About Kevin

Kevin is a Grammy nominated artist, podcaster, and indie musician advocate. He resides in Portland, OR where he is the Director of Marketing for CD Baby (cdbaby.com). Oh, yeah, he also plays guitar in Smalltown Poets.
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    The Paradox – Too Many Choices = No Decision

    I read an interview with Barry Schwartz who wrote, The Paradox of Choice: How More Is Less, and I have to say he put into words a lot of what I have been feeling as a music consumer and an artist.

    For the music consumer: The Paradox of Choice highlights that we have way too many options to choose from in our daily lives. More than our brains really want to handle! For example, we flip through 200 TV channels and feel like there is nothing on TV. This is exactly how I felt when I tried out a music subscription service for the first time. I suddenly had access to just about any album I could ever want to listen to, and oddly enough, I couldn’t think of one album that I wanted to hear. I honestly sat there thinking, “Why did I suddenly lose all desire to listen to something?” I don’t think I ever used the service because trying to decide on what to listen to was just too overwhelming. As new music business models emerge, I think understanding this paradox will be key to success. Sometimes giving the consumer everything can be more of a stumbling block (even if they don’t know it). What music fans are missing is active engagement with music, not musical choices. If the focus continues to be on the number of musical options, we might get to a point where the fans feel like not choosing anything at all is their best option.

    For the musician: In my own musical pursuits, I have seen how having more options at my disposal actually serves to stifle my creativity. Instead of finding a creative way to make due with limited resources, I spend hours searching for the perfect keyboard or guitar sound, never truly satisfied as there is always another patch or effect that might be better than what I’m currently using. Some of my most creative moments are when I pick up a single instrument and am forced to make that sound work. Would The Beatles have been able to finish Sgt. Pepper if they had been recording with unlimited tracks and effect plugins? Would it have been a creative masterpiece? Try limiting yourself, as it will open up a whole new world of possibilities, and that’s the paradox!

    • http://www.robertleeking.com Robert Lee King

      I cannot disagree more here.

      Choice is not the problem, nor is active engagement. We live in a world today where entertainment is just that, entertainment.

      The music industry isn’t failing, the fans are dying off.

      Those people who would buy EVERYTHING by an artist and didn’t give a rip if it was good or bad. I once paid .50 cents plus postage for a computer printout of Blue Oyster Cults then current album “Mirrors” lyrics. That was 1979. That printout adorned my bedroom wall for many years and moves to follow.

      The kind who would sleep all night on the street just for the chance to get a ticket to the show.

      Those who would travel half way around the world just to see they’re favorite act no matter the cost.

      Those people largely no longer exist.

      It isn’t that there is too much choice but too little interest.

      U2 fans, don’t want the new U2 album.

      Bruce Springstein(sp?) fans don’t want the new Bruce album.

      Prince fans couldn’t care less about his new 3 album opus.

      And they certainly don’t care about joe no-name either.

      Check the sales numbers. Even superstars seldom go even gold, never mind platinum and above in sales.

      No, choise isn’t the problem, even with 200+ channels on television, there truly is nothing on television worth watching more often than not. The same is true in music. Sure there are hundreds of thousands of tracks available but, there are also less and less that are even remotely worth listening to.

      By the way, your take on The Beatles is way off base. The Beatles, especially John and George were sound seeking junkies. Using a loudspeaker as a microphone to get a particular bass sound. Using a toilet to get an unusual vocal sound, etc. The list goes on and on and that’s just them. Don’t let the times fool you, The Beatles did in fact have unlimited choices and tracks to work with. Read the Abbey Road Sessions engineering book. It’s quite illuminating.

      On a personal level, myself, I know my sound. I don’t need to search through a ton of plug-ins or processors for a given song even though I do have them available to me. I know in the first few notes or chords whether that sound will work or not.

      Granted my humble efforts mostly suck but it’s my sound, not Stevie Ray/Metallica/The Beatles etc I’m going for.

      If more musicians would find their sound, perhaps, just perhaps, a new generation of fans might be found and nurtured.

