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“Where have all the musical geniuses gone?”

In his recent blog post, Eric Beall (Berklee Music) quotes Jason Flom (Lava Records) as follows:

“Where have all the musical geniuses gone? Why has this generation not produced even one musical genius on the level of Dylan or Sly Stone, or John Lennon, or Prince?”

Within his post, Beall offers a sensible answer to Flom’s question. However, I want to try out an alternative explanation. Here it is:

The ‘geniuses’ still exist, but ‘genius’ can no longer be manufactured.

When Jason Flom talks about genius, no doubt he’s talking about widespread adoption, unbounded adoration and enduring commercial success. Now think about this in terms of the song adoption formula I wrote about two weeks ago.

Fans = Listeners * Optimal Frequency Rate * Social Situation Rate * Resonation Rate

  • Listeners - a song obviously needs as many listeners as possible.
  • Optimal Frequency Rate - a song needs maximum spins (plays) within a compact span of time.
  • Social Situation Rate - a song needs maximum socialization during that same time period.
  • Resonation Rate - the percentage of listeners that a song easily resonates with.

(Note: in this post, I updated ‘conversion rate’ to ‘resonation rate’ in the formula.)

The formula stipulates that for a song to achieve ‘genius’, all the variables in the formula have to push up and max out. If you plug the formula into a spreadsheet and play around with scenarios, you will notice (it’s all multiplication), that a single low variable sinks a song. In other words, you need ALL the variables to work for you to achieve (or to manufacture) Flom-genius.

Labels could manufacture genius in 1995.
There was a time when record labels could assert control over every variable in the formula. If A&R felt they were sitting on an artist or song (a rocket) that lots of people would (or potentially would) fall in love with (high resonation rate potential), the remaining variables could be pushed up and maxed out through promotion, specifically through FM radio. Radio delivered a large number of captive listeners, the highest optimal frequency rate, and it was very social.

Labels can’t manufacture genius in 2009.
Nobody can control the song adoption equation. It’s a perfect storm:

  • Modern music consumption happens via the Internet.
  • It happens through handheld devices.
  • It happens through thousands of different channels.
  • The power of radio is obviously diminishing.
  • Audiences are more fragmented than ever.
  • You can’t control spin-frequency in an iPod.
  • You can’t force individuals to spin a song within a social setting.
  • There’s a limited quantity of, and intense competition for, mass-exposure slots.
  • The per-unit price of music has dropped to almost nothing.
  • Competition for listener attention is intensifying.
  • Every artist is a promoter now.

And in this perfect storm, it has becomes a fool’s risk to overly invest in attempting to influence the rate of repetition and socialization; the failure rate is too high and the ROI is too low. (Digital music can’t be marketed.) As a consequence, influence over repetition and socialization is going organic. In 2009, the best promoters and labels can do, outside of obtaining a rare mass-exposure slot, is to ‘help’ consumers virally promote (spin, share, socialize) artists and songs for them.

So where have all the geniuses gone?  They still exist, but ‘genius’ can no longer be manufactured.

Control what you can control.
Fortunately for everyone, there’s a variable in the equation that you can still control. It’s Resonation Rate (the percentage of listeners that a song easily resonates with). Nobody can manufacture genius. There’s not enough return on investment to do anything but let consumers promote for you. However, you (the real geniuses) can develop artists and iteratively improve songs until they resonate with your target audience.

Shorten the feedback loop - drive your resonation rate.
Anything you can do to shorten the feedback loop, which is the time between creation and actionable feedback, is something that enables you to iteratively improve more rapidly.

Think about the feedback loop in 1995. Music was expensive to make and distribute, and actionable feedback was difficult to obtain. It took months, if not years, to obtain fan, target market, mass-market or industry feedback.

The great thing about the perfect storm described above, it produces lots of rapid and meaningful feedback. In 2009, you can go from creation, to distribution, to feedback in under sixty minutes. Moreover, there are new sites (Trendrr, BandMetrics, and RockDex come to mind) that will supply you with a continual stream of trend and feedback data as you and/or your songs zigzag through the marketplace.

Let everything else go organic.
I will wrap this up by saying that if you trust the song adoption formula; if you trust that everyone is loosing control over most of the variables in the formula; and if you trust that songs are going to get easier - not harder - to find in the future, then place your emphasis (your bets) on patient artist development and thoughtful song improvement…and then let everything else go organic.


about Bruce Warila

Reader Comments (23)

I'd say the number one reason for the 'lack of genius' is the amazing amount of options and choices out there. There are so many varied forms and derivative forms of music that have evolved and splintered over the past 60 years that it's nearly impossible for one artists to capture the imagination of all sectors of the audience.

