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Welcome to Choice Fatigue

By ROBERT SCOVILL

It’s a phrase born of the new millennium and I assure you it is most definitely real.

We live in a world where the fantasy is to live with no boundaries. It seems like it would be nirvana doesn’t it? A world with no rules, a world with no limits and no boundaries, a world with information that is not filtered with interpretation and agenda but only offers facts, a world where all products work. It’s just up to us to make a personalized choice that is perfect for our situation or ourselves.

The art world (and yes, I most definitely include music in the art world) is rife with this kind of thinking today isn’t it? A lot of industry peeps and fans that I talk to in today’s world claim that what they really want to experience is art and specifically music, with “no filters”. I interpret this as; they want to hear music that’s purely the artist’s interpretation and intention, untainted by the influence of a producer or an engineer or a record label A&R person or even a marketing team. Heck many times, they’ll even prefer to hear the music of a band member outside the boundaries of the band just in an effort to eliminate that band filter and influence.

There are a couple of artists who have lead a pretty grand existence by creating their own world of music while fighting the fight of no boundaries or filters. Now, you jazz aficionados, please don’t bust me down for not talking jazz here. I fully get that the jazz world is ALL about breaking through established music boundaries while all the time honoring them. But I would submit to you that without the existing boundaries of key signature alone it might be more difficult to recognize jazz when you hear it.

But if we stay in the rock/pop world for a moment, the first artists that come to my mind are the likes of Todd Rundgren, Prince and Frank Zappa. There are others to be certain, but these legendary artist attempted and succeed with this approach at a time and in a genre where it was considered audaciously independent, even egomaniacal by many but at the same time genius by many others; not the least of which were they’re fans.

What did they do? Well they fiercely and out rightly demanded their rights as producers, engineers and creators hence staking claim to full and outright control of their creations … right up until it came time for the label (you know people who invested all the money to provide the means for that creative freedom) to approve it and release it and then the battle was really on. But once these artists attained their financial freedom, they truly cut the cord from the labels as well.

Now here’s why I bring this up. That model of creative control and freedom that I just described is the very model that is in play for the music business that we have before us today. That kind of independence and boundary-less existence is seemingly what every artist demands regardless of his or her abilities or accomplishments and in turn there is a significant faction of listeners out there that apparently craves music created in this fashion by artists of every caliber and talent level.

Make no mistake about it; today’s artists have the ability to make professional sounding recordings primarily because they have access to off-the-shelf, high-quality recording technology. They have incredible amounts of on-demand instruction at their disposal in the form of online tutorials both text and video on how to compose, play, produce, and engineer music. They have immediate desktop publishing and content distribution opportunities and channels that would rival any high-end label—as they existed before the Internet. Sounds like heaven doesn’t it?

But here is the hard truth of it. The unintended consequence of this new world order is that we are now literally drowning in the choices of artists and music. An environment where the choices are so vast that making the decision on what to listen to, or even explore, becomes so daunting that as listeners we are tending to contract instead of expand. I submit to you that when that happens we are officially victims of choice fatigue.

As a sufferer of choice fatigue, we tend to gravitate back toward things we know and can count on. Those choices serve as a kind of bedrock based on our previous experiences before being overwhelmed with choice. The ultimate irony here is this, that in direct contrast to the battle for unfiltered choices, what we invariably end up doing is relying heavily on other – and I submit to you less trusted and less reliable – filters than the pre-Internet era to help us rein in our choices. Filters like Internet reviews, general buzz through social media, Internet music distribution services and genre segmentation and on and on. Hmmmm, sounds like the same kind of filters only in a different era.

All of this choice “freedom” forces you to balance your newfound freedom against the amount of precious time you are willing to devote to navigating it.

Here is an example of just one of those filters, genre; which we tend to lean on heavily before searching for new music. As is to be expected, we now have an explosion of genres to choose from. The traditional Rock, Pop, Country and Jazz certainly don’t really serve as genre definitions any more. In fact, new artists feel justified in their efforts if they can actually create a new genre. Check this out. Here is what is listed under “Rock” as an example from www.musicgenereslist.com and you’ll get just a smidgeon of a list that is clearly incomplete, but seems to grow daily.

ROCK
Adult Alternative
American Trad Rock
Arena Rock
Blues-Rock
British Invasion
Death Metal/Black Metal
Glam Rock
Hair Metal
Hard Rock
Metal
Jam Bands
Prog-Rock/Art Rock
Psychedelic
Rock & Roll
Rockabilly
Roots Rock
Singer/Songwriter
Southern Rock
Surf
Tex-Mex

And then of course there would even be sub-categories for these listings. Metal would of course include Speed Metal, Rap Metal … and on and on.

Even on this Web site—which is serving as a filter by the way—you’ll slog through well over 300 genre choices. Can you imagine how many titles are sitting in each genre? Frankly, at the end of the day it just serves as another path to choice fatigue in picking a genre in which to start exploring.

So ultimately who makes the decision to filter and categorize the music choices? You? Me? The artist? The label? A marketing entity? Someone is still in control … are they doing us any favors? I would say yeah, these are necessary boundaries to help us navigate the vast amount of choices. Without them the task is an order of magnitude more daunting.

