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Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Joshua Bell Experiment and Photography

A number of people were understandably strongly affected by the article linked in the previous post, and for good reason. It really raises a huge welter of various issues about art, attention, delectation, and appreciation. It cuts to something elemental about how we spend our lives, and that can be an emotional subject.

There were a lot of interesting comments. Reader Michael Seltzer said:

"Another thing I wondered about was the numbers. Apparently about 30 or so people actually gave money and/or stopped to listen. That's out of 1100 people total. That's about 3%. I wonder what percentage, of the total population that exists, go to see him in concert. It may be that he reached a bigger audience (percentage-wise) on the street than in the concert hall."

It's an interesting issue. For years I worked for magazines, which live and die by direct mail, and in that world—for the magazine I worked for at least—3% was considered a very good return on a mailing. Two percent was adequate. About 1.5% was our cutoff point—below that, we would not rent, or mail to, a particular list again. And 4.5% was about the best we ever did (it was View Camera magazine's list, if I remember correctly). The only reason we sold the magazine on the newsstand—otherwise a zero-profit proposition—was that we got about a 4% "conversion" of newsstand buyers to subscribers, which was good.

As another referent, on March 29th (just picking a day out of the hat) this blog got 11,550 hits from 8,458 unique visitors, and 32 people left comments—quite a bit worse than 3%. Of course, to be fair, I did better when I asked for comments a few days after that, in the "Please Don't Make Fun of Me, Please" post.

As Joshua Bell said at the end of the article, he made about $40 an hour busking (a "busker" is defined as "a person who entertains people for money in public places, as by singing or dancing"), which would be enough for him to survive on if he had to. That seems to agree with the 3% response rate being pretty decent.

Violinist Joshua Bell

Another thing that wasn't discussed was that they placed him at a Metro entrance, which would seem to me to select for people who are actively en route from one place to another...many of whom could be expected to be on a schedule of some sort, especially in downtown Washington. I lived in Washington for many years, and I can tell you that, despite the popular reputation of politicians as shady and lazy or worse, Washington is full of "type A personalities" who are very task-oriented, very career-focused, and work very hard as a matter of course. I would bet money that Washingtonians work as long in a "typical" work week as people anywhere else in the country—sixty- and seventy-hour work weeks are not uncommon. The town just naturally attracts that type of person. In a more "task neutral" placement—for instance, where there are large numbers of sightseers or loiterers—he might have attracted more active listeners.

And, since crowds attract crowds, putting him at a place where there was a chance of attracting the nucleus of a crowd may well have served to attract a bigger crowd. And if there had been a crowd, then the one person who recognized him could have "infected" the other bystanders with her information. "That's Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world!" is information that would travel well amongst a tightly packed group of standing people, whereas in the experiment, only one person recognized him, and the only person close enough for her to tell was one of the producers of the piece. But if ten bystanders had surrounded her, we can assume she would have told them as well.

One thing that surprised me in reading the article is my absolute certainty that I personally would have stopped to listen. Maybe it's long training, or just the fact that I'm a navel-gazer by disposition, but I know that I cannot ignore music whenever and wherever I hear it, and I habitually, even reflexively, evaluate the "offerings" of street musicians when I hear them. One reason I can tell you that is because when I hear bad music on the street, I'm often eager to get away from it!

Off-topic? Maybe not
Finally, although a few people may have thought that the article was "off-topic," I'm not sure it was—I think it does indeed bring up ramifications for photography. The type of photography I practice, for instance. How many times in the course of your daily life and travels do you see something interesting that you think might make a good picture? And how many of those times do you actually take the time to stop and take a few? I think most people—even many visually literate people, including skilled amateur photographers—pass by picture opportunities all the time, simply because they're doing something else—working, or making their way through a list of errands, or on their way to an appointment, or attending to their kids or spouses. Most of the time, we, just like the people who passed Joshua Bell by in the subway, can't afford to stop and indulge our hobbies at any old time—we have to schedule that activity, in between our other obligations. Indeed, I think it takes a person with a certain kind of lifestyle to be able to drop everything, grab the camera, and spend ten, twenty, or thirty minutes responding to something unforeseen that they just happened across in the course of their daily life. Very busy, heavily scheduled people just can't do that, most of the time.

Consequently, I wonder how many of the people who walked past Bell with their heads down would have liked to stop and listen, but were thinking something like, "Can't stop, gotta stay focused, gotta resist temptation, gotta keep going...." I'll bet there were a few. And it's sometimes the same way with taking pictures, isn't it?



Blogger mikepeters said...

I wonder how many people would have stopped in the evening on their way home when there was less pressure to get where they were going?

7:36 PM  
Blogger 1212121 said...

It's funny, reading the article I was thinking the same thing, "I know I would've stopped to listen..." Like one of the persons interviewed I once considered violin as a career.