I personally believe there is genius out there, lots of it that I listen to all the time, but you just might not think so because it doesn't speak directly to you.

It's a new day

Elliott Smith, Thom Yorke, Björk and Jeff Buckley. Aren't they genius? If mass success is need to be a genius, Michel Jackson was the last one.

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Bruce, I thought you were going to address the genius issue not the huge number of fans and widespread appeal issue!

"Dylan or Sly Stone, or John Lennon, or Prince"

You're not saying these guys incredible artistic abiliites were manufactured by an industry seeking to maximize attention and financial gain, are you? I think you're addressing a different topic.

In any case, these guys were/are geniuses but that doesn't mean all their work was that great. They all put out some lousy songs, IMHO. But their status as world-class entertainers who got the genius seal of approval certainly required the mass media machine that emerged in the 20th Century at the same time as the concept of the universal genius was entering endgame.

Not that the genius concept is going away anytime soon but this whole thing of crafting wonderful songs from a limited range of acceptable sounds to produce a universally meaningful artefact is certainly running dry, though someone like Colin Monroe serves as a reminder that you can still write an old fashioned song with meaning while interfacing successfully with the 21st Century.

The thing is, the 20th Century took a lot of artistic efforts to endgame, for example, the very notion of art was explored and expanded to such a degree that when most people say that an artist is experimental, it's because they don't know the history of the particular field or they mean experimental in a personal sense.

For musicians working in popular formats, as did all the artists in that short list of geniuses, the question is what does one do once all the cool stuff's already been done in those genres?

That's why I totally stopped listening to anything but jazz and hip hop for awhile, old jazz and new hip hop. It just seemed like every young rock band was simply doing their version of something that came before. So much of contemporary music is so fully defined that most musical artists have become people keeping folk traditions alive as if they were classical orchestras that only played new stuff that sounded like old stuff.

I'm starting to ramble. Short version: the universal genius is dead but let's stop blaming the artists and the industry and recognize that we're at a different point in history now. It's more complicated than simply having a lot more options to get in the way of forcing everyone into an artificially shared culture.

But looking for geniuses among people who are simply really good at keeping old traditions alive isn't going to lead one to the kind of genius that created those traditions.

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterClyde Smith

Oops, that's Colin Munroe, my bad on the spelling.

For the record, Jack White got me listening to new rock music again. Of course, that's cause he reminds me of old stuff I like!

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterClyde Smith

Bruce is right about genius being "manufactured."

The musical monoculture is gone, for better or for worse, and now each musical genius is condemned to work only within their niche. There are tons and tons of musical geniuses out there today, probably more than there were in the past. The problem is that we see them on the backdrop of so much history, that we, WE, the listeners, can't help but draw parallels to the past.

Black Mountain would have toured alongside Black Sabbath, and maybe outsold them back in the day. The Flaming Lips would have competed right alongside the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Jack White would have upstaged Jim Morrison.

The past is over-idealized, and the present is underrated.

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

I agree with the other Justin.

The celebrity machine that put Dylan and Lennon on that pedestal got corrupted and nobody trusts it. There's definitely just as many talented people. In fact, there's definitely more now.

It's a lot like the NBA: there's no new Jordan because a whole generation grew up watching him, and now there's literally dozens, if not hundreds, of young players who operate at his level.

The most astonishing thing about the 60s/70s era isn't how many "geniuses" there were in the's how many other, equally genius artists got overlooked and ignored by that same celebrity machine. That's less of a problem today, and I think that's a goooooooooood thing.

July 29 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

With the 'geniuses' of yesteryear their contribution was so closely tied to a bigger cultural or musical movement. Dylan provided the voice of a younger generation that wanted to be heard. Hendrix did on guitar things that no one else did before.

Today, things move so quickly it is difficult for any 'movement' to take shape or take root. It's a five second listen, a two second investment and then on to the next thing. There is no need for a Dylanesque voice to rise up and 'speak for the people'. By the time the Dylanesque voice clears it's throat, everyone is gone.

It's not a bad thing -just a different thing. A different world than 1968. Or 1978. Or 1988.

Also, the flipside of the 'manufactured' music is this- there is no third party -no 'label' that will come along and give an artist opportunity to grow. No label on Earth would allow a U2 to make Boy then a lesser October to reach a breakthrough with a 'War'. Never. It is entirely up to the artist now. Which is difficult when the 4 or 5 guys have to eat when they are not making music.

Not bad, just different.