Keep in mind, this is just music I’m talking about. There are COUNTLESS examples of this kind of choice barrage that now plague us in the world we live in. Here are just a few to get your mind working. Cable TV? So many choices, and so many of them poor. World news? TV, radio, newspaper, magazine, Internet, iReporting. All telling the same stories but with a different set of faces delivering it and all with different interpretations of facts. Which do you choose to believe? Are those “filter-less” choices? I think not. Netflix – by the time I make a choice of whether to watch a movie, a TV series or documentary etc., and then choose the genre and then choose the show to watch, it’s already time for bed. Online shopping? Let’s take hotels or airline travel. Which filter do you want to deploy? Price? Quality? Location? Availability? A balance of all of four? I hope you weren’t planning on doing anything else today. Buying a new car? Pick a manufacturer, go to the site, pick a model, and begin to navigate the choices of color and custom options – by the time you choose, next years model will already be on the lot. I could go on and on … but you all live on the planet too, so I know you get the idea.

All of this choice “freedom” forces you to balance your newfound freedom against the amount of precious time you are willing to devote to navigating it. In direct contrast to the “I want to the right to choose,” in the end, our choices are usually made based on the suggestion of others that we feel safe with and can rely on. That’s right, we rely on filters and are comforted and relieved by a set of boundaries.

Here’s a great example of what I’m talking about and how deeply this kind of thinking is ingrained in us. A few years back during the days of the progressive education movement an experiment was played out on a nursery school playground. The idea was to remove the fencing around the schoolyard. There was no highway or anything that put the youngsters in immediate danger bordering the schoolyard, just grounds now undivided by the visible chain link fence. What happened as a result was quite unexpected.

With the boundary removed, what resulted was that the children tended to huddle closer to the center of the original schoolyard than they did when the fence was in place. None of them actually took advantage of the newly found spatial freedom. When the boundary was reinstalled they all played to the full extent of the playground right up to the fencing.

Now obviously, there are many ways to interpret the data here. One side could say “clearly the kids felt safer and more secure with the boundary and they felt willing to go to the limits of it when it was clearly established.” Others might contest, “I wonder how they kids would have reacted if the boundary had never been established in the first place?”

So if you made it to this point in the article, you’re probably asking “okay, what the hell does all this have to do with sound reinforcement and live sound engineering?”
Well here’s the deal. Us live sound dudes and dudeesses are well on our way to these kinds of challenges in OUR technology world.

Need evidence or precedent? Well look no farther than today’s studio world. Just try to navigate their choices of microphones, mic-pres, A/D convertors, EQs, dynamics and effects processors; both real and virtual, DAW software, control surfaces, control room monitors, even cabling and on and on and on. The choices are seemingly limitless and are expanding every day. And here’s the real rub in the studio world; NOTHING ever really gets eliminated from the choice pool because gear that is 50 years old is still considered a viable choice and in many cases preferable. So the choices expand dramatically with every year. How do recording engineers (read as “musicians” in this day and age) make a choice?

I won’t even discuss musical instrument choices. Have you ever had a look at the choices of strings, drum heads and sticks, let alone the choice of instruments to use them on?

So what about sound reinforcement then? Are we headed down that path? I’m willing to bet we are, and in many cases are already there. Let’s start with a simple one. Just pause for a moment and consider how many choices you as an engineer have today with regard to … oh, say … vocal microphone choices. Really, soak that in and ponder it for a minute. The number of choices you have at your disposal is simply enormous. And guess what, the manufacturers are rolling out new models EVERY year just like Ford and GM.

Now, ask yourself, how do I make a decision on what to use? Do you actually try all of them before using them? No, you rely on filters in order to narrow the scope of the choice. Recommendations from: manufacturers, peers, sound company, the artist, web site reviews, and blogs? Remember, we’re talking about a choice for one single input; the vocal. Done? Okay, let’s move on to the next instrument. And on and on we go for 64 or more channels. I’m worn out already.

Given the shift to digital live sound technologies the choices are going to expand exponentially for live sound choices. Even as early as we are in the digital technology changeover for live sound, we already have more mixing console choices than ever. And within those consoles resides more processing choices than ever. Additionally, we now see more crossover of studio products to the live sound world than ever before. We have more manufacturers making more and more choices for us to choose from daily. And, I have yet to even address speaker systems, controllers and amplifier topologies. The tsunami is building strength.

As live sound engineers we’re “on the clock.” It’s ticking and the amount of allotted time to make decisions is generally fixed. We know when the house lights are going out and the show is going to start. Time is always a major factor. It demands that we make decisions quickly and concisely and then work with the results. So what are we to do then when confronted with the plethora of choices and our newfound freedom from the torn down technical boundaries? It’s not exactly a fine line between the freedom that comes with limitless choices measured against time efficient and more importantly time effective choices. So what do we do?

Well, I’ll tell you what history has shown that we have a tendency to do, and that is metaphorically speaking, act as the schoolyard children did. We huddle toward the center. Even though we’re free to explore with near limitless boundaries, we fall back on what we know is safe and predictable and will simply get the job done. Again, metaphorically and often literally, we choose the SM58 or the SM57. These kinds of choices are essentially the classic rock radio stations of audio engineering aren’t they? You’re certainly not going to hear anything new there and you’ll likely hear at least one thing that you like every hour. ☺

I suppose the real lesson of the world we live in today is that “time” is the thing we should value and protect most. In the end the most important choice we make may just be which things in our lives we’re going to devote precious minutes, hours or days of focus to in order to come to a what normally would, or should be, a simple and quick decision.

Even with the freedom to blog on whatever topic I want to, you just wouldn’t believe how much time I spend trying to decide on a topic. Ya know what? I may need to reach out to you for some filtering and suggestions.

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About the author

Robert Scovill

Robert is a 30 year veteran of live sound and 6 time TEC / 2 time Parnelli Award winner for Sound Reinforcement Engineer of the Year. He serves as Senior Market Specialist for live sound products for Avid and regularly works as Concert Sound Mixer and Live Recordist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

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