Friday, November 04, 2011

Recording Artists vs. Marginal Utility

“Marginal Utility” is one of the few terms I still remember from the Intro To Economics course I took some 20 years ago. For those who can't be bothered with the wiki, here's how it works.

Let's say it's a hot day in July and you've just spent an hour mowing the lawn. You step into your kitchen, and your daughter hands you a tall glass of cold water. You gratefully accept it and guzzle it down, thinking this just might be the most satisfying glass of water you've ever drunk. She takes the empty glass from you, fills it again and hands it back. You take it and toss it back — it is, after all, a very hot day. She repeats the process, and this time you only take a sip, before putting the glass on the counter to return to later, if at all.

If you were to ascribe a value to these glasses, you might call that first drink of water a Five-Dollar Glass. You were still pretty thirsty when you got the second glass, so maybe you'd give a dollar for the refill. The third, however, rates only pennies. That decline in value is marginal utility in action.

This week I've been listening to a new album from an artist I admire and have very much enjoyed in the past. It's the fourth album of his I own, and I can tell it's terrific. The poetic sensibility remains acute, the orchestration is subtle and effective. There are people who already love this album. I might eventually become one of those people, but right now that doesn't seem likely.

It's not his fault. It's not like he got lazy and just slapped together something people have a right to ignore. I'm not going to be a dick (as I have been on occasion) and give him advice in the vain hope he might woo me back to the fold. And he will remain unnamed (you realize, of course, I might even be bluffing on the gender).

There's no delicate way to put this, but I'm wondering if the product of recording artists doesn't have a corresponding marginal utility. In fact, I'm wondering if the magic number for satisfying albums isn't three (3).

There are artists who seem to defy the odds. If my CD collection were cited as evidence, the case for Exceptionalism could be made for the Beatles, Bruces Cockburn and Springsteen, Los Lobos, Rush, Steely Dan and Talking Heads. And Megadeth. But in terms of actual play, Steely Dan is the only act who escapes the three-album fate. And that insidious, 10-year-old device — which relentlessly tracks play-count — bears this observation out.

What to make of it all? Nothing, really. The most important thing is for recording artists to proceed as if none of this mattered. There's no telling which three will make the final grade. The artist I referred to earlier put out eight(!) albums before producing the first-of-three that hooked me. Who knows? One or two Dylanesque reinventions might yet eclipse those.

But more than that, you can't argue with a live performance, which is what most albums harken back to anyway. Keep on keeping on. And please don't take it personally if I lose track of your latest greatest record.

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