July 29 | Unregistered CommenterKeith

"Hendrix did on guitar things that no one else did before."

That's a great example of what I'm talking about. Hendrix and all sorts of experimental guitar guys that most people have never heard of did everything you can do with a guitar as it currently exists as a historical object.

You'd have to invent new instruments to get something new, that's why most of what you could call groundbreaking these days comes from producers acting in an artistic rolel.

Breaking your guitar up onstage used to mean something. Now it's a tradition, a cliche, etc. etc.

As is not breaking your guitar or pretending to break your guitar or talking about how cool it was back in the day when people were breaking guitars or sharing insider tips about artists breaking cheap guitars after playing a concert on a much better guitar.

Even the discussions are exhausted.

So there probably is as much "genius", whatever the heck that means, as there ever was.

@Justin Boland:
"It's a lot like the NBA: there's no new Jordan because a whole generation grew up watching him, and now there's literally dozens, if not hundreds, of young players who operate at his level."

Yes and no. The overall quality of all sports is going up due to things like being able to watch the best on tv or the web and an increasingly complex infrastructure of research, training and development.

But dozens of MJ's? I think not!

July 29 | Unregistered CommenterClyde Smith

My Genius Thoughts:

I hope I'm very wrong but I think it is possible that we are running out of Great Everlasting Melodies and Songs. In the last 50 years so many rhythms and beats, chords and chord changes have been explored which lead to Great Everlasting Melodies and Songs. The genius is out there but doesn't have the resources anymore. The well is drying up.

Soul Magnolia

July 29 | Unregistered CommenterSoul Magnolia

it's a personal challenge of mine to convince artists that it's a promotion-does-not-work (as just described above) problem. Genius just didn't dry up, go away, or get exhausted. There's another problem. The problem is rooted in the way that people interact with music now.

For the last 15 to 20 years labels have focused on every variable in the formula but Resonation Rate, and focusing on these other variables didn't work!
- You can’t control spin-frequency in an iPod.
- You can’t force individuals to spin a song within a social setting.

And, prior to iPods there were other similar music consumption hurdles that labels could not easily overcome (i.e.; the death of rock and alt-rock as profit center. The ROI was killed by file sharing by college kids, thus it became a loosing (impossible) proposition to attempt to influence Spin Frequency and Socialization Rate). This is what happened to the 'genius' (widespread adoption, unbounded adoration and enduring commercial success) that labels were/are looking for.

Thanks for the comments. I don't want to sound like I disagree with the themes of the comment thread. They are all valid points. Cheers.

July 29 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

@Bruce Warila
"This is what happened to the 'genius' (widespread adoption, unbounded adoration and enduring commercial success) that labels were/are looking for."

I see what you're saying. That makes a lot of sense and certainly doesn't conflict with the other angles we've explored.

July 29 | Unregistered CommenterClyde Smith

I agree that there definitely are geniuses out there but many are just relegated to their particular niche. What I want to talk about here is both a question and a comment. In the past few year's the music industry, like just about any other industry, has moved heavily into analytics and market research. This was not always the case.

In the past, "expert" music producers and A&R men would choose which artists to develop based on what had been successful in the past AND on what their own hunch was in regards to which artists had the hidden, intangible qualities that could make them the next big thing. As Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out in his book "Blink," market research polls can be unreliable and sometimes people don't always know what they want beforehand -- sometimes an expert is needed to guide them. Who is to say that the public would reject a more "artsy" or "forward-thinking" artist like Andrew Bird or the Jurassic 5? If Black Sabbath formed today, the same arguments would be used against a label throwing a ton of money behind them.

My question is this: Who is to say that rejecting this "expert" paradigm is for the better? Has it really improved the staying power of artists? Has it really improved art and culture? I think it is at least important to consider the question of whether this market research/analytical model is an improvement.

Don't get me wrong these tools are important to use. I like Bruce's suggestion about creating a feedback loop with your fans, to gauge your songs. But these tools should not be the only thing driving the decision making of the labels. An obsession with public opinion can often be dangerous (look no further than California, a state that votes on every issue and surprise! they are in an inordinate amount of debt because people vote for more services yet lower taxes) and a heavy reliance on statistics does not necessarily prove to be successful (Anyone that has read "Moneyball" should note that the Oakland A's have consistently been terrible for the better part of a decade now). I for one say bring the expert model back. It can do no worse.

July 29 | Unregistered CommenterPat W

Another point I want to throw out there is that, I think, people in this country (the US) take our culture way less seriously than they did in the past. I stand by my previous comment about there being plenty of geniuses today, and the past being over-idealized.

