New Study Examines Why Simple Music Sells
Published Jan 05, 2015It's easy to argue that radio pop music all sounds the same — but according to a new study, that's why we like it.
A new PLOS One study from the Medical University of Vienna has examined the relationship between musical complexity and album sales, revealing that simple, familiar music sells best.
The study looked at the "instrumentational complexity" of more than half a million albums from a sample that ranged from 1955 to 2011, spanned 15 genres and 374 unique styles.
The findings are prefaced by the comparison of Daft Punk's Random Access Memories — which featured 27 other artists and includes a song with a percussionist who used "every drum he owns" and another one that consists of 250 separate sonic elements — and Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience, which was the best-selling album of 2013.
Sure, Daft Punk won the Grammy for Album of the Year and garnered chart success, but the example illustrates the larger conclusion that more complex albums sell less.
Styles like euro house, disco and pop rock that follow familiar musical tropes and lack variety sold more, while music labelled as experimental, alternative rock and hip-hop ranked high in complexity, but saw a decline in sales.
"This can be interpreted," the researchers said [via the Atlantic], "as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation under increasing sales numbers due to a tendency to popularize music styles with low variety and musicians with similar skills."
And while once in a while a radio hit manages to be both complex and extremely popular (like "Get Lucky" from the aforementioned Daft Punk album), the findings showed that "only a small number of styles in popular music manage to sustain a high level of instrumentational complexity over an extended period of time."
Basically, the study confirms that chart success is a self-perpetuating cycle, and the best bet for selling a lot of records is to dumb it down and rip off an already-successful sound.