No crowd gathered, therefore nothing important happened.

May 9, 2010 | By | 16 Replies More

What happens when one of the finest classical musicians in the world decides to perform incognito in a Washington D.C. subway station for 45 minutes? In January, 2007 violinist Joshua Bell played a string of exquisite musical pieces on his Stradivarius in D.C.’s L’Enfant Metro Station, yet no crowd gathered and only $32 was thrown into his violin case. This is a man who was filling $100 seats at evening concerts at this time, yet barely anyone stopped to listen, and the exceptions to this rule were barely exceptions. Bell was repeatedly disoriented when he heard the total lack of applause at the conclusion of each of his riveting pieces. No one walked up to him and asked for his autograph.

Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better.

The Washington Post described this fascinating experiment in great detail, and provided video as well. The outcome invites conducting another experiment where a sophisticated symphony audience would listen to two symphonies playing behind curtains and were then asked to guess which one consisted of the career musicians and which one consisted of skilled high school students like these. It’s an experiment that would never be run, I assume, because it risks inflicting massive damage and embarrassment on the symphony and its audience.

But there’s another take-away from this experiment. At a gut level, when there is no gathered crowd, it’s not an important event.  A world-class musician playing world-class music should seemingly be of the same importance, existentially speaking, wherever it occurs, whether that be in a packed symphony hall or in Mr. Bell’s living room. But that’s not how the world works. And even when a crowd gathers, it apparently needs to be the right kind of crowd. That is why the final game of the spring training baseball season is not significant, whereas the first game of the official season is of great significance, even though both of them are well attended.

Image by Gigi Weaver - used with permission

Image by Gigi Weaver - used with permission

Politicians are well aware of the power they have when they speak in front of large sympathetic crowds. That is why George W. Bush was notorious for filtering out those people who would dissent at his public events.  And even when a crowd is of a decent size, it needs to look even bigger. Politicians are keenly interested in making certain that the rooms in which they speak are not bigger than the expected crowd–they can’t stand the thought of visuals that include empty seats.   If the crowd won’t fill a baseball stadium completely, they look for a smaller venue such as a basketball arena.  I previously worked for a media-savvy Attorney General, who freely admitted this strategy.

Many commentators have noted that we humans are herd animals.   We tend to do what others do (and this is arguably the psychological basis for the legal principle of stare decisis).  We tend to think what others think. When we see a crowed gathering at a stadium, a political rally, a street corner or a church, we assume that something important is occurring.  When there’s no crowd, our default is that nothing important is happening.  Had Martin Luther King given his “I Had a Dream” speech to only a handful of people it wouldn’t have been such an “important” speech, even it it had later gone viral.   King has given many fascinating interviews, but those interviews (including this one and this one) are barely mentioned in comparison to “I have a Dream,” even though his points were riveting and profound.

I’ve previously written on the way that crowds make events important, and this issue continues to intrigue me. There appears to be a connection to the availability heuristic; we are emotionally tuned to whatever the crowd does –whatever the crowd is doing becomes readily available to us.   Consider also this Monty Python skit, “Thomas Hardy’s Novel Writing Contest,” which constitutes a humorous comment on the “importance” of crowds

The existence (or non-existence) of crowds strongly sets our inner default as to what is important, even though we intellectually know  that the existence of a crowd does not necessarily have anything to do with whether an event is important.  Perhaps the most important thing we can do about our apparently biologically wired tendency to respond to the existence of crowds is to be aware of it and to (at least occasionally) fight this inner compulsion to go with the crowd.


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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (16)

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  1. Ben says:

    But now it seems like this little stunt has actually gotten plenty of attention, rather ironic. 🙂

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    So why are groups of hundreds of Tea Party protesters given so much more press than the groups of tens of thousands of anti-war protesters back in 2003? Liberal media?

  3. People seem to "schedule" appreciation moments. Concerts, at which they pay, sometimes exorbitant rates, are such moments. They know when they take their seat that it's now okay to enjoy the performance, and furthermore that the performance is approved for enjoyment, otherwise the act wouldn't be in the concert hall.

    Wander around Boston Commons and you will hear some amazing solo musicians. Some of them make good coin, because it has become known now that the Commons is the place to go to hear them and has become accepted as one of those places for scheduled moments.

    Add to that the whole overwhelming cult of celebrity we "enjoy" and you have the problem. We are not conditioned to expect or accept art in other than the predetermined venues or times. We're too busy.

    On another level, this shows that many people if not most have almost zero confidence in their own taste. Just because someone is "good" doesn't mean we should acknowledge that, unless many other people also acknowledge it—because the metric by which we determine who is good is based on success, which means money and media exposure. (Chicken and egg? Very much. Nevertheless.)

    Years ago I read an essay by Erica Jong in which she discussed the whole reading culture in America. One comment which really struck me was that most people do not read for pleasure, yet those same people will buy a best seller—why? Because it's a best seller. They wish to associate with success. Of course, this helps create the best seller and reinforce the cycle.

    How does something become a best seller? Best sellers, more often than not, are made, not written. There is a whole machine in place to make a book a best seller, and with a few exceptions it works. Without that machine, a book has little chance.

    The machine slots books into those acceptable moments for enjoyment. Just like music. Just like movies.

    Anyone who has the audacity to presume to do something great outside of those accepted venues will run into the compartmentalized attitudes that have become common.

    No one just stops to smell the roses…it's not on the schedule.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: I think you're right, that it's risky to go out on a limb to highly recommend a "no name" performer, writer, actor. I really would like to know how a bunch of music critics would have reacted had they been walking through that subway stop on the way to work. Or conductors of major orchestras.

      I am reminded of a jazz concert I attended in St. Louis about 25 years ago. I attended a Miles Davis concert with a bunch of people who were really hyped up to hear Miles (I was too). The warm up act was a band led by a guy in his 20's named Wynton Marsalis–the band included his brother Branford and 3 or 4 others. I was utterly blown away by the excellent music. Eventually Miles took the stage and he plunked on an electronic keyboard more than he played the trumpet. It was uninspired and disappointing, in my opinion. Nonetheless, the people around me couldn't stop raving about "Miles" all the way home. I think that they're reaction was almost entirely about expectations.

  4. Oh, and to answer Dan's question—ratings. Which event gets the most ratings?

    The War gets more ratings, so protesting it before it tanks in the ratings is counterproductive as far as the media is concerned. Right wingers protesting the protests is part of the ratings cycle for the war, so they get coverage. Eventually, the