But one thing that I don't think is overidealized about the past is the dedication with which the audience paid attention to what musicians and artists were trying to say. Trying to make a statement in any art form today is basically impossible, because there is no consensus among the audience as to what is worth talking about.

This, along with the availability and oversupply of music has lead to ADD in the listenership. I hear a phenomenal new band practically each week, but who has time to really dig into one or two artists these days, when there is so much more to hear next week? There is a lack of demand for fetishized, "meaningful" artists among most listeners. Either you are over 40, and only want to listen to the Eagles and all the other bands that had hits when you were a kid, or you are under 30 and listen to music like drinking water.

What was the last really meaningful glass of water you drank?

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid. Out-geniuses every name listed above.

Discuss. :)

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterDubber

@Justin - I always go back and forth on the issue of whether or not people care the same, more, or less about culture than they have before. I tend to go with the thought that the "amount of caring" about culture hasn't changed, just the things in which we have shifted our attention to contains considerably less intrinsic value. In regards to music specifically, one day I will look at the Billboard charts and just see tons of singles of debatable quality, and the next day I will be at a show and see people singing their soul out to an artist that actually has substance. I do believe that ultimately, if the artist continues to create excellent music, the listener will come back.

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Hayen

"What was the last really meaningful glass of water you drank?"

I find drinking water very meaningful, to be perfectly honest and real. It's a core part of my survival and I pay attention to the experience.

On the other hand, I don't usually notice each breath I take unless the quality of the air is really good or bad.

So I don't know how that analogy holds up.

But I'm over 40 and haven't listened to the Eagles in years though I did reference Hotel California just the other day!

I'm going to assume you're being extreme on the age binary to make a point but if you consistently organize your thinking around absolutes and binaries, you're f*cked, homie!

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterClyde Smith

The Internet gives a plethora of new choices and ways for new music to be discovered, but also introduces more noise, which has to be filtered out.

August 3 | Unregistered CommenterKawika

The majority are incapable of identifying genius. Pop music exists for the majority and is throw-away for that very reason: it is for the masses.

The majority are usually taught what or who was genius after the genius has gone. The Beatles, Prince, or Michael Jackson influence pop culture beyond music through their fashion, style, movies, and art.

U2 do not influence nearly the same level to be called genius, they sell records, but do not influence much pop culture, two of the members have as much personality as yogurt and no one would notice if they were replaced.

American Idol has more cultural pop influence than Dylan or U2 will ever have, but American Idol, again, is a multimedia pop phenomenon built to save the record industry, much like the Disney pop franchise. And American Idol, just like Disney (ABC and ESPN and theme parks and movies on and on) rely on owning the multimedia channels to push their prepackaged marketing.

Prince did not need a corporate record deal to achieve the genius label. He blazes his own trail and when he is dead he will be largely written about and spoken of as a genius. People will need to be taught about Prince, just as people are taught about Dylan, Stravinsky, or Monk.

Good discussion.

Toby Elwin

August 9 | Unregistered CommenterToby Elwin


August 25 | Unregistered CommenterM.MALLOY

The present is always underrated, and always was. Genius is thick underfoot, (always was) but always ahead of the zeitgeist; it takes a while for tastemakers, critics and musicologists to sort this stuff out, and nobody will know who was ahead of the curve, 'til we've rounded the bend. Of those, the ones that are still making relevant music will be hailed as geniuses. (I'm thinking of David Bowie, right now) Eighty percent of popular music is dreck, the genius music is the stuff that finds its way into the mainstream and sticks there, achieving a cultural relevance that's beyond the moment of its inception. This whole discussion seems pretty myopic to me, and Soul Magnolia's post puts me in mind of that fella back in the thirties, or was it the late eighteen hundreds, that wanted to close the Patent Office, cuz he was convinced that everything had already been invented. As of yet, only a portion of the culture has changed; large media conglomerates still exert a great deal of influence over what gets heard in the mainstream, and will exert more as soon as they figure out how, at which point the current window of opportunity for independents will close, until the next phase.

October 21 | Unregistered CommenterMojo Bone


You have a very limited and superficial grasp of music it seems. U2's Achtung Baby was only recently voted by that uber cool hipster magazine - Spin as being the most influential album of the last 25 years. I agree.

June 17 | Unregistered CommenterChris

There is one.. his name is Matthew Bellamy

January 5 | Unregistered CommenterSam

I have two words for you all: John Frusciante. The man has 12 BRILLIANT and diverse solo records, not to mention the work he did with RHCP (made their best album Blood Sugar Sex Magik at the age of 21!)

April 20 | Unregistered Commentereocha

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