The value of being unique

My recent posts have tackled the advent of computers creating music. It’s exciting stuff but also daunting for anyone who makes money making music. There’s a fear, as I think there is with many industries, that the “robots will take over.”

This has spurred me to think about what humans bring to the game. What can we do as composers and performers that computers can’t?

Obviously technology hasn’t only just recently become a problem. Once music became distributable (basically when albums were developed) any nightclub or restaurant gained the ability to replace their live musicians with canned music. And many did; that’s what jukeboxes are. But many did not. Why?

Part of the reason is that humans, for complex psychological reasons, treasure things that are unique or scarce.  This is why an original Picasso painting sells for a hundred million dollars whereas a poster of it sells for about 10 bucks. Granted, the poster is less impressive but it’s not ten million times less impressive. (I think I did that math right.) The original painting is worth more because it’s one of a kind. And we humans value that.

So, a club or restaurant can install a jukebox or Spotify and pump in music that way. And sometimes that’s what happens. But the people sitting there know that there’s nothing unique about the experience they’re having. What’s unique is seeing a live performer. When you see an act live, you know that no one else in the world is having that experience.

Now, of course, not every music act is really unique. Most singer/songwriters blend into a blur in my head. But still, there’s always that hope when you go out to see live music that you catch a magic moment—a Picasso painting of music.

So what can performers do with this information? Well, be unique, though that advice is not all that helpful. There are different kinds of uniqueness. Playing your songs while wearing a clown mask and singing with a German accent would be unique but not necessarily something people would flock too. It’s really a balance of uniqueness, quality, novelty, charisma and all the usual suspects.

What about composition? How can we stand out against the coming onslaught of computer composed music? I tackled this a bit in this post  but to be honest… I think this is going to be hard. I doubt there is any individualist composing style that computers won’t be able to eventually decipher.  If anything, I suspect what will earn computer composers attention is that their music will seem unique compared to the efforts of humans. (Take a look at what AI is doing in terms of visual design.  It’s interesting because it looks alien.) This quandary is one I’ll be thinking about.

Nonetheless, I do think there’s a basic concept here worth being aware of. Humans like unique things and experiences and musicians should never let that observation stray far from their minds.

4 thoughts on “The value of being unique

  1. its more than that. music is written, but math is discovered. and yet music (at least music in any sense that is legally actionable) is math– no ones been able to figure out how to pay people for discovering math while making everyone free to share it.

    at least not when it comes to music. i have a few ideas about it, but theyre definitely not unique. computers are better at discovering music than ever, which means that music is closer than ever to being commoditized. for what its worth, i dont think musicians are “useless” any more than scientists are useless. but i do wish music and science were relatively free (as in freedom) endeavors, compared to what a century of making them into something arcane has accomplished.

    1. I like that way of thinking about it – music is “discovered” more than created.

      Part of the issue, of course, is that science discoveries lead to utilitarian improvements in our lives while music discoveries are more ethereal in value.

      1. “music discoveries are more ethereal in value.”

        the fact that music is not considered more often for its medicinal qualities is a count against medicine (or our industry) rather than against music. (that said, if i have the flu im going to want more than just bach to fight it off. you cant simply stave off everything with extra vitamin c, either.)

  2. Yep, great point. I sometimes think we should replace the term “musician” (or any kind of artist title) with something like “emotion inducer.” There are very practical mood altering benefits.

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