    • http://musicalthought.wordpress.com Ben

      Kevin is clearly on to something here.
      Perhaps there is a reverse correlation between options and value projections? I.e. – now that I can choose any track at no cost why would I select one track from the crowd?
      Certainly, and this springs from Kevin’s well chosen image at the top of the post, there is much marketing research to indicate that people tend to make a small number of different choices when faced with a larger number of options.
      The book, Iconoclast, by Gregory Berns discusses the way the mind works. Included is a great section on how fear can drive our choices.
      My question, when faced with too many options (tv, music subscription, music gear) do some people lock up because of a fear that they will “have no excuse for not finding the “best” option?” Have we created a cultural situation where only those who “dig up” the best indie artists are valued? Where only those who find the “new sound” are valued? Thus, the fear is, if I have all the options, I can only fail miserably or succeed fully?
      I think we have lost quite a bit of middle ground where learning and exploration can occur freely.

    • http://musicalthought.wordpress.com Ben

      Iconoclast, by the way, is from 2008.
      By Gregory Berns.
      In case anyone was interested.

    • http://www.robertleeking.com Robert Lee King

      Actually, Gregory’s book does not discuss how the mind works, it discusses his theories on how the mind works. A huge distinction.

      Those who cannot afford Prada, have no problem choosing another brand out of 30 when Prada is in the mix.

      Those who cannot afford Gibson choose a less expensive guitar or none at all out of the hundreds of choices available.

      And those presented with a wide choose of free music, choose what sounds good to them or has been recommended by someone who’s tastes they share/trust.

      Choice is not a bad thing, it doesn’t stiffle anything.

      Lack of choice does. Henry Ford sold the Model A in Black only. Not because giving the choice would harmed sales but because his production techniques wouldn’t allow for choice in colors. It would have cost more to make and more to buy and he was making the car every man could own.

      Of course, once you could choose the color of your car, sales went through the roof, even with the higher cost.

      A very wise man once said, “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history, are doomed to repeat them.”

      We would all do well to ignore these marketer/pundit/thinker types who clearly have learned nothing from history. No, I’m not saying ignore Kevin:)

    • http://diymusicians.com DIY Musicians

      Hi Kevin,

      We hope you’re well.

      Hasn’t the notion of there being too much music become something of a misnomer? For a while now there has been far more music available than one could ever listen to in a lifetime.

      Stop for a moment and consider all the different things you can see, hear, smell, or feel.

      Which of them do you usually tune out? From birth we start learning to filter information out and to prioritise, label and classify the phenomena we observe. This is a vital process. Without it we literally could not function in our day-to-day lives. If we did not filter information and discard options we would suffer from analysis paralysis: the inability to make any decision in the face of the complexity and the ambiguity of the real world.

      Decision making can be regarded as an outcome of a cognitive process leading to the selection of a course of action among several alternatives. Every decision making process produces a final choice. BUT, during the process, one is exposed to many cognitive biases (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases ) that shape the final outcome – which is what Ben’s ‘fear’ comment refers to.

      And there is no exception when it comes to music, whether the latest release or otherwise. One is influenced (encouraged to ‘discover’ a particular artist, track or album) by trusted sources of information (aka ‘taste maker’) – i.e. friends, community, other bands and certain media. Collectively known as the ‘voice’ of opinion.

      (… if their goal is to make a living from their music)

      The instance you refer to with the subscription service certainly sounds like analysis paralysis. It sounds like your brain needed to organise the chaos in some way…

      Would your decision have been made easier if:
      A trusted friend, community, band, brand or media source had shared their playlist with you beforehand?
      You could select tracks by genre, decade, BPM?
      You could select tracks based on your emotion at that time?
      You could select tracks beginning with a certain letter?
      Tracks played at random?
      Recommendations based on your iTunes data?
      A band was advertising on the service?

      Robert Lee King is being misled by figures that do not measure music consumption in it’s entirety (they exclude illegal downloads, P2P and Spotify etc) so it’s understandable that he believes fans are dying off. BUT what he’s really witnessing is a change in the way music is being consumed.

      The average fan is unlikely to know how many sales are required to reach Gold or Platinum status because it’s just not related to their enjoyment of the record. We’re not suggesting fans are ignorant, we’re simply suggesting this is not something considered to be part of the experience.