But then I wonder how many of the people who just walked by would say the same thing, "Oh, I know a good violinist when I hear one, I definitely would've stopped to listen." It makes me wonder if I really would've stopped, or if I would've been immersed in my own world. Would I have just thought, "Oh, that guy's good, wonder why he's playing on the street?" And just walked on by.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I admit I may be deluding myself....


10:02 PM  
Blogger Bruce M said...

I think there is a lesson for exhibiting images. Context is important. In the article it was mentioned that exhibiting a painting at the local coffee or omelet house brings with it certain expectations from the people who see your work there.

Finding a place to show your work that suits your photographic style and that has a receptive audience can be an important part of photography. Putting your images up on FacePlant (or whatever the popular photo sharing site of the moment is) and hoping for the best might not be the best approach.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

The experiment also raises the question, pertinent to artists of any persuasion, if the public at large will recognize good stuff unless it is "packaged" as in a concert hall or museum.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Bruce M said...

I have to add one more comment. The "would I have stopped?" question is hard to answer honestly. Here's one that's easier and may tell you more about yourself: How often do I stop?

For myself, maybe two or three times a year I'll stop and listen to somebody playing on the street or at the transit station. I'll pay attention and give a smile or a nod more often than that.

As I think about it I stop for visual media, a painting of photograph, a lot less often, maybe once a year.

And thanks for posting the link to the article!

12:10 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

I think that its a sad reflection of where our culture is at the moment. We have become so focused on our jobs that we have so little time for things of great beauty. The worth of everything in culture is now seen as monetary value.

I have moved from a major Australian city to a small rural community. The joke here is that if go out to buy a newspaper it takes at least a couple of hours. The reason why is that when you see someone you end up talking. Yes there are problems with the rural economy, but people always have time for each other. The town has a photographic competition and exhibition, a fine art exhibition, a jazz festival and an art market. Everyone is not only encouraged to attend but also participate, and guess what they do. The reason why is that the people here are not so time pressured, they are used to making their own entertainment and they can appreciate what others do.

So here in outback Australia I think Joshua Bell would have drawn quite a big crowd.

1:25 AM  
Blogger stephen best said...

Some busking tips:

1. It's best if you're very young and female: the Cute Factor. Mr. Bell scores 0 here.

2. Xmas is a great time. It's a plus if the music is recognizable as carols. No marks here either.

3. Public places often have great acoustics, but positioning is very important. Just past the cashiers of a large supermarket where people are putting away their change is excellent! On a scale of 1-10, I'd rate Mr. Bell's positioning as -1.

4. Follow up at regular intervals, same time next day etc. People who were undecided the first time will be more inclined to contribute the next time they see you. Mr. Bell, again 0.

As motivation (read bribery) I offered to match my (then) nine year old daughter dollar for dollar applying all the above. The little twerp made $75 in as many minutes (or $150 after my contribution) ... way better than Mr. Bell.

Frankly, I'm not sure the original experiment proves much. Julia Fischer (cute and a better violinist than Mr. Bell IMHO) playing the Bach Suites/Partitas I would have stopped for though.

2:05 AM  
Blogger Player said...

"I think that its a sad reflection of where our culture is at the moment. We have become so focused on our jobs that we have so little time for things of great beauty. The worth of everything in culture is now seen as monetary value."

Exactly what I was thinking even before reading your post; in fact, you stole my thunder: before reading it the thought I was holding onto was "what would have happened if Joshua was printing and distributing hundred dollar bills, instead?"

2:25 AM  
Blogger Jan Moren said...

One aspect: with easy access to music everywhere, the great performances - no matter what genre - are not only at our fingertips but being played at us all day, every day. We're at a point where amazing classical performances are routinely used as background for nature footage on TV.

In that context, "just another" world-class performance merely sounds no worse than the everyday soundscape we travel through, rather than being appreciably worse (like most buskers). Which, I believe, the shoeshine lady was alluding to.

3:51 AM  
Blogger scott lawan said...

i really agree with what you said about passing up on photographic opportunities. i lug the only camera i have around with me everyday (a canon 1D) and i still won't pull it out of my bag unless it's "time to shoot"; unless i'm in the working mentality.

3:59 AM  
Blogger Martin B. said...

I remember walking past a cello player in the subway a busy morning some years ago. I was running to a meeting and I was almost heatbroken at the fact that I couldn't stop.

I couldn't afford to be late and at the same time my heart wanted to stop and to take in the music. The accoustic was wonderfull and the player was quite good. I slowed down and thought to myself that something was wrong with modern life if there was no place for beauty in it. I left some money and walked away in a melancholy mood...

But I must confess that most mornings, I'm just another zombie with an I-Pod...

7:32 AM  
Blogger dasmb said...

