February 25

The Localist: The Basic Standard of Quality for Hitmaking

I was looking for a different article but ran into a study done on how music trends develop. A number of years ago, a Princeton professor ran randomized trials on 30,000 teenagers, exposing them to the music of 48 emerging artists, to learn about how musical trends develop. His conclusion from the study is essentially that trends develop randomly, and so perceptions of quality are more or less illusory and determined by what the herd coalesces on. The study, highlighted by NPR, can be found here.

The conclusion about randomness is important, if true, because it goes to show even more the role that money (and professional hired help) plays in determining what music gets seen, and ultimately critically reviewed.  Professor Sagalnik doesnt merely say that the music which gets popularized, is a function of randomness.  When that music becomes popular it affects people’s perception of the music as good as well.

The other conclusion to note, is that Salganik also points to the standard of the Basic Standard of Quality. Essentially, quality doesnt play much of a role except that if music falls below that basic standard, then it has much less of a shot at becoming popular – i.e. due to quality a song can effectively opt itself out of the lottery.

What does this mean for you as a musician?  Well, first it means that if you are looking for broader exposure and acceptance of your music, you should hire professional talent. Because even though it’s a lottery whether your music gets picked up or someone else’s, other people are definitely putting money into getting their music trending on the internet and thus have already gamed the lottery system.  We can talk about the problems with that another time.

But the other thing to note is this concept – the Basic Standard of Quality.  Salganik doesnt discuss what he means by this in great detail in the article, but the standard is reflected in the market for hired professional talent. If your music doesnt sound like it could be picked up by music writers and the public, a publicist isn’t going to pick up the music to begin with. Even if you offer them a lot of money. 

For more on what Salganik calls Basic Standard of Quality, I discuss the concept of “Commercial Standards” here.  In fact these basic or commercial standards can be difficult to achieve especially if you’re recording music on your own, which is why professional help is oftentimes used in the form of a recording studio and/or producer.  If you’re recording on you’re own, though, another pair of ears is definitely helpful.


The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”