Sunday, September 30, 2007

B-sides and album filler: a path to musical taste

The vigilant Robert Gable at aworks pointed to a Tyler Cowen posting with a self-citation:

In the past most people didn't much like or listen to most of the music they bought, or in any case most of the value came from their very favorites. A relatively small percentage of our music purchases accounted for most of our listening pleasure. So if people can sample music in advance, and know in advance what they will like, music sales will plummet. This will be a sign of market efficiency, not market failure.

A neat observation -- in the age of singles and albums, a lot of b-sides and fillers were bought for their a-sides and favorite tracks, and a lot of this music was heard once and never again, if at all. But I think that Cowen is underestimating the benefits of this system. For one, while I think there is something to be said aesthetically for one-sided singles and an artist not being compelled to fill all the space on a disk, a number of consumers probably loathe buying empty space, so the filler created the illusion of purchasing more rather than less contributed to some sales. In all probability there were also cases in which opinions on which track was padding and which was the desired product differed, even canceling each other out, yet the sum of the two smaller pools may have yielded a net boost in sales (i.e. a Lennon and MacCartney joint album might have had a larger audience than a single author album). But more importantly, those -- for the listener -- capricious discoveries on b-sides and in album-filling tracks exposed the consumer to unfamiliar repertoire and were often were more important to the development of listening (and consumption) tastes than the track which drew the consumer to the disk in the first place. But here's my caveat: the capriciousness here (which I think was a really good thing in principle) was constrained by the control of the packaging and marketing people. I'm deeply suspicious of that, just as I'm deeply suspicious of those expert program scripts online that let you know "if you bought this, then you might like this". In fact, having "bought this", I might just not be inclined to buy more of the same.


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