The Paradox of Music: Why More Is Less
I. New Choices
Often times, in discussions about how our culture has become abundant with music and the potential that it has to cause choice overload in the minds of fans, it does not take long for someone to recall the amazing lecture that psychologist Barry Schwartz gave at TED back in 2005, where he explores the central thesis to his book The Paradox of Choice. Let us use his talk as a starting point for this conversation and try to figure out if the effects of the culture of abundance that he outlines in it also relate with the perils that we suspect fans experience in the digital age. In doing so, we will get a better idea if fans may fare worse and be robbed of satisfaction in a culture abundant with music.
In Schwartz’s opening statements, he presents what he calls the “official dogma” of all western industrial societies, which, in his mind, goes something like this: “if we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom,” and the way to maximize it, he argues, is to "maximize choice." He sums up his thinking on this issue, by saying that: “The more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.” No one would argue against the idea that in order to have a sustainable, healthy, and lively music culture—there needs to be diversity. This idea states that the more music options people have to expand their taste with, the more cultured they turn out to be. As a result, it could be said that society, as a whole, is better off; its citizens—having experienced this multitude of perspectives, life experiences, and views of the world—are marked by the refinement in their taste and knowledge.
Indeed, throughout the last decade, fans have experienced the splintering of genres into niches and an explosion in music choices. As our current logic would tell us, this is a good thing. Rather than being limited to the top-down, corporate created music that the record industry provided, fans could wade through the plethora of music that had risen through the bottom-up participatory culture of the Internet. So, too, during this time, the media landscape fractured into pieces and fans witnessed the rise of the personalized music experience. Now, each fan could find a media outlet that more perfectly matched their taste. Hell, if they wanted to, they could even create their own stations on sites like Pandora and Last.fm that were specialized to their taste—no matter how arcane. Also, fans could download whatever music suited their interest—for free—and edit out every moment of their musical experiences that did not suit their needs.
Thus, much like the proliferation of choices in the supermarket, careers, and consumer electronics that Schwartz goes onto describe, fans have experienced a similar revolution. Both in terms of what fans consume and how they consume it, the amount of choice that each of fan encounters has greatly increased in a short number of years. The paradox of music choices though, is that while the number of options that a fan faces in the physical world has contracted, due to shrinking of shelving space devoted to music in retail outlets, online, the amount of music that they can experience has exploded. What’s paradoxical about this situation is that judging by decreasing diversity of commerical radio stations and the drastically reduced selection in music departments; a coming of age fan might be left with the overwhelming sensation that there is less music available today. When in fact, there is actually more music being made available now than at any other point in the entire history of popular music.
II. The Tyranny of Choice
No doubt, many of you are old enough to remember what it was like to purchase music before the Internet, the epidemic of file-sharing, and the fracturing of the album format. Likely, some of you even spent a few the early years of your career working in a record store. The selection was vast, but not so much that it was overpowering, and if a fan did need some assistance in navigating these choices, there was probably a clerk like you to offer them a bit of sage advice about what music they might like. Whether or not they listened to you, of course, is another story entirely. Even so, since we all seem to know what’s good about a record store full of music; let’s talk about what is bad about it.
At this point in Schwartz’s lecture, he makes the argument that in this culture of abundance, “All of this choice has two effects, two negative effects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.” In effect, the more albums that a fan is attempts to choose from, the more likely they are to either kind of freeze up and go with the path of the least resistance, like the lastest pop album, or to simply leave with no albums at all.
“The second effect,” Schwartz says, “is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from.” Why is that?
Well, there are several reasons to make note of: First, when a fan goes into a record store that has thousands of albums to choose from, if they buy one, and it’s not what they thought it would be—after all, what new album is? Schwartz explains, “It's easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision.” In this line of thinking he further contends, “The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.” Fans are candidates for regret when they buy an album and it turns out to be either not what they expected, or not as good as they expected. Also, they are primed for regret when they purchase an album and, soon after, realize that they could have selected a different album that sounded better.
Next on the list is what economists call “opportunity costs.” These are, in respect to music, when there are lots of alternative albums to consider in a fan’s purchase—given that they are a somebody with limited funds, and have to be satisfied with this album; it’s easy for them “to imagine the attractive features of alternatives that [they] reject, that make [them] less satisfied with the alternative that [they’ve] chosen.” Even if the album that the fan chooses happens to be one of the best that they have heard, it is exceedingly likely that many of the passed up albums also contained several fantastic, brilliant songs on them too; ones that they had to go without. The more that a fan considers these other songs, the more their satisfaction with the final purchase is diminished.
