Friday, February 27, 2009

He Played Real Good for Free

He opened his case and took out his violin. He sat on a stool in the metro station and began to play. It was a cold January morning. The good people of Washington D.C. hurried by on their way to catch a train or make an important appointment. Rush hour.

A few people glanced over at the musician. One middle aged man slowed down, pausing for a few seconds before moving on. A minute later a woman dropped a dollar bill into his open violin case without missing a step. Soon another man stopped to lean against a wall. Then he looked at his watch and walked on, late for work.

Children seemed to be the most interested – especially one three year old boy who was being pulled along by his mother. He stopped to listen. His mother yanked him away without even looking. The boy never once took his eyes off the violinist as his mother pulled him on through the crowded train station. This happened again and again. All the parents, without exception, dragged their children away from the music.

The violinist played for 45 minutes. He collected $32.17 from thirty two people. Everyone who gave him money continued walking – they never even slowed down. Out of the 1,097 people who passed by, only seven people stopped to listen. When the music stopped, no one applauded or even noticed. He packed his violin and left.

It had all been an experiment initiated by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten in January 2007. The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played six of the most challenging and beautiful pieces Bach had ever written for the violin. The violin itself was a 1713 Stradivarius worth 3.5 million dollars. A few nights earlier Bell had performed to a sold-out crowd in Boston where the average ticket price was $100. Bell plays over 200 sold-out shows a year.

Weingarten’s and Bell’s experiment shows us many things. Marketing experts have long claimed that packaging is everything, and research bears them out. When you take two identical products and place them side by side, people invariably prefer (and will pay more for) the product in the fancier package. It’s not that people are stupid – it’s just that we’re particularly vulnerable to illusion. We don’t see the “real” world. We see the world our pre-conceived notions show us. Perception is never an objective event – it is profoundly colored by our emotional conditioning. To our enduring embarrassment, we are easily and willingly played, despite all our proud protests to the contrary.

On a deeper level, another truth is revealed. If we don’t stop to hear a free Bach performance by Joshua Bell on a Stradivarius (because the context is wrong), what else are we missing? How much beauty are we walking right on by?

Musicians often talk about these problems because we’ve all had the same experience over and over again. When we charge $5 for a show, seven people show up, and when we charge $15, a hundred people show up. On the surface none of it makes any sense. Obviously there is a dynamic of perceived value at work here. Economists call it the “price point”, that magic number at which you create the heightened allure, the maximum perception of “hey, this costs a lot so it must be good” without tipping over into “hey, I ain’t paying that much for that”. If you charge $5 for CDs you will not sell twice as many as when you charge $10. In fact, you’ll sell fewer. But $20 is just too high these days when people can download your entire album off iTunes for $9.99.

Nevertheless, any artist struggling to reach a wider audience ought to pay close attention to the Joshua Bell experiment. Ask yourself several important questions. How do I present myself, on and off stage? What kind of rooms do I play? What do my photos look like? What am I doing to create a milieu, an environment in which my art can really be seen and appreciated? As artists we need to gently wean ourselves from the unexamined assumption that quality and beauty will be instantly recognized and rewarded by a discerning public and that we needn’t give any thought to packaging or context. You have to do more than write great songs, play brilliantly and sing with power and grace. You have to mount those jewels in the right setting. It’s one thing to be good. But what are you doing to create the perception of quality? The Bell experiment shows us that even the greatest music in the world gets overlooked in the wrong context.

We all know artists who after years of struggle slip deeper and deeper into contempt for the very audience they purport to seduce. Perhaps all this pain can be avoided by gaining appreciation of the subtle and insidious psychological dynamics at play. Artists must be willing to expand their sphere of creativity to include the entire environment in which they ply their art. You’re not just making music. You’re creating a multi-dimensional reality.

And for those of us in the audience, the Joshua Bell experiment raises some equally challenging questions. Perhaps we need to gently wean ourselves from the unexamined assumption that pretty packaging signifies quality content. Let’s meet artists halfway. Be willing to do the foot work. Maybe the best songs aren’t on the radio or at the giant amphitheater. Grow better ears.

Thirty nine years ago in 1970, Joni Mitchell addressed this issue powerfully in her song “For Free” from Ladies of the Canyon. In it she portrays a successful, wealthy musician (a not so subtle self-portrait) who wistfully laments her own apathy as she passes by a brilliant street musician. “Nobody stopped to hear him, though he played so sweet and high. They knew he had never been on their TV so they passed his music by…he played real good for free.”

It’s the catch 22 of the fame game. No one comes to see you unless you’re famous. And you can’t get famous until people come to see you. New artists are forced, initially anyway, to create the illusion of popularity. But these are the very dynamics of celebrity culture so many of us lament – the ubiquitous and dehumanizing blare of tabloid journalism and the subsequent erosion of kindness and depth. Manufactured “stars” who haven’t (yet anyway) created one damn thing of value clog the airwaves and prevent real quality from breaking through. (I won’t name names – a whole list of celebrities is springing to your mind without my help). Yet it is the very world our collective psyche has created. We have each laid a brick of this edifice with our own hands. Our habitual inattention and unexamined consumerism had a baby – and it’s called pop culture.

On that cold January morning in the Washington D.C. metro, only 32 of the 1,097 people who walked past Joshua Bell put money in his case. Only seven people stopped to listen. Only one person recognized him. And he played real good for free.