Hit Parade

C’è qualcosa di impudico nel tentativo di osservare la fruizione di un prodotto estetico, si entra un po’ troppo nell’intimo delle persone. Un approccio alternativo considera solo i fattori più esteriori. E’ l’approccio prediletto da Gabriel Rossman nel suo Climbing the Charts: What Radio Airplay Tells Us about the Diffusion of Innovation. L’oggetto dell’indagine è la musica commerciale.

Nella musica commerciale la diffusione del prodotto conta più della produzione dello stesso, lo si vede ad occhio nudo limitandosi ad un’analisi dei costi: sulla prima funzione si spende molto di più…

… Rihanna’s label assembled a dream team of songwriters, producers, vocal coaches, and song mixers at a cost of about $78,000 per song. However, this considerable figure was dwarfed by the million dollars it cost to promote a song, about a third of which went to radio promotion….

In questo senso le radio FM sono centrali ancora oggi nell’era dei nuovi media.

… record labels feel it is worth spending in excess of $300,000 to get a song played on the radio. Or perhaps it is better to note that radio airplay is still this valuable…

Il libro tenta di districare il complesso rapporto tra canzoni e radio. La prospettiva è interessante:

… study popular culture not from the perspective of what it means, but how it was made

Come si diffonde una musica commerciale presso il pubblico?

… This book’s substantive concern of how songs become hits on the radio is part of a more general class of problems in social science known as the diffusion of innovation

La curva di diffusione è lo strumento principale impiegato:

… At the most basic level, one can study diffusion simply by drawing a graph and looking at its shape to see whether it is more concave or more s-shaped



Da cosa dipende la diffusione? Se è del tipo illustrato nella figura 1 da elementi esterni, se è del tipo illustrato nella figura 2 da un contagio interno:

… Contagious diffusion can only occur when someone who has experienced the innovation encounters someone who has not. Diffusion is slow early on because there are too few adopters who can promote the innovation… So you may be more likely to buy a book when it becomes a best seller because the book’s popularity gives it more conspicuous placement in bookstores, even if you don’t personally know a single individual who has read the book or have even observed strangers reading the book in public… the proportion of holdouts who adopt in each period is determined by how many actors are already using the innovation…

Se il motore della diffusione è esogeno (figura 1) il fatto che altri consumino il prodotto non incide sulla voglia di consumarlo.

… In contrast, in the first style a constant proportion of holdouts adopt in every period… For instance, the diffusion of tetracycline was mostly exogenous, the diffusion of hybrid corn almost perfectly endogenous, and the diffusion of postwar consumer appliances a compromise between the two patterns.

Un primo effetto della globalizzazione è quello di produrre sempre meno star di successo sempre maggiore, è l’”effetto rete”:

… through the wonders of electronic reproduction the total volume of fame does not diminish, but grows. That is, at each stage there are fewer successful artists, but those who are successful are so famous that the aggregate of fame increases as one moves downstream… massive inequality nicknamed the “superstar effect” which is made possible by the introduction of electronic reproduction…

Canzonette, mode, “effetto rete”… tutto sembra preludere ad una diffusione virale… e invece, sorpresa! La normale diffusione della musica commerciale è di tipo esogeno, quello illustrato dalla figure 1.

Rossman procede con dei “case study”:

… The central empirical concern of this book is how songs become popular on the radio, so a good place to start is by case study of a particularly successful song. In figure 2.1, I have graphed the diffusion curve for “Umbrella” by Rihanna… this concave growth pattern is consistent with an exogenous process and is entirely inconsistent with the s-shaped curves produced by an endogenous process. It is completely implausible to argue that radio stations decided to play this song because they were imitating each other, as its popularity simply happened too fast for stations to be attentive to each other… That we do not see an s-curve but rather a concave curve implies that this song did not spread across radio as an endogenous process of the kind so beloved by sociologists, popular science writers, and “viral marketing” consultants…  in general, pop songs have concave curves with the same shape that we see for “Umbrella… To explain how so many radio stations came to play “Umbrella,” we cannot resort to arguments about contagion or cascades… may be a trait of the song itself or it may be some actor who is influencing all of the radio stations…

