Why The Secret Science of Pop was a flawed experiment

Earlier this week, BBC4 broadcast a documentary called The Secret Science of Pop.  The programme was presented by the evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi who was working with a group of data scientists to examine what makes the perfect pop song.  This programme is still available on the BBC iplayer.

As a marketing strategist, I saw their ‘experiment’ as flawed, here’s why.

The programme examined the songs in the British singles chart over the last forty years.  Particular attention was paid to the last five years.  Data about the songs was collated in respect of 14 factors e.g. tempo.  The scientific team also examined the rate of change in the musical content of the music and what elements were included in the typical pop song.  They took these results and asked the music producer Trevor Horn to include them in a song written by an unsigned artist.

The data scientist found:

  • That in relation to their fourteen factors, the music of the most successful artists today was ‘average’;  that the songs content should be in accordance with the statistical mean.
  • That over the last forty years there had been periods of rapid evolution in musical style and content; and other periods where the music rarely evolved.  One period of rapid revolution was the early 1960’s when bands like The Who, The Rolling Stones and the Kinks produced music with aggressive drive.  Another was the late 1970s; not because of punk but because of disco.  A third was the early 90s when electronic dance music dominated the market and rapidly evolved into a host of different genres.
  • That some major artists were very ‘average’.  For example, the Beatles made pop for teenage girls in the early 60s and missed out on the evolutionary trait of aggression.  Of course ‘average’ didn’t mean the Beatles didn’t produce a quality musical product just that in terms of the 14 criteria, it was at the mean point.
  • In examining the music of the last five years, certain traits were evident.  Songs mixed elements of past genres, so a successful single would have a dance music tempo but may mix in 1950s orchestration.  Songs had increasing levels of base and an element of rap was common.

despite his best instincts, Trevor Horn applied these principles to the provided song and produced a high quality dance track.  When this was analysed using the fourteen chosen criteria, it was shown that their song was an outlier, moving further and further from the mean as elements were added.  In fact, the scientific team completely failed in their stated aim!

I saw this experiment as flawed for other reasons.

  • The data was dominated by quantitative data, not qualitative.  It was the data broken down into numbers.  Such analysis, although important failed to pick up of the qualitative data used by marketers.
  • The project was wholly based on the product element of the marketing mix.  It ignored other elements such as promotion, people and physical evidence.
  • The data set was incomplete, it only related to singles, not other forms of popular music ‘delivery’.  For example, many major artists such as Pink Floyd rarely entered the singles market. Led Zeppelin, famously, refused to issue singles.  If you wanted Zeppelin’s music, you had to buy the long player album.
  • There was no information provided as to how the collected data was weighted.  For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, to get a hit record you often had to sell huge quantities of singles.  You may have had to sell millions to get a number one hit.  These numbers have dropped dramatically in recent year with some songs in the upper reaches of the singles chart only selling tens of thousands of records.

The programme did not examine the massive level of change as to how the music industry works that has been driven by digital technology and wider changes in culture.  There was no market analysis fed into the scientific data.  In the 1960s the choice of singles was limited.  Record company executives would choose which songs to release as singles.  Today consumers can choose to download or stream any song by an artist.  In the 1960s, you could only hear music on radio or television.  Programmes such as Juke Box Jury and Top of the Pops drove single sales, as did the Radio One playlist.  Today music is marketed through streaming services, genre specific digital radio stations, music television and internet channels such as YouTube.  Artists such as Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift drive their popularity through their YouTube channels. Bieber’s success is almost exclusively driven through vlogs and video streaming, a resource not available to pop stars in the 1960s.

Artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift don’t just sell music.  They sell a product where the music is only one element of their success.  They sell fashion, lifestyle and a cultural community.  Their music is only one aspect of what makes them successful pop stars.  To older cynics like myself, it appears that musical content is a reducing factor in what makes these individuals successful.  Are the young consumers buying Taylor Swifts music because of the pop hook, or because it is an expectation of their group norm, mixed with these other cultural expectations.  It is clear that today’s pop stars are selling more than music, they are selling solutions to cultural and community expectations.

It is also clear that we are living in a time where evolution in pop music is slow, like the 1980s.  Artists like David Bowie or Prince could never be described as average.  They often chopped and changed between musical genres. For example Bowie started as a glam rock star, became a soul singer, embraced German minimalism and electronica, and before his death included elements of jazz in his music.  Similarly Prince produced music which moved between rock, pop, soul and funk.  These sadly departed artists are now seen as icons of popular music.

I think the lesson from the documentary is clear.  Whatever your industry, your product is a critical element and quantitative data is important; but you need to do more.  You need to analyse your market and the wider environment in which it sits.  You need to examine the wider marketing mix.  To create a star product, you need to think beyond product.