The death of the hit narrative

Bios and reviews of musicians often talk about careers in terms of hits; when a musician is good but not super-popular, the narrative is about whether this new record might be the one where the artist makes it big. But this story is starting to seem quaint.

Recorded music evolved in an economic context of mass marketing and mass distribution. To make money in this model, where there are high upfront costs and venture risk, you need to sell a ton of stuff. Mass media and mass distribution enable you to sell a lot of stuff. Thus, the evolution of music as a “hit-making” business. This story isn’t just inside baseball; some genius realized that the emergence of hits was a simple, dramatic story for the audience. “Greatest hits” shows told the story of which record was at number 12 on the charts and climbing.

The hit leaderboard takes attention off of the music itself and puts the focus on popularity. Music, within this narrative, lacks context, other than the genre in which it’s being ranked (r&b top 40, country top 40). Just as political coverage using the “horse race” narrative focuses on who’s up, who’s down, who’s stumbled, and ignores substantive coverage of the politicans’ records and campaign content, hit-centric coverage focuses on what’s climbing the charts at the expense of other aspects of the music.

A spot at the top of the charts has become a lot less relevant as tool for becoming aware of popular music, given the tools available for music discovery, surfing your friends’ collections on last.fm, trading earworms on blip, googling influences and band members. Out of factors that make music interesting and appealing, raw popularity seems like one, somewhat interesting factor, among others – what’s that sound? Who are they playing with? Where do they come from? What are their influences? What do they want to do next? Where are they playing live?

Of course, people in the know have always had access to their friends’ collections; the recommendations of the crotchety person at the record store; references in liner notes. And there were always subcultures that engaged with the music, not just the hit leaderboard. To take advantage of these things, you needed a strong social context and a fair amount of diligence. Many more people consumed what was provided on the radio and tv. The methods available to the cogniscenti have been democratized.

And this is changing the underlying story that is told about music. The dominant story was one of high peaks and low valleys. The change in music distribution seems to be enabling a tier of musicians who musicians who can make a living, more or less, playing live, selling indy, and exploring their music. Articles that ponder when an artist might hit the big time, and wondering why they haven’t seem irrelevant, as long as the artist is able to eat and stay out of the rain.

The new story, as it is emerging, is more picaresque – where did you come from, where are you now, where are you going?

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