Slice Of Life @ Paul Simon’s Beacon Theatre Opening

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One of the more impressive cakes I've ever seen. The centerpiece of the backstage celebration party following the re-opening night of the restored Beacon Theatre in NYC, headlined by Paul Simon and a few special guests (including a surprise encore with Art Garfunkel). Despite the presence of a large knife (upper right) for the entire event nobody had the guts to be the first one to take a slice. Wonder what it tasted like. 

Where Pitchfork Meets Keynes

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I was having a discussion with some friends in the media and music business recently, specifically about the much-discussed (read: over-discussed) phenomenon where bands emerge and bubble up from the blogosphere and become overnight sensations in a teapot, taking the hipster world by storm, becoming ubiquitous in all the tastemaker places almost simultaneously. Someone commented that this phenomenon is really particular and endemic to the indie rock world — where there's a massive wave of over-hype and artists are thrust out into the world not even fully formed, subject to a premature "next thing" consensus and an inevitable backlash to come. 

I don't think this is confined to music at all. Political consensus among the chattering classes is probably the most direct and clear example, with so much media, so much airtime to fill on deadline, and so many predictions that "have" to be made in the face of subjectiveness and a major herd mentality. It's also common to quickly moving technology trends (iPhone, Twitter, lots of other gadgets) and even
financial opinions (Jim Cramer and Motley Fool come to mind especially). And probably quite a few other things. Just straight old TMZ style pop culture too.

But confining the discussion specifically within the confines of the music business, what I think is interesting is the degree to which the indie rock world
exemplifies a certain set of attributes. You don't see
the same hyper-"meta" discussions and self referential issues in other
genres so much, at least not in my estimation. In straight bubblegum pop you
might just as easily have the overwhelming hype and meteoric rise, and even
in more esoteric niches like country or jazz or even bluegrass you
definitely have flavors of the month, someone who makes a breakout
performance at a festival or a last minute substitution. 

As a sidenote — I actually think classical is a close second to indie in the
herd-hype department, with that last example of a last minute substitution
and seemingly coming out of nowhere being a great example of how many well
known artists — most notably Leonard Bernstein and Lang Lang, among others
— got their big breaks. And both suffered a torrential backlash several
years into their career as well. 

But anyways, the basic concept is pretty well established. What's
interesting to me is that in indie rock (which I should make sure to define here as the hipster, Pitchfork, blogger world, etc — not in the indie=independent sense) it seems to have come to dominate
the landscape. 

And of course, it conjures up parallels in economics. Specifically the classic quote about the stock market and investing from The General Theory, by John Maynard Keynes: 

"Professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in
which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a
hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice
most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a
whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself
finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of
the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same
point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of
one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average
opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree
where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion
expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who
practise the fourth, fifth and higher degrees."

I've always thought this was a pretty good metaphor as well for the worst
parts of the hype machine that seems to swirl around indie rock, in the way mentioned above. The issue here isn't that you have a scene that's incredibly dynamic and
changing, that artists come out of nowhere and get a ton of hype and then
recede. There are plenty of reasons why you'd see those kinds of things happen. For example, another just-as-plausible hypothesis would
be that it's an artistic scene that is intensely focused on novelty, hence
the quick rise and short shelf life of many such artists. 

But I don't think that's quite it. I think it's the self-referential nature
of the whole thing that is the most fundamental attribute. Everyone is
looking at what everyone else is doing. In economics or ecology you'd
describe it with some concepts from complex adaptive system dynamics, where
you have systems or implied algorithms that are self-referential and loop back on themselves, and have both positive and negative feedback loops working at cross
purposes. Not too far from the idea Keynes intuited in the 1930's in the quote above. 

So the more hype builds around you the more success you have. That's a
positive feedback loop, a network externality. If 10 influential indie blogs
plug you then that might lead to 30 more the next month. But there's a
negative feedback loop. The more success you have the more you arouse the
distaste and backlash of many members of the community.
You have everyone looking at everyone else to see what they think before
they make up their mind. 

People's opinions of an artist's intrinsic merit
are in part based on their perception of who else likes them, what kind of
people like them, how many of those people there are, and how long this has
been going on.
Like in the beauty contest example above, many participants are picking the
prettiest competitor at a beauty contest not based on what they personally
like, but based on their impression of what they think other people's
impression will be. 

So you have two countervailing forces at work — and the result is the
classic boom-bust cycle that has tons of parallels. In ecology the textbook
one is watching deer populations skyrocket, then they eat all the available
food, and then half of them starve and die. Then they do the same thing over and
over again. In economics it's the classic business cycle boom/recession wave
in the stock market and economy as a whole.
It's the natural outcome of a wicked combination of positive and negative
feedback loops, both governing the same variable, in this case success and
prestige and "hype." 

Or to simplify: 1) The more successful you are the more people like you. 2) The
more successful you are the more people hate you. Pour them together, and
you get breakneck change, massive and premature over-hype and massive and
premature backlash. Both often divorced from any underlying actual merit of
the music in question. Just like financial bubbles tend to affect the good
firms as well as the bad, both on the way up and the way down. The truly
great stuff endures, but when you're looking at a week to week timetable
that boom-bust cycle is all you can see.

I think it's food for thought. The interaction of positive and negative feedback loops in self-referencing systems with network effects is well known in complexity theory to be the driver for some very interesting emergent phenomena, not just in simple rules-based systems but in applied social sciences as well. Perhaps there are some parallels to be drawn in marketing, media, and even entertainment and popular culture.