant to capture differences in how active and engaged [fans] are as they make their decisions.”  Choosers are the fans who make active choices that revolve around their musical experiences.   They critically evaluate the music they listen to and are willing to take the initiative and attempt to uncover the songs that they will truly like.  Their degree of engagement bears fruit, but it is demanding.  On occasion, they may even come to the conclusion that none of the songs they have discovered will satisfy them, and they will continue searching.  Pickers, on the contrary, are much more passive fans.  Likely, they do not want to take the time or make the effort to seek out their music.  Nor will they ever decide that none of the music they are presented with will do.  “Picking” is what happens when a fan logs onto Amazon and scrolls through the section of “people who bought this album also bought.”   Here, fans are not interrogating their options.  They are merely selecting their favorite albums from the musical conveyer belt that Amazon provides.  Recall again, from Anderson’s argument that too much choice is only “oppressive” when it’s ordered wrong, like in a record store, but “order right” he says, and “it’s liberating.”  Perhaps, the reason fans find this to be so “liberating” is because they are no longer active in the decision-making process, only more passive.

Think about Genius playlists on iTunes, where according to Apple, “perfect mixes come automatically.”  The paradoxical effect of a feature like this is that it does take “pickers”—those who relied upon radio to expose them to music—and make them more engaged and less passive.  On the other hand, it also has the same potential to take “choosers”—those who relied on themselves and sought out music—and make them less engaged and less active.  “My fear is that overwhelming options turn all of us into pickers, at least much of the time,” Schwartz cautions. “If so, it is having an effect that is the opposite of engagement with the life of our society. The paradox is that the more diverse and vibrant cultural offerings become, the more passive and stereotyped the selectors of those offerings become.”

What is even more disconcerting “than the possibility that overwhelming choice turns [fans] into relatively passive decision makers is the additional possibility that this passivity will carry over into the way they interact with whatever they have chosen.” In music fandom, what this relates to is the distinction between casual and true fans, and the orientation that they take to the music they listen to.  Casual fans, by definition, are passive consumers of music; they have little interest in having a relationship with the artist and feel no need to champion their songs to friends.  At the extreme end, it could be said that their experience of music begins and ends with consumption.  True fans, conversely, are actively engaged with the music they experience; “they think about it, they feel it, they talk about it, they bond with one another over it, they interpret it, and they are changed by it.” Adding onto this point, Schwartz reasons, “To the extent that culture has positive effects on a society, it is surely only when people bring a [true fan] orientation to it.”  To be sure though, as Jeremy Schlosberg of Fingertips Music has argued in the past, “popular music depends upon the existence of casual fans [too],” their value is underestimated.  After all, the existence of casual fans is what makes true fans possible.  They are what make the songs of the day a part of our collective identity.  Even if in the end casual fans don’t speak in the language of the tribe and become actively engaged with it, they still facilitate the capacity for a tribe to continue to grow and gain new members.  

When combined, these paradoxical effects of choice overload in culture provide insight into why it is that, by and large, most fans in the digital age are still characterized by their passive consumption of music especially at a time when many artists are trying to provide them with endless opportunities to become actively engaged in their careers.  If the future of the record and music industries depends on increased prevalence of actively engaged fans—as many thought leaders have argued—then it’s worth asking:  Is there such a thing as a “paradise of music?”


V. Paradox or Paradise?

In a research paper published in 2003, Professor Alexander Chernev found that “large choice sets are preferred to small ones when people know what they like and thus know what they are looking for.” This effect, as he called it, is “Preference articulation.”  When a fan enters a record store, if they already know what music they like, or what album they are going to buy, then they just keep searching until they find it, and the more selection that the store has, the more likely it is that one of those albums will match their taste.  “Moreover,” Schwartz writes, “a larger choice set increases the chances that what [they] are looking for actually exists.  And finally, technology has enabled [them] to search through large sets about as rapidly as [they] search through small ones.”  In this case then, it could be argued that for the fans who know specifically what music they like, the web has created a “paradise of music.”  Yet, much of the reason why these paradoxes of choice overload in culture exist is because “the ultimate nature of human taste is irrational and depends on factors impossible to capture with computer systems.” Furthermore, if my thinking is accurate—that the bias of the Internet-era music consumption system is towards personalization, specialization, and relevance, while enabling a much more rapid evolution of taste—then this has the effect of only blurring the preferences of fans further, making them even less sure about the differences between music they like and that which they do not.   Thus, in culture, the effects of overwhelming choice has the potential to cause all fans—at some point—to opt for the same old thing, rely on filters, and become more passive participants in their musical life.  This is not good news.  And if the arguments that Schwartz makes about the effects of abundance in the material domain—those outlined in my previous essay—are true of culture as well, he contends that, “people will also get less satisfaction out of the cultural choices they make, and they will increasingly opt out all together.”

Not long ago, I made the inference that perhaps this occurrence of fans opting out of the decision-making process is related to file sharing.  “Decision paralysis,” in the words ofMade to Stick coauthor Dan Heath, “is a finding from psychology that says:  The more options that we’re exposed to, the more likely we are to kind of freeze up and go with the path of least resistance.”  When a fan is faced with a multitude of options—all of which they deem to be as desirable as the rest—immobilization is possible, and rather than trying to differentiate between the options and deciding which is the best bet (i.e. making a purchase) they either opt out or file share the music they desire instead.  To them, file sharing becomes the “path of least of resistance”—a coping mechanism for decision paralysis—where they can experience all of the options at once and forgo the symptoms that we associate with choice overload.  The problem with this—beyond the legality of file sharing—is that once they do have all the options at their disposal, choice overload doesn’t just go away.  The fan still has to make a decision.  After experiencing all of the options, and probably having considered additional ones, they may still opt out entirely and choose not to choose at all. 

As we’re starting to see, the plethora of music online seems like it is much more of a paradox than a paradise.  Not only does it seem to have the potential to increase the frustration and confusion faced by individual fans, but it also causes them to become more passive participants in their musical experiences—not active.  And if the future of the music industry really is moving towards the creation of a “middle class” of musicians, who market their music and other creative works directly to their fans, they are going to need all of the actively engaged fans that they can get. We may never be sure as to whether or not the web has created a paradise or paradox of music for fans. Nor can we be certain that the benefits of seemingly endless music contribute to society, as a whole, are worth the price of the difficulties fans may experience in making cultural choices. This brings me to my final, yet most important question.  Shouldn’t we also be trying to understand the effects that choice overload has on the satisfaction we get out of the music we already have?  Put differently, does having thousands of songs on our iPod lessen the enjoyment that we get out of the song that is currently playing?  On the iPod, is more music, really less? 

Kyle Bylin | June 23, 2010