June 11

Back in the 1990s (the ancient days!), a friend in the music business told me how record labels chose which songs to release as singles to radio. (Keep in mind that I’ve never been able to verify this story, but the source was credible.) They would record a number of songs for an album, then would begin to market test them by playing snippets over the phone to survey participants. The participants were asked to rate the song on a scale of one to five, with one meaning “I would definitely change the radio station” and five meaning “I love this song!” Then they would com- pile the data to determine which songs should be radio singles.

You would think they would release the songs with the most fives, right? Me too. But that’s not the case. What they discovered is that many songs that had a lot of fives also tended to be somewhat polarizing. There were a lot of ones. You either loved these songs or hated them, so they were risky. The songs that tended to perform best overall were the ones with the most threes, because they were just good enough to keep your attention but not nearly as polarizing. Over time, much of the music started sounding the same—predictable, sonically one-dimensional, safe. The goal wasn’t to release great music; it was to keep radio listeners glued to the station so that it could sell more ads. Keep more listeners, and your song plays more.

Are you aiming for the right objectives today? Are your metrics aligned with your creative ambitions, or are you in danger of “shooting for the three” instead of producing your best work?

Invisible, subversive objectives can lead to subpar work.


is there a project in which your assumed outcome is not aligned with the actual desired outcome?

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