La gente non vuole ascoltare la canzone famosa perché è famosa, anzi, spesso vuole distinguersi. Ma qual è allora la molla che fa scattare questa voglia? Vengono sondate due spiegazioni:

… explore two plausible explanations… The first is that stations have unsated demand for new music from pop stars and play songs as soon as they are available… The second is that the large companies who have dominated radio since deregulation coordinate the airplay of their properties…

Vediamo il caso della “voglia di Madonna…”. Ci sono problemi: la curva concava vale anche per i nuovi autori e poi ci sono i successi multipli, ovvero le canzoni tratte dallo stesso album che diventano successi in tempi diversi.

… We might imagine that when a beloved artist releases new music, radio stations would immediately jump at the chance to play it… There are two problems with this interpretation. First, unsated demand sounds plausible for explaining the diffusion of songs by established stars, but we would not imagine that radio stations were eagerly awaiting releases by hitherto unknown performers… contrary to the predictions of the unsated demand hypothesis, songs by unknown artists tend to diffuse by an exogenous pattern, though not as steeply or as widely as those by stars… A more severe problem for the unsated demand explanation is that it cannot explain why multiple songs from the same album become popular at different times… With few exceptions, radio stations began playing “Umbrella” in March, “Shut Up and Drive” in June, “Hate That I Love You” in late summer, and “Don’t Stop the Music” within a few weeks of Christmas… If the reason that radio stations tend to start playing a song all at once was that they all gained access to it at the same time, this supposition fails to explain why most radio stations sat on “Hate That I Love You” and “Don’t Stop the Music” for weeks or months after the songs became available and then suddenly began playing them during a very short time window…

C’è forse un “grande burattinaio” che governa dall’alto la diffusione presso le radio di certe canzoni?

… Since the simple fact of songs being made available to radio stations is not enough to explain the tremendous conformity of radio stations, we must look for an actor who coordinates radio. Who is it who decides which song is going to spread?…

Negli USA molti hanno fatto l’ipotesi della CCC.

… many people have a strong idea as to exactly who is the central actor who coordinates radio: Clear Channel Communications… The San Antonio-based company owns about one in ten of all commercial American radio stations…

Ma anche dividendo le radio in base alla proprietà, non si osserva alcun effetto virale, non esiste una correlazione particolarmente accentuata tra radio con-sorelle:

… To test this hypothesis, I plotted “Umbrella” again… but this time with a separate curve for each company with an appreciable number of Top 40 stations. As can be seen, the companies each show the same smooth exogenous diffusion curve. This result contrasts strikingly with what we would expect were decisions made at the chain level… no chain shows a step function… each chain shows a smooth diffusion… curves are essentially identical with only trivial and probably random discrepancies between the adoption times of stations in different chains… we can rule out the possibility of strong coordination at the chain


… we have seen that pop songs usually spread among radio stations in a way that is inconsistent with the stations imitating one another but is consistent with some central force influencing all of the stations. Because the same pattern applies to later singles on an album, the pattern cannot be explained by album release dates. Likewise, popular speculation attributes conformity among radio stations to corporate ownership, but we have strong evidence that corporate radio chains do not centrally coordinate the decision to add songs to radio playlists…

Ma forse il burattinaio risiede più in alto, non a livello delle radio ma a livello delle case discografiche.

