Manipulated Music

Apropos of my comment at the end of yesterday’s entry that one should look at statistics with a critical eye, the same obviously goes for any news report. What I specifically have in mind in this case is the Washington Post story about how Josh Bell was ignored by rush hour pedestrians at a Washington D.C. train station.

I have seen links to this article from and Arts and Letters Daily. There was a response to the article on and discussions on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s forums.

And I guess I am contributing to the hysteria by mentioning it here. But the whole experiment really perturbed me.

The title of the article, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” an allusion to pearls before swine, really says it all. The effort seemed to be biased toward proving that the philistines of D.C. wouldn’t recognize talent. It almost seems like they set Bell up to fail. It was more of a stunt to write a provocative article about than a constructive attempt to observe and measure response. I guess I shouldn’t expect so disciplined approach from the the author, Gene Weingarten, since he is a columnist rather than a reporter.

They put him in a train station leading up to the 9:00 am hour, a time when people have work commitments they are rushing to satisfy, expecting people to engage in a leisure time activity.

Busking is prohibited in the Metro stations. In a post article discussion, the author admits he had to cajole the transit authority into violating their rules and give him permission. While people might stop because Bell’s presence was out of the ordinary, they also might ignore him assuming he was operating illegally and the police would be along to stop him soon.

Weingarten cites Kant’s belief that beauty can only be appreciated under optimal conditions. Instead of trying this out in less than optimal conditions, he sets it up in abysmal conditions. Probably the only situation that would have been worse would be stationing Bell in a stadium vomitorium at a Washington Redskins game during half time.

It would have been better to try this experiment in a place where people were in a more leisurely state of mind even if they were in the process of pursuing a goal. Perhaps a shopping mall–or the National Mall.

I mention this more for the benefit of the reader than in any hope of influencing future experiments by newspaper columnists. Studies like the Magic of Music mentioned yesterday have noted people are listening to classical music fairly frequently these days. They just don’t do it in a concert hall. The performers, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, may have to go where the people are if they aren’t coming to them.

Sure there have been performances in malls and outdoor areas before, but has anyone thought to study before what it is that gets people to stop? It is easy enough to perform with no specific expectation of how many will stop and another to measure the who, what, when, why and how of getting people to sincerely do so. The answers may comprise the basis for the next method of presenting performances.

One last thing in closing that has been long debated in many forms and I won’t try to tackle tonight.

I didn’t read all the responses people made on the various websites on which the story appeared, but one interesting observation did catch my eye. There was much ado made about the fact that Bell only made $34 and attracted the attention of a handful of people vs. National Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin’s projection that a hypothetical World Class musician would make $150 and cause 75-100 to take a meaningful pause. On the Chronicle of Higher Ed forums, a poster named Grupt (comment #17) observed: “But there’s an assumption there that there should be a tight relationship between talent and take, and I doubt that relationship exists.”

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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