In reference to the question of how many times we've seen a brilliant scene and neglected to photograph it -- my answer is that it happens a lot, and until I became "serious" about photography, it never bothered me. Now, I cringe every time I find myself in a beautiful situation and am unable to photograph it, for whatever reason.

This weekend I visited my wife's aunt and uncle who live in the part of upstate New York that's mostly farmland and only partially soulles ex-urban sprawl. I must have seen a hundred gorgeous scenes -- a single, dying, yellow-nettled tree in a field of evergreen saplings, or a flock of chickens running around a tiny green pond, reflecting a cloudy sky.

You might say my interest the art of photography has diminished my ability to truly enjoy these idyllic scenes, because now I feel guilty for not capturing them.

11:48 AM  
Blogger adooma said...

There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog:
She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters... I thought you might find it interesting.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"One aspect: with easy access to music everywhere, the great performances - no matter what genre - are not only at our fingertips but being played at us all day, every day. We're at a point where amazing classical performances are routinely used as background for nature footage on TV."

That occurred to me too. It's possible, even likely, that few of the passers-by had ever heard any BAD violin playing. Most everything they might be familiar with could well be exceptionally good playing, from recordings. That would, as you say, have the effect of rendering Bell's perfomrances unremarkable...he could have sounded pretty much like all the violin playing they'd ever heard before, making it much easier to slot him away mentally as "generic violin music."

In high-culture furniture-making, something similar happened--before the machine age, fanatical perfectionism was highly prized. After machines came along and made perfection ordinary, rough workmanship and visible tooling rose in popularity and public esteem. David Pye discusses this is his marvelous book "The Nature and Art of Workmanship," one of my all-time favorite little-known books.


12:27 PM  
Blogger Jose Guilis said...

I do not have to question me about whether I would have stopped to listen: I go around in a motorcycle! Here street musicians are a plague, specially on the touristic sections. Usually they come in the form of a noisy group of Rumanian gipsies with accordion, horns and drums, playing always the same songs (volare, etc.) They are very proficient but usually one barely ends when the next shows up and it's sickening.
I have been livig the last five years on a fifth floor apartment in one such streets and I had to exercise a high degree of self control no to throw them a flower pot. But then one day a late teenage girl showed up playing Trane on a sax and I was quite moved.

It's funny how most major newspapers in Spain have carried the story on their cover today. To most of them it's quite an scandal that those Americans can't appreciate a good musician playing Bach. A few sensible comments say that same thing would happen in Spain unless the artist was Bisbal (current teenage idol here, I wouldn't dare call him artist or musician) or one of the better known rock bands. Maybe they should repeat the experiment with U2 or Beyonce.

I do agree with Michael Seltzer, his numbers are right. Very few people attend classical concerts.

As for the US $ 3,5 million Stradivarious, it gives me a whole new perspective on the price of the Leica M8...

12:30 PM  
Blogger thechrisproject said...

I think I agree with bruce, there is a lesson about exhibiting images here. The general lesson is about perception of quality, and I suppose that's applicable to viewing prints or just viewing the world, but the image exhibition angle is what intrigued me.

I'm at the point now where I want to begin exhibiting some of my work. So far I've just been putting pictures on Flickr and hoping for the best, but I'm better now and think I should choose a context better than that for my photographs. Coffee shop? Local gallery?

I'll find out.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

When's the last time you stopped in a coffee shop to appreciate photographs on the wall? IMHO that's about the worst possible place to exhibit photographs, because to look at pictures on the wall, viewers have to hover over strangers at the tables adjacent to the pictures. It's one of the few places where even I won't look at pictures. Except maybe the one I happen to be sitting under.


12:48 PM  
Blogger Son of Food said...

I wouldn't discount Joshua Bell for the "cute factor." Okay, maybe he's a little past that stage, but I heard him perform in Bloomington, Indiana about eight years ago, and I don't think I've encountered so many screaming teenage girls at a classical music performance before or since.

--David A. Goldfarb

1:14 PM  
Blogger Bill Turner said...

I would like to thank you for publishing this article, the original.
I have a very strong musical background and have found many "buskers" to have incredible talent.
Should you get the opportunity, go to St. Augustine, Fl and take a quick, or not so quick, walk down the main road (St George Street)and listen to some great talent. Some great stuff is there!

2:19 PM  
Blogger dasmb said...

Mike -- I *always* check out the art on the walls at coffee houses but sadly, it's rarely to appreciate it. More often it winds up being the subject of mockery between me and my wife, who spent three semesters as an art education major and has very strong opinions about anything artistic.

For example, she tells me every print I make is too dark, and that nobody cares about my boring pictures of grey buildings. She's right, too.

A real concern when exposing art to people in a populist environment that doesn't elevate the art or the artist is that, similar to your "Great Photographers on the Internet," everybody's a critic. It takes real effort to just enjoy or not enjoy this kind of art and leave the bitterness to the coffee.

