Why hits still matter (and will continue to do so)

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Mrs. Curious Capitalist and I went to a performance Tuesday night by the Greatest Pop Singer of Our Age, Brazil’s Marisa Monte. It was swell and all, but it was also deeply weird–for the simple reason that I had no idea which songs were her hits.

I think we own every CD by Ms. Monte, a mostly enchanting 39-year-old amalgam of pop diva, avant garde experimentalist, and Alan Lomax. But I’ve never heard one of her songs on the radio, never had her music recommended to me on iTunes, never known anybody else who was a fan. I simply heard a snippet of her singing on a Banana Republic ad in the late 1990s (yes, I know this is a lame way to discover music; it’s a pattern with me), read an article about Brazilian music in the New York Times Magazine that identified her, and started buying up her work on Amazon.com.

Since then we’ve been listening pretty regularly but without any sort of context (or Portuguese language training). A few songs with clearly enunciated choruses (like “Passe em Casa,” from Monte’s Os Tribalistas collaboration with Arnaldo Antunes and Carlinhos Brown) or English bits (“Amor I Love You,” from Memorias, Cronicas e Declaracoes de Amor) have stuck in my head, but mostly it all just runs (very pleasantly) together.

So at the concert Tuesday night it was invariably a surprise to hear which songs the mostly Brazilian crowd sang loudly along with (those were the hits) and which they did not. If only I’d known beforehand, I could have sung along too! (Well, maybe not.)

Because I’ve spent a lot of time lately talking to marketing professors about how consumers make choices, this got me thinking. Way out on the long tail of utopian opinion about the impact of the Internet is the viewpoint that each of us possesses entirely unique tastes that will for the first time be truly satisfied once those nasty Old Media companies and their marketing campaigns and distribution chokeholds get out of the way. I’m not sure anyone actually holds this extreme opinion (Mr. Long Tail himself, Chris Anderson, certainly doesn’t), but I do think a lot of Web 2.0 types at least tend in that direction.

They’re partly right: Individual tastes aren’t nearly as homogeneous as the media output of the network-TV, top-40 radio, monopoly-newspaper era. But they are not of infinite variety, and are not arrived at independently. As French scientist Henri Poincare wrote almost a century ago,

When men are brought together, they no longer decide by chance and independently of each other, but react upon one another. Many causes come into action, they trouble the men and draw them this way and that, but there is one thing they cannot destroy, the habits they have of Panurge’s sheep.

Panurge was a character from Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel who caused a flock of sheep to jump off a ship by throwing the lead ram overboard. But I’m thinking of a more positive element of crowd psychology: If I had only known what other people liked (or which tracks Brazilian radio stations played a lot), I would have enjoyed the Marisa Monte concert even more.

Abundant and easily accessible content, and increasingly sophisticated means of steering us toward things we’ll probably like (Jeffrey O’Brien has a great article about this in the current Fortune), are changing a lot about how the media world works. (For example, in the pre-Amazon.com era I probably never would have gone to the effort to acquire Marisa Monte’s CDs.) But we humans will still want shared experiences–a.k.a. hits–and there will always be money to be made in manufacturing, distributing, and marketing them. Who’s going to make that money? Now that’s another question entirely.