Publication: Billboard "guest Commentary'
Saturday, January 23, 1999
When I was working at emergency rooms in New York, we would often see heroin addicts who came in nearly dead from overdoses. As they struggled for breath, we would feverishly prepare injections of Naloxone. This drug binds to opium receptors in the brain. When heroin is bound to these receptors, one experiences an "opium high." But Naloxone is a spoiler. It kicks the opium off the receptor, ties it up, and produces no high. Result: 60 to zero instantly.
The patient would then be able to breathe, but only rarely did the story end there. More often than not, a patient would come up swinging, upset that we ruined his or her last high and unbelievably unconcerned about the near-death experience. Powerful stuff.
So what does this have to do with the music business? Jokes aside, plenty. The same receptors that bind opium also bind endorphins, a class of natural opioids found in the brain that seem to play a pivotal role in the way we experience music.
Experiments have shown that if you give Naloxone to a group of people and ask them to listen to their favorite music, it suddenly becomes an intellectual exercise. After Naloxone negates the effect of their natural opioids, the intensity of emotion seems to diminish. People really do get "hooked on a feeling."
And what a powerful feeling it is: Music talks to us, and we talk back. The grimaces and contortions made by performers and listeners alike are direct responses to music that moves us, a way for the subconscious mind to respond to music's message. And, like spoken and written language, music can impart information. Extensive research has shown that exposure to certain kinds of music improves visual and spatial reasoning, memory, and learning.
What's more, the effects of our favorite music are long-lived. Music begins in the mind of its creator and ends in the daydreams of the listener. Its power lies in the ability of a single musical piece to be different things to different people‹to become ours, to connect directly to our innermost dreams and desires.
Many songs that ring up large sales not only produce endorphin highs but relate so well to listeners' emotional lives that people create strong and long-lasting associations between those songs and other events and people in their lives. The songs become anchors. They trigger a flood of emotions and images: some from experience, some from daydreams. These images have the ability to instantaneously produce very powerful changes in emotional states.
This is the unique selling proposition of the music industry‹a CD lets consumers obtain desirable emotional states of their own choosing on demand. In this way, music provides a powerful, unique service.
Is there a demand for this service? Absolutely. In a world that moves faster and grows more impersonal by the day, there is a rising, unmet need for personalized and moving emotional experiences. Enter music.
But this is also a service like no other; it touches the soul, creating within the consumer powerful and predictable emotional states on demand. For this purpose, there are very few competitors. Real human interactions take years of cultivation and are fraught with uncertainty. Visual media can be potent but tend to be more short-lived and aren't nearly as portable. Music clearly has a competitive edge in this area.
In a world of coldness and unpredictability, music allows one to obtain certain desirable emotional states any time one wishes. Do people think like this? Not consciously, but that's at the root of their decisions to listen to certain songs at certain times. It's in the best business interests of the music industry to recognize this underlying inclination‹and cater to it.
The larger, more intricate, and pleasurable a web of connections created around a piece of music is, the more people will want to own that piece of music, because it will trigger this feeling time and again.
It follows, then, that a better knowledge of consumer desires will allow the development of new vehicles to better match music with a desired demographic. If you know what people want to feel, you can work backward and design more useful and relevant musical products and presentations.
For instance, older Americans gravitate to the music of their youth for a number of reasons, but key among them are the associations intertwined with the tunes, which on demand take them back to the days before hectic careers and personal pressures. To sell more music to this demo, you will need to find a way to create similar positive associations with current music.
Many such "packages" are possible‹keying in to books, perhaps, or events that engender a sense of pleasure or well-being‹but they will all have several things in common. They will spring from the realization of music's immense power and the responsibility that musicians and producers have to use that power wisely. They will also have to utilize the power of music to enrich the lives of listeners, to help them figure out how to maintain their sense of well-being, even when the music is turned off. The knowledge to do this will spring from an understanding of the mind‹of how people internalize music and how it transforms them.
This is a tall order, but the starting material is some of the most powerful stuff on earth. Take it from a brain guy: In 25 years of working with the brain, I still cannot affect a person's state of mind the way that one simple song can.
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Last modified 8 Mar 2020