… think of the long-running (but now defunct) trade journal Radio and Records and see the radio industry as part of a broader music industry that includes such actors as instrument manufacturers, live performance promoters and venues, and most important of all, the recorded music industry…

Il comportamento delle radio è decisiva per le case discografiche, controllarle in qualche modo è importantissimo:

… Consider that it is rare for a person to walk into WalMart or Best Buy or to log onto Amazon or iTunes and purchase music that they have never heard before… most of the time we buy music based on having been exposed to it through broadcast media, especially pop music radio… In short, airplay is a major determinant of sales… “There is no better guarantor of a band’s success than a hit single on the radio luring listeners into record stores to buy the album.”… supposed impartiality of gatekeepers like radio stations makes their endorsements more valuable than advertising…

E’ chiaro che a questa stregua la casa discografica tenterà in tuttii modi di “ungere le ruote” presso le radio al fine di promuovere la sua hit. E’ il fenomeno che va sotto il nome di payola:

… The most basic practice is that record labels deluge radio programmers and other workers in the music industry with promotional copies of CDs in the hopes that they will be impressed by the music and give it airplay and other exposure… Ultimately though, the most direct way to get airplay is to bribe a radio station (or its employees) to play your music… The most direct form of payola is simply a quid pro quo where a station (or the station’s staff) agrees to play a particular song in exchange for cash, intellectual property rights, drugs, or sex

Molto spesso il fenomeno payola si risolve in un mero spreco di risorse: quando tutti lo attuano, nessuno ne beneficia. Per essere chiari: se tutte le case discografiche inviano campioni gratuiti dei dischi al DJ, quest’ultimo non si sentirà in dovere di favorire nessuno vanificando i doni.

Questo spiega anche il ciclo payola: parte la corruzione che via via diventa un puro spreco di risorse, a questo punto il sistema discografico fa scoppiare lo scandalo e comincia la pulizia, dopo qualche tempo a corruzione zero si ricomincia.

… The most fundamental question is why the payola market continually reestablishes itself and who benefits from the system… It makes sense for stations to accept this payola if they expect that the value of the bribe is greater than the loss of advertising… However, when payola is an accepted business practice it can be an implicit part of compensation which is fungible with direct station expenditures, and may even be preferable for management as it evades taxes… In any case, it’s unlikely that a radio station would be asked to take a bribe to play a really unappealing record, since a reasonable record label wouldn’t want to waste money promoting music that they know to be terrible… A bidding war for airplay breaks out and this eventually leads to rent dissipation, with the cost of payola equaling the marginal benefit of airplay and this cost being so high that nearly all profits from the recording industry are captured by broadcasting. At this point the volume of the illicit payola market attracts the interest of the state and/or the recording industry grows frustrated and attempts collective action. Whether by state or by trade group, such a response temporarily suppresses payola and brings the system full circle

Payola inizia come corruzione delle case discografiche e termina come ricatto delle radio: stare nel sistema non ti dà vantaggi ma stare fuori è la morte certa. Se tutti partecipano gli unici beneficiati sono i DJ: liberi di scegliere secondo il loro gusto e di incassare esentasse:

… Thus, payola is something that begins as a bribe paid by labels and artists, but can quickly end up as extortion demanded by broadcasters. A particular record company can benefit tremendously if it provides payola and its rivals do not… However, once payola becomes universal all the record companies pay a high price and have no net promotion advantage for doing so. This incentive structure is the familiar prisoner’s dilemma, where an actor’s best outcome is to cheat while its partner behaves, followed by them both behaving, followed by them both cheating, and worst of all is for the actor to behave while its partner cheats… The only solution to the prisoner’s dilemma is collective action over repeated interaction, but even this is tenuous…

Le case discografiche potrebbero fare cartello e non pagare. Ma…

… Unfortunately for musicians and the record industry, cartels are extremely vulnerable to cheating


A questo punto sappiamo che il modello di diffusione “esogeno” in alcuni momenti puo’ essere spiegato da payola ma in altri momenti no: per esempio quando payola non c’è, oppure quando è talmente diffusa da neutralizzare di fatto l’azione corruttrice delle case discografiche. Eppure la curva esogena è un fatto costante, a cosa attribuirla? Se escludiamo il contagio e la corruzione dall’alto non ci resta che dare un peso alla bellezza oggettiva del prodotto commerciale. I DJ e il pubblico la percepisce e la desidera, da qui popolarità e successo.



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