Saturday, September 10, 2011

The BNR Death Metal Tournament; Or, the Triumph of the Classics

Older records on average did better in BNR's death metal tournament. The average age of the releases in each round increased as the tournament moved toward a champion.

You'll note that I adjusted the y-axis from 0, because even in the first round (with the on-average newest releases) the average age was still 16 years old. That's right - the youngest group of records, on average, came out in 1995.

Why might this trend exist? The following possible explanations assume that the number and accessibility of metal releases has remained roughly constant since the late 80s (easy to argue with, more below) and also that the voting represents actual opinion.

1) Maybe the old sh*t is better. This is the most interesting possibility, especially if it generalizes to other areas of art. ("I liked Dali's early stuff but he sold out man.")

2) It's rare that people become metal fans and then later stop liking metal, but as people age, they do stop getting into new bands. Also, most metal fans aren't old enough to be lost through death, and it's not growing any faster than it ever was; so by the population dynamics of metal, most metal fans should have been metal fans for a while. Therefore there may be a tendency for more people to like older stuff. Note that if this is true, the average age should stay constant. So in other words, if they run this tournament again in 10 years, the average age of the first round should stay about 16 years, but then it will mean a release date of about 2005, not 1995.

3) In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb expresses something like Sturgeon's Law ("90% of everything is crap") as it applies to art over time. If 90% of everything is crap, the older something is that has remained accessible and current, the better it's likely to be - assuming quality has even a slight positive correlation with retention of interest in the work over time. Hence, instead of constantly digging for what might be a great work of art or literature or music (but probably won't be), a reliance on classical canons is a good crowd-sourcing strategy. And it's the rare death metal connoisseur who won't enjoy Death's Leprosy, the winner of the tournament.

4) Again generalizeable: maybe early successes in a genre define the genre. These constraints then sow the seeds of the genre's stagnation, because if future works stray from those constraints, they aren't as good; and if future works remain within those constraints, they're boring and not as good. That Leprosy is not compared against Megadeth's Rust in Peace (which won BNR's separate tournament for "regular" metal) but is the winner of its own category is interesting, because it's clearly being measured differently. This might be a good definition for speciation in the arts.

Note that if anything, metal releases have become more abundant and more accessible since the 90s and certainly the 80s. Therefore, if changing accessibility has an effect, it should skew toward the later releases (assuming quality is constant, we would find more good metal albums later, just because there are more metal albums later). So that can't explain what we're seeing here.

Other comments from this peanut gallery, which you should probably dismiss as being expressions of personal taste only:

- I'm surprised that Deicide got as far in this competition as it did. Even when I was 17 it was mostly good for a laugh, although carrying around this tape in school was enough to get me the nickname of Satan, which stuck for years.

- I love both Obituary's Cause of Death and In Flames' Jester Race but if I had to pick one I'd go with the latter. Looking at how the voting went, the neoclassical NWOSDM sound seems to be fading at the close of the metal Silver Age.


Lee Lovejoy said...

Very interesting. I think there's another factor, which is that many fans invest some time getting into a genre by looking into the roots a bit, which will follow cannon. Also, another way of expressing your quality argument is more directly in terms of survival of the fittest, which is that membership in cannon is related to continued appeal. Finally, people are influenced by what they have listened to in that search of cannon (what they are told to find appealing).

Michael Caton said...

The simpler (and more appealing) argument is that the early stuff was better - but the definition of quality complicates things (if good=the first bands, then of course.) Your argument of peer-pressure "founder effect" is an interesting one too.