      That said, Robert is correct to point out that the Beatles (and their producer, George Martin) harnessed the latest technology available to revolutionise the way music was recorded.

      Great topic of discussion for a post, Kevin – thanks.

      Kindest regards,


    • http://www.robertleeking.com Robert Lee King


      Thanks for the mention but I’m not being misled one bit. I do not take illegal downloads, p2p or Spotify into account because none of these are fan platforms. Fans buy music, consumers steal it or stream it.

      Look at Graceland or Dollywood. People visiting those places are fans. Most of them have more memorabilia than the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame does.

      Beatles fans even today, often own most if not all of the available vinyl, cassettes, 8 tracks, cds, ticket stubs, posters etc ever released. Often investing thousands in purportedly rare recordings and so on. These are fans.

      My point is, fans take ownership of their favorites. And know as much as possible about them. Music consumers do not.

      Remember Circus magazine? Yes, it still exists. The difference is, in the past, this was a magazine for the fan. You could and did, learn a great deal about the acts. Today, it’s one long glossy commercial. Sadly, the same is true of the majority of music publications today, even web based publications.

    • http://diymusicians.com DIY Musicians

      Hi Robert, thanks for your response.

      A fan is arguably the most important kind of CONSUMER any musician can attract.

      (BTW : We’re not suggesting one should ignore a casual consumer, whom will collectively generate the larger share of income should you become a mainstream act. We just think it’s worth remembering that a fan will still be a fan long after the casuals have gone)

      Beatles, Elvis and Dolly Parton fans are of an older demographic. TNS data suggests older fans still prefer a physical copy to a digital one and perhaps that explains why the Beatles catalogue is yet to be made available digitally. Interestingly, all your examples are of physical products too…
      “vinyl, cassettes, 8 tracks, cds, ticket stubs, posters”

      Fan behaviour has evolved yet your view of what a fan is has not.
      We appreciate and understand that your view is one likely to be shared by ‘old school’ fans and record company execs alike but what about the new breed of fan? The future.

      Whether we like it or not, younger fans now consider ‘FREE’ to be normal – even when yourself and the record companies call it stealing. Due to its nature, this kind of FREE cannot be measured accurately – which is why we questioned your decision to substantiate the point regarding U2, Bruce Springsteen (note how we’ve spelt it correctly) and Prince with traditional (Gold/Platinum) sales figures.

      With regard to: “consumers steal it” and “fans take ownership of their favorites. And know as much as possible about them. Music consumers do not”…
      A lot of the seriously hardcore Guns n’ Roses FANS had an illegal copy of Chinese Democracy years before its physical release. By your own estimation, that means:
      They’re not really fans at all, they’re consumers… and
      As consumers, they do not know anything about Guns n’ Roses?

      With regard to: “because none of these are fan platforms”
      Casting aside substantiation in favour of personal opinion does not constitute a reasonable answer but thanks for your response none the less.

      Kindest regards,


    • http://www.robertleeking.com Robert Lee King

      DIY Musucuans,

      It seems my posts have been coming across as far too negative of late so, I’ll just drop out of this discussion here. Believe whatever you wish, time will prove the issue one way ot the other.

    • http://kevinbreuner.com KevinB

      I would not say that choice is a bad thing, but too many choices can be stifling. The scenarios Robert presents are all situations with very limited choices. Car sales may have gone up when people could choose the color, but it was really a very limited amount of choices. Maybe 5 colors. If the car lot had 256 color options on the lot, I bet you would see more people pacing back and forth trying to decide on a color, than actually buying cars. The guitar scenario doesn’t quite fit either because there are limitations already in place as well, with someone’s budget being a determining factor. That actually made the choice for them. The difference with music is that there are limitless tracks available for consumers/fans to choose from. They all cost exactly the same. Deciding which one to choose out of the millions is a daunting task.

    • http://www.garnerband.com James

      Kevin, I won’t comment on the consumer, but what you say about the musician resonates with me. One acoustic guitar and a notebook gets me my best song ideas (although a thesaurus sure helps). There seems to be an infinite amount of tools to use, but the people I most respect are those who’ve just chosen a few and use them more effectively than anyone I know or have heard.

      Keep up the blogging