The other day, I was seeking out new music to play while I worked out. I like to take my drumsticks with me while I exercise on the treadmill, drumming along (air-drumming, if you will) to whatever blues or R&B songs I’ve got on my workout playlist at the time. Note: Before trying this yourself, make sure to find a treadmill without anyone to either side of you. Air drumming can get pretty involved. You will receive stares from other gym’ites, so be proud and play on. The time goes by fast and your upper body will feel it.
In my quest for some new stuff I came across an oldie but a goodie—“Walk Away from Love,” a single from The Temptations, back when the late, great David Ruffin was their lead singer. If you know anything at all about Ruffin, you know that he had a tremendous voice; you may also know that he died under suspicious circumstances. I found one report that claimed he had a belt containing $300,000 on him when he died. A different report placed it closer to $40,000. Who’s to say, really?
Anyway, I was enjoying the song on YouTube, and noticed a few noteworthy statistics. First, the song has 9.9 million views—not bad at all for a song that’s been around so long. Second, 75,000 people have given it a thumbs up. Third, and most distressingly, 5,300 listeners have given the song a thumbs down.
This got me thinking about the way in which data governs our listening habits—and many other aspects of our lives. Frankly, I think there are many people who missed out on the original David Ruffin era, and who will never take the time to familiarize themselves with this great song—purely because they see so many thumbs down votes on that YouTube video.
Let me be clear: My feelings aren’t hurt if you listen to the song and don’t like it. That’s fine! What bothers me –concerns me as an artist– is that, rather than take a chance on discovering something new—rather than having a real experience—many listeners will look at the stats and decide to just move on.
But what do those stats even mean? The 9.9 million views is somewhat relevant, but the thumbs down votes are data points without any context. We don’t know anything about the people who voted the song down; frankly, we don’t know whether they have any kind of musical taste or not. For all we know they run on the treadmill of life out of time. We also don’t know why they voted thumbs down—because a thumbs up or a thumbs down is just an opinion, not an insight. Maybe they hated the song. Or maybe they’re actually David Ruffin super-fans, but felt that this particular recording didn’t do his legacy justice.
By no means am I opposed to data. Data can offer invaluable insight—but only when it’s presented with actual context. Data that’s offered in a vacuum can range from empty to misleading. You probably know the old expression: There are lies, there are damn lies, and then there are statistics.
And this isn’t just about music, incidentally. I have similar frustrations about Yelp reviews. Some guy gives a restaurant one star out of five—but what does that mean to me? How do I know this guy knows anything at all about food? How do I know he’s not the owner of a different restaurant, just down the block?
We all have more and more information at our fingertips—whether it’s Yelp reviews, YouTube votes, Spotify-curated playlists, or Google search data. And I must say, I find it amusing that, in so many instances, we accept this context-free data at face value and allow it to shape our experiences, determining which songs we play and which restaurants we try. Meanwhile, on a factual question about the death of David Ruffin, we really don’t know much of anything. Was it $300,000 or $40,000 he had on him? Or none of the above?
Here’s my message: Don’t let algorithms rob you of real experience. Don’t let floating data points prevent you from taking a chance on real discovery. Try a new restaurant without reading the reviews. Seek out a song you’ve never heard before. Music remains the best among many good options for expanding your mind—and in today’s numbers-centered world, there’s something really brave about just taking a chance on a new tune, algorithms be damned.