Third is the escalation of expectations. “With so many options to choose from,” Schwartz writes, “it is hard to resist the expectation that what one finally chooses will be perfect, or at least, extraordinary.” When a fan is shopping for a new record and all these albums are bouncing around in their head, yet they can only buy one; it is entirely possible that their expectations for how good that album should be, go up. By the time the fan does put the CD in their player, experience of it and the amount of satisfaction they derive is lessoned. In a sense, the CD they bought is disappointing in comparison to what they expected. Perhaps what happens when a fan encounters this surplus of music is that all of these added options increase the expectations that they have about how great these artists and their albums should be. “And what that's going to produce,” Schwartz further clarifies, “is less satisfaction with results, even when they're good results.” Put differently, it’s possible that the good album was really a great album.
Furthermore, for previous generations, one consequence of buying a bad album when there were not that many available is that when a fan was dissatisfied, and they asked why and who was responsible, the answer was clear. The record industry was responsible; they put out a bad album and made a misjudgment about its quality. Since both the fan and their friends listened to the same music, it was a more of a reflection of the quality of music available at the time and not of the quality of their taste. When there are thousands of albums to choose from in the record store, there is no excuse for failure. “And so when people make decisions, and even though the results of the decisions are good,” Schwartz explains, “they feel disappointed about them, they blame themselves.” The industry did nothing to the fan, they did it to themselves.
III. Why Culture Might Be Different
The corollary to the effects of choice overload in the domain of music, and perhaps cultural objects in general, is that, unless the limitations of a fan’s disposable income do in fact force them to be selective when they purchase music, buying one album doesn’t necessary mean not buying the other. Although they may still experience a degree of anticipated regret or buyer’s remorse, it is likely that it would not be too severe. Granted, that does not mean that satisfaction that they get out of the album they did buy—even if it was a great album—will not still be lessened as a result. Whether the fan is conscious of it or not, the experience they have of that collection of songs will be dampened more than it would have, had it been the only option they considered—resulting in a decrease in their overall satisfaction.
Then again, it could be argued that most fans do not truly experience the entire selection of the record store anyway. By the time they can afford to purchase music their taste has already been refined. Plus, while a fan may notice an unusual artist name or some remarkable cover art, they may not know who the artist is or if their style exists outside of their preferences, so these additional options would go mostly unnoticed. Since radio and MTV played such a vital role in promoting music in the pre-Internet era, and a great number of the titles carried by the store reflect their playlists, most fans had enough familiarity with a small cache of artists already. Again, this had the effect of dramatically reducing the amount of choice that each fan experienced. Thus, while a fan may have felt many of the symptoms that we associate with choice overload, it is hard for us to know how great of an impact it had on their music experience and to what extent the amount of their satisfaction with it may have been reduced.
However, anyone who has read Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail would remember that he does not necessarily agree with the arguments made by Barry Schwartz. In the chapter titled The Paradise of Choice, he writes, “The paradox of choice is simply an artifact of the limitations of the physical world, where the information necessary to make an informed choice is lost.” From his point of view, “The paradox of choice turned out to be more about the poverty of help in making that choice than a rejection of plenty. Order it wrong and choice is oppressive; order it right and it’s liberating.” In other words, sure, in the record store, when faced with a large array of albums, fans may feel discouraged, but in an environment like Amazon, the selection process is easier. Fans have more information to take into account before making a decision and various ways to segment the current array of options into categories that are more meaningful. Also, if they get stuck and need a little extra help, the recommendation engine is there to further simplify the number of albums they have to choose from; it presents them with the albums that “people who bought this album also bought.” Therefore, due to the way Amazon eases the selection process, it’s likely that the amount post-sale regret that a fan experiences will be minimal. “After all,” Anderson reasons, “if everyone else picked a given product, it can’t be that bad.” Still, as it is with anything else, we will see if there is more to it than that.
In research paper published shortly after The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz points out that almost all the research that has been done on ‘choice overload’ has involved some kind or other of goods and services. “Though,” he says, “I don’t for a minute believe that choice overload is restricted to the material domain… it is important to ask whether there is something about the world of culture that makes it different.” To which he then asserts, “I think there are reasons to regard culture as a special domain, and I also think that the profusion of cultural options has positive externalities that make it good for society even if, at the same time, it adds to the frustration and confusion faced by individuals.” The thing is, he writes, “Yes, we all have limits of time and financial resources, but cultural objects and events are not substitutes for one another to the same degree that ordinary material objects are. Perhaps because culture is an ‘experience good,’ participating in cultural events may whet the appetite for more participation. ‘Doing’ culture may stimulate demand for more culture. This may be enough, in and of itself, to make choice in the domain of culture an unalloyed blessing.” To conclude: no. In the physical world, more music is not less—that even if the abundance of choice available to fans decreases the amount of satisfaction they derive from their music purchases; the social ecology of our music culture, collectively, will be better off. The benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Yet, these two viewpoints still leave a question left unanswered: Has the Internet actually created a paradise of music choice? Or, does it too have paradoxes?