3:50 PM  
Blogger XXX said...

I found the posting on the Washington Post article to be completely within the parameters of this blog in that it relates to culture, art and music and that, in turn, relates to photography in my book. I especially found the reference to Kant's work to be insightful with regard to all these internet sites such as Flickr, You Tube, My.Space - et al. You can find great things on each of these sites and visiting them occasionally I'm constantly amazed at what I come across but after a short visit the experience takes on the allure of a midnight diner. It served a purpose but its not someplace I'd care to linger unlike say, the Getty or the Louvre, where the ambiance is part of the experience.

In reference to the comments made about American culture and not having the time or "I would have stopped if I was in that situation", etc. As an expat living in Europe I've encountered several opportunities to stop and watch public performances given by various musicians, from a guy with a guitar busking around town [over the Christmas holidays] to several string quartets given at a museum with open access to a tram stop. On each of these occasions I did stop partly because I had the time [and yes, I was carrying my camera] and partly because of my personal background with music.

To be quite honest I gave the busker much more of my attention because I could relate to what he was doing in that I play the guitar and I knew some of his repertoire. I don't think he drew hardly any interest outside of the occasional coin dropped in his case which seemed more out of an act of mercy.

The two string quartets [in classical music this is my most favored mode of performance] drew a smattering of attention by say 20+ listeners and though I stopped I quickly lost interest as the setting itself seemed to be below the music and the performances being presented. Honestly, I thought to myself what are these musicians doing here? Its not that the setting wasn't made for the occasion - an open courtyard with a roof to allow performances at most times of the year - and, as mentioned, its part of a museum. For some reason it just didn't set well with me. So I walked on.

I didn't make any photographs of any of these performers either. They weren't that interesting to look at and, if I had started making photographs, I probably would have disrupted the experience for the others who had stopped to listen. What I'm trying to get at here is that I had the time, I had the interest and I had the opportunity to make whatever choices I felt appropriate in the given moment, which leads me to this [rather harsh] question: Just because some person pulls out a violin or a harmonica or any one of a myriad of instruments to choose from, does that mean we are obligated to stop whatever we are doing and pay them some attention? Personally, I think not. This is not some sort of Pavlovian exercise in cultural aptitude. Someone pulls out a musical instrument and we're supposed to stop and start salivating? A person plays as they wish and we listen [or not] as we wish.

When I go to hear music, or view photographs or watch a movie I go there as a form of request to experience these things at my discretion not because someone else chooses when and where or how I'm supposed to respond. As the cliche goes, its a free world. I think this loosely relates to making photographs as well. How many? When? Where? Why? It depends...

2:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As you wrote Mike, this might largely be a result of a busy life for most people. People these days will rather watch a movie about someone living than actually taking charge of their own lives. It's a sad state of affairs. We hurry to die for what? A nicer car, a larger house, fashionable clothes? It beats me how people can actually get satisfaction from climbing the social and corporate ladders. I would gladly have come late to a meeting had I encountered Bach on my way to work. In fact, I recently had to delay my journey to the office so I could hear the Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould. I just woke up one morning and had to hear it right there and then! I put on the CD, made a cup of tea and had a heavenly morning watching the sun rise through my livingroom window as Gould hummed along with variato no. 7...

2:46 AM  
Blogger Player said...

I bet most people would have stopped if it was someone like James Taylor performing solo acoustic versions of songs like "Fire And Rain," or Carolina On My Mind." Even if he was incognito.

Why? Maybe because it's music that most folks are familiar with, and it strikes a resonant chord with listeners. Maybe great violin playing just isn't universally appreciated. Maybe about 3% of the population (reflected by the fact that only 30 out of about 1100 people stopped to listen), actually appreciate great violin playing. Maybe it's as simple as that.

3:55 AM  
Blogger Marshall said...

A wonderfully deep topic.

Reading the Post article, I was struck by two thoughts: 1) I'm sorry not to have happened through and noticed this; and 2) I'm even sorrier to think I likely would have been just as hurried as everyone else and not noticed it.

12:25 PM  
Blogger witek said...

>with easy access to music everywhere (...) We're at a point where amazing classical performances are routinely used as background for nature footage on TV.

>Just because some person pulls out a violin (...) does that mean we are obligated to stop (...) and pay them some attention?

Who said we are,
Wrong question,
ask if we are able to experience "the real thing (tm)" yet.
It doesn't matter if this is clasical or tribal.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Yesterday the Independent, a UK broadsheet, published an article about Tasmin Little conducting the same experiment outside Waterloo, a mainline rail station in London. (See I found it startling quite how similar her experience was to Joshua Bell's, perhaps illustrating that this is a universal phenomenon, not an isolated incident. If so, it's worryingly telling for all of us, I think.

4:15 PM  

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