The Numbers Game

Stop Upside Down

There are many ways to grab people’s attention in the short term, but most of them don’t have the ability to sustain attention over long periods of time.

In the 12 days since Elaine Fine posted “The Gradual Fall of Musical Bloggery” (in which she laments a steady monthly decline in the readership of her music blog, from 5,532 in January 2013 to 2,365 in July), there have been quite a few similarly minded missives written by other music bloggers such as Lisa Hirsch and Tim Rutherford-Johnson (whose Rambler blog just hit the decade mark—Happy Birthday!). Even Alex Ross has weighed in.

I must confess that to me it seems to be somewhat of a tempest in a teapot, but then again I’m someone who is perpetually skeptical of the aesthetic worth (comparative to less highly marketed fare) of best-selling novels, Billboard-charting albums, blockbuster movies, and highest Nielsen-rated TV shows. (They actually still measure such things.) If there’s a line around the block for something, chances are that it’s not something I want, whether it be the latest iPhone model or tickets to attend the 2013 Comic-Con. (There was literally a line spreading across three New York City blocks for the latter near my office last week, and the event isn’t even happening until October.)

What grabs people’s attention in the short term tends not to have a lasting impact most of the time, whereas a great many things we now consider to be iconic originally had very little popular impact—Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was mostly unknown during his lifetime, Jimi Hendrix never had a hit single, etc. There’s an oft-cited Brian Eno quote from a 1982 interview in which he points out that although relatively few people bought the Velvet Underground’s debut album in the first five years after it was released, everyone who did started their own band. It’s also extremely reassuring to keep things in perspective.

I am in no way attempting to revive a “who cares if you listen” attitude about new music, writing about new music, or anything else for that matter. But I do think that playing the numbers game can lead down a path that is just as misguided as a path that completely abrogates the significance of audience development.

5 thoughts on “The Numbers Game

  1. Steve Soderberg

    The fact is, thanks to stat counter, site meter, FB friend counts, followers, likes, plays, listens, hits & comments, we’ve become obsessed with judging success by numbers. (I probably shouldn’t label that as a fact, since I don’t have numbers to back it up.) This is especially funny to me when it’s the “arts community,” a mostly amorphous group which is united by taking pride in being math-averse.

    It’s not that I don’t blog myself from time to time – but, judging by the numbers, I’m certainly not in the professional blogger league. The at-your-own-leisure blogging & on-line dabbling most of us do is, by the numbers definition, unsuccessful, because it is *meant* to be read by only a few people. Closer to Beethoven’s conversation books. If we posted something that accidentally went viral, our reaction would be more along the lines of “Schopenhauer’s story of the surprise of one ancient Greek orator who, when he was suddenly interrupted by applause and cheers, cried out: ‘Have I said some nonsense?’” (TOTH to AS) In that spirit, here is a copy of a blog entry I wrote a short time ago:
    _______________
    On May 22nd I deactivated my FB page. It’s been strangely liberating not to start the day by checking in to see what 1200 of my best friends have to say. Rants, news, recipes, stories, poems, petitions, advertisements, cartoons, videos, flames, flatteries, invitations, likes, self promotions, deaths, births, illnesses, politics, economics, complaints. All streaming down my screen as I sit and watch, picking and choosing at random where to focus my attention next.

    How often it seemed like I was living a Chauncey Gardiner non-experience: “I like to watch.” Watching myself watching the same surreal opera over and over. At times I was the only one sitting in the audience watching a packed stage – 1200 voices up there all singing different tunes all at once. Every once in a while someone would come in through a side door, approach me and ask “Can I sing in the opera?” and I would answer “Sure, get on up there.” 1201. At times I would hop up on stage with everyone else and belt out my own songs. Like the final chorus in name-any-Rossini-opera where everyone crowds on stage and sings “Everybody Run in Circles.”

    And all the while, I am not writing my own opera.

    I really needed to get out. There are manuals for getting in, but there’s not even one manual for getting out. (Unfortunately, the only manuscript copy of J.J. Fux’ Gradus ab Parnassu was lost in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 before it could be published.)

    So I’m stuck with this suggestion from Robert Grudin: “Society maintains no verbal apparatus so extensive or complex as that which excuses the lack of achievement.” So. First: Get rid of your excuses. Then maybe – not likely, but life means clinging to possibility – one day you can sing with Bashō

    in the midst of the plain
    sings the skylark
    free of all things

    Reply
    1. Elaine Fine

      Thank you for breaking what felt like a horrible silence on this page (which surprised me when it popped up yesterday). I have opted out of Facebook twice, and now that I have joined again I feel all kinds of mixed emotions about it. I love seeing updates from my kids, and I feel like I have more “interaction” with people in my own small community (albeit selective) with it, but perhaps that’s just an illusion. My husband seems to have a date in mind when I will opt out again. We’ll see.

      Meanwhile I basically blog to amuse myself, and I get a kick out of it when what I have to say amuses (or informs) other people. My original post was just an observation of a trend, which the blogosphere has confirmed.

      Reply
      1. Steve Soderberg

        Thanks, Elaine.
        I do like your blog. If I may quote you…

        “The worlds we now inhabit through our devices have become kind of like bubbles. They emerge, they rise, we chase them, and sometimes we catch them, but once the bubbles pop they are forgotten.”

        Still the experience lingers in its effects.

        (Just now I watched a female cardinal land on our deck railing followed by two of her offspring – now young adults as large as her but still demanding mom feed them. Sometimes nurturing means ignoring. I can’t remember FB ever giving me a metaphor (just a lot of unintended ironies) :-) )

        Reply
  2. Phil Fried

    I’m happy to say that my numbers are steady on youtube and on my lessons pages. I’ve never really paid attention to my blogging page numbers as I think I vent more than blog–those numbers are small but steady when I post. Besides I’m no cheer leader for the status quo.

    As the open range of the net becomes more and more domesticated and commercialized, really just another mainstream media, independent bloggers become the equivalent of “public access television.”

    I agree with you Frank about popularity in general I just upgraded to a blackberry phone – oppsey. Bye Bye flip phone.
    As to Facebook it provides some benefits but also the illusion of togetherness.

    Reply

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