The Meaning of Misleading Music Research
by Alex Cosper (5/8/15)

Music is easily one of the most difficult topics for scientists to study due to the enormous amount of emotional bias involved. Someone who loves a certain genre of music, for example, is bound to try to influence other people's musical tastes, no matter how scientific the parameters are laid out. A classic example is Thomas Edison, who is credited as the inventor of the phonograph and founder of the first recording label. As a scientist he wanted to bring music to every living room. But as a marketer he only wanted to market his kind of music, which was closer to opera than jazz or blues.

A Distorted Perception of Music

It's actually very easy to get a distorted view of musicial popularity or relevance if you believe everything you read. One of the worst articles ever written on music, which quoted one of the most obviously bogus studies ever done on music, appeared in the May 5, 2015 issue of NME under the headline The Beatles and Rolling Stones didn't revolutionize music, but hip-hop did, study claims. The article, which failed to disclose details on how the supposed study was conducted, was stretched with information about an upcoming Paul McCartney show, as if it were a PR piece to promote the ex-Beatle in a way that backed up his recent comment that Kanye West is a "genius" like John Lennon.

Social media and bloggers quickly ridiculed and tore the study apart, which was easy to do since all the claims pointed toward opinion rather than fact or real observation. A real study would not have drawn silly conclusions such as "hip hop saved the charts in 1991" or British Invasion music wasn't revolutionary because it reflected musical trends established in the 1940s and 1950s. A big problem with the latter claim is that much of the 1960s technology used to make recordings was not yet available in the 1950s yet, as part of the Beatles' revolutionary sound relied on creative use of new ideas in the recording studios.

The notion that music revolutions can be accurately measured just by studying the pop charts from 1960 to 2010 is a pretty weak methodology to begin with, since part of the Beatles' revolution was selling millions of albums of Sgt. Pepper, in which no singles were released for the pop charts.

Too Much Distortion

The "study" was done by Queen Mary University of London, which is usually regarded as a medical school, funded by the UK govenment. Since when have medical schools been experts at studying music? That's as credible as a medical study conducted by musicians. Unfortunately, so much of the establishment and public are fooled into thinking the "pop charts" are the only measure of musical popularity, they forget that less than 1 percent of the population in the new century buys current pop music, yet exponentially more people consume different genres of music on a daily basis.

Even though the NME article will likely be written off by educated music critics, especially Beatles or Rolling Stones fans, it's still possible that a certain percentage of readers were peruaded to take seriously the researcher's incredibly flippant claim that the study didn't find any evidence to back up the consumer mantra that "music is getting worse." The study's conclusion that "hip hop saved the charts" in 1991 seems like an armchair comment that can't be backed by any real research since the biggest selling music that year was by artists such as Mariah Carey, Garth Brooks, Metallica and Nirvana.

The internet is flooded with fake studies, often fabricated by Public Relations firms that are hired to invent publicity for someone or something in the form of fake news stories. Even the most respected sources on music research can be tampered with by manipulators who try to create false perceptions of trends and popularity. Evidence of this ongoing problem is reflected by the following:

- fake Twitter accounts used to rig social media stats
- fake YouTube views as a result of software that generates artificial clicks
- shipped units that never sold well but were certified as "gold" or "platinum"
- airplay that doesn't equate to album sales
- fake PR studies hired by clients to promote certain perceptions

Better Music Research Needed

There actually plenty of people who do seek accurate reports on music because they either happen to be a music professional or a student of music who is writing a research paper on pop culture. That's why better music studies are needed, to at least serve the people who want to understand music's impact on society.

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