Monday, July 13, 2015

Signaling Theory: Judging Bands on Visual Aesthetics

Why does a band's image matter? Well, why does a peacock have enormous feathers?

The answer to both questions can be found in signaling theory. Signaling theory is an idea often used in economics and biology, but we can borrow it for a bit to take a deeper peek into music. Basically, the idea is that we live in a world with imperfect (or asymmetrical) information and misinformation. Which stocks should I buy? Who should I pursue romantically? Which one of these animals should I try to eat? What bands should I listen to? Each of these decisions are based on signals you receive, which may or may not be true, but always influence decision-making.

A key part of signalling theory is how much the signal costs the sender. Cost means any cost, not just money. Some examples: the healthier a person is, the more attractive they seem; a really conspicuous looking peacock is probably really good at avoiding predators; and an unopened bottle of water with recognizable logo is safer to pick up off the ground and drink than one that has "Dave's Water" crudely scribbled on the side. All of these signals cost the sender something, either biologically or economically, and each communicates information.

Everyone has different musical tastes, but these principles still hold true. Bands signal potential listeners (economically, sellers and buyers.) Individuals recognize non-musical signals that communicate information about music. Every aspect of an artist or band's aesthetics, from the name, to album art, and down to the style of the logo tells you something. All of these things cost the band the time of designing them or paying someone else to. To make things simple, assume economical rational behavior:  bands want to maximize their sales and buyers want to listen to the best music possible.

"But I only care about the music, man." 

Don't care about image?
Great. Now drink this.
Music is one of the most subjective experiences out there, but music listeners still make choices that can be explained through signaling theory. Many people will think that an economic or biological look at aesthetics is ripping the artistry out of it -  it isn't. Even for those who want to care only about the music, there is still the question of what music to listen to. No one (not even Autothrall) can hear everything. The types that like to appear open minded will claim image doesn't matter, but get all cagey when asked about how they find new music.

All aesthetics matter though. How do we know that Kidz Bop - 23 isn't the best metal album ever, what about 24? If only the music matters then how come no one in the metal has even bothered to address these two specific and highly advertised albums? The answer is that the words "Kidz" and "Bop" are telling us something about the music style without us even having to listen to it. In the same way that you probably don't know what a poison dart frog tastes like but know not to eat it, you know you won't listen to these two albums. Aesthetics matter to everyone on one level or another, even if some people won't admit it.

Signaling Music Style

Walk into a record shop and what do you see people doing? They are flipping through material left and right to see what is there. They filter through the materials and visual cues tell them what might be interesting. There are also contextual clues like word-of-mouth or music showing up on some cool website. But even then, the information about a band had to initially come from somewhere. You can argue that in the digital age, people can sample everything, but no one actually samples everything. There is too much out there, and the first things we usually learn about music is are context, the title, artwork, or musician name. These all indicate what kind of music you may end up hearing.

So back to the theoretical record shop. If someone walked in, put a gun to your head and said "put all of the metal music in this burlap sack" are you going to reply "sorry man, I haven't heard every album in here and can't just a band just by their image?" No, you are going to do your best and make the best guesses you can based on your experience. While no one is holding a gun to your head to find metal, the setup is similar (but less dramatic). You want to find new good music and won't do a perfect job at that. As part of that process, aesthetic signals can point you towards metal or a sub-style of metal. It's almost a waste of time so say it, because inevitably someone will misunderstand the nuance, but imperfect signals are all part of the theory.

Below are four relatively obscure bands and the only information I'm providing about them is album art with a logo, the band name, and the title of the work.

Guess the genre:

Top Row: Mortido - I: Kvlt ov Hate; Rampage - Demo MMIX
Bottom Row: Anexxe Unsung Hero?; Fluid Mind - Demo 1
The contextual cue here is that this is metal oriented website, so I'm probably not getting into the finer points of polka music. You can guess that they are metal bands but, if I make it a matching game you can do better than that. Which is the progressive heavy metal band? Black metal? Traditional heavy metal? The thrash band? If you hate black metal are you going to check out all of these bands?

Signals About Quality

Let's take this out of theory for a moment and see how things work in the real world. Record labels probably have the most at stake when listening to and finding new music. This isn't just the money that can be made by finding the next great upcoming band, but the cost of listening to a boatload of music submissions. As a metal fan, you also have costs associated with music: a limited amount of time to listen to it, and limited money to purchase it.

Have you ever read what record labels look for in submissions? Rules often include:  competent logo, no CD-Rs, a band biography, band photo, and press-kits. These rules exist in part because these are high-cost signals. When a band has professional aesthetics it tells the record labels that the band put in a lot of time or money into the project. This doesn't necessarily make the music good, but the cost of the signal shows devotion and seriousness. The hope is that bands that show more devotion and seriousness will be better bands. Even though what's "good" is subjective, it's not a huge logical leap.

Image matters so much, that three major metal records labels all suggest including band photos with demo submissions:

Let's get even more concrete. Here are some examples how of aesthetic signals influenced Orion, who runs the Contaminated Tones Label, in some reviews:

Antistasis - Ritual of Ancients Demo Review
"As I am apt to criticize, CDr demos are usually poor representations of a band and, for just a little more money and effort, can be improved significantly. At least Antistasis made an attempt here to give some sort of artwork with the release - a sticker stuck on the case acts as a front cover and another decal on the disc offers some artwork there. It's a small effort but at least shows a band trying in some sort. A lack of any information on the song titles or band members or general additional information hurts though."
Metal Law - Lawbreaker
"The album cover is basically all you need to see to know precisely what the album is going to sound like."

Dishonest Signals

Have you ever seen one of those flies with the yellow and black stripes on them? From an evolutionary standpoint, other animals are supposed to think they are bees because they look like bees. If they live around you, you'll notice that they also act like bees. The problem is though, they're fakes. In biology this is called Batesian mimicry, some weak animal pretending to be a dangerous one.
On the left we have a very venomous Coral Snake, On the right, a harmless Milk Snake

Red touch yellow, you're a dead fellow. Red touch black, pat it on the back. (Don't actually pet it. It can still bite and most wild animals don't take kindly to unsolicited affection.)

Does music have Batesian mimicry? This is basically what people believe posers to be, taking metal's imagery and aesthetics but not having any of the venom to back it up. Because strengths and weaknesses are largely subjective and based on experiences, people will often get the gut feeling that some band is pretending to be something it isn't.

Personally, I like to assume people usually have genuine motives. Rather than metal fans being elitists or plagued by frauds, I view these sentiments as the direct result of asymmetrical information and imperfect signaling rather than getting into morality. Still, if you are an eagle with a taste for snake meat, you probably don't like the Milk Snake making things harder for you.

1 comment:

Joseph Cousineau said...

The only comment I really have is in regards to labels requiring a band image of sorts:

If you're a label, I'd imagine receiving a lot of demos and such. Which to choose from? After a decade of doing this I'd probably start choosing based on bands that were ambitious and put in the extra effort. Not necessarily because 'image matters.'

Else wise, I'm inclined to agree (somewhat begrudgingly because I catch myself doing this) with the article in it's entirety. Thanks for the read.

With respect,