Why Superstars Still Exist

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(The following is the first of a three-part series by guest writer Anthony Accardo.)

There’s been quite a bit of dialogue on whether superstars are really necessary for the industry ― or even good for music.  Or worse, whether superstars and Top 40 hits are blocking great music from seeing the light of day.  But the reality is that superstars exist because the public craves them, despite an unprecedented level of choice.  And there are a number of reasons for that appetite.

My intention is not to discuss whether we should or should not have superstars, but why we have them – from a consumer perspective, a historical perspective, and a current industry perspective.  The first part (this article) focuses on theconsumer aspect.

Let’s start with a current snapshot.  The simple reality is that superstar artists still make the lion’s share of revenues.   These are the multimedia platform artists who act, perform, and occupy tabloids and Rolling Stone covers.  Superstar artists and bands comprise the majority of mainstream music, as heard on your FM radio station, MTV, and Jay Leno.

For those with highly refined musical tastes, it can be hard to understand why people listen to mainstream music.  Inherent in pop music is the idea of degrading creativity or musical integrity to cater to the lowest common denominator.  But the single most important reason why superstars exist is that we buy them.  And that revenue brings continued investment and more superstars – the democracy of capitalism exemplified by our wallet-voting.

But why do superstars dominate music sales if “better quality”music exists?  Why do we still flock to superstars in the age of the internet, when the entire world of music is open to us in ways never before imagined?

Reason #1: Americans need validation for their tastes

Not all of us live in a niche, where we take pleasure in discovering an artist before anyone else knows about them. Mainstream America needs a certain level of consensus to validate their decisions. And what easier validation exists than constant repetition on mainstream radio, appearances on television shows, and saturation into movies, music videos, clothing lines and even headphones?  The more space that a superstar artist occupies on mainstream channels and in the mainstream media, the more comfortable mainstream America becomes with those artists.

Reason #2 – Americans want common reference points

It boils down to utility: songs that everyone has heard a bunch of times are useful. Put yourself in the position of a DJ at a club.  Are you going to play a set of songs chock full of underground or developing artists?  Which do you think would get a better reaction – a superstar artist that everyone knows, or your iPod playlist of Long Tail tracks? The fact that these superstar artists and their Top 40 hits get used more often in movies, TV shows and in clubs further reinforces their hegemony among the mainstream, embedding them more deeply in our culture.

Reason #3 – Superstars can better monetize music’s emotional component

Our bond with music is no accident.  Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin recently found that music resonates within the brain far more strongly than other forms of entertainment.  In fact, fMRIs showed a deeper activation of “structures deep in the primitive, reptilian regions of the cerebellar vermis, and the amygdale – the heart of emotional processing.”

What this means is that music is more effective at opening up our emotional brain, and once that door is opened, a deep connection with an artist is made possible.  But even though this is true for the entire spectrum of artists, superstars get the upper hand.  The reason is that the structure of mainstream media and its ubiquity across channels makes exposure to a Superstar much more likely than exposure to a niche or indie artist, increasing the overall incidence of emotional connections. And we know, thanks to the hallowed institutions of Madison Avenue, that emotional connection, paired with repetition, sells.

Reason #4 – Listener barriers to entry are low

Pop music – short of course for “popular” music – doesn’t denote a specific genre of music.  That’s because it takes the most accessible parts from different genres and blends them together into an easy, accessible, and, wait for it… popular, form of music.  That’s not to say that superstars can’t be fantastic musicians, or excellent at their craft, but the music they produce needs to be accessible, have a great beat and a sing-along chorus that millions of people can nod their head to.

And, this is usually at odds with the kind of music that challenges the listener and explores new boundaries and musical styles.  As evidenced by the history of recorded music sales, we much prefer an auto-tuned Rihanna chorus, in 4/4 time with a predictable hook, than a complex and hauntingly beautiful Bjork song.  The Rihanna song is just easier.  It’s easier to sing along to, it’s easier to find on the radio and the television, and it’s easier – from the record label’s standpoint – to invest in.

Conclusion

Superstars persevere because they are using the most emotionally powerful medium – music, the most powerful social forces – ubiquity and cultural validation, and an extremely powerful mental tool – repetition.  And while pop music may be manufactured, it has to be really good – that is, at connecting to the American Mainstream.  The market is brutal and based on merit, and the failure rate for pop music is too high for this to be up to the machinations of a few A&R executives.   The customers decide who is best at doing what superstars do.

There are those who say that the structure of traditional media is solely responsible for the music we listen to, and that the new age of the internet will democratize content and bring a new age of niche music.  To them I dedicate this article, because there is compelling evidence that the causes of Superstar success lie more in human nature than the decisions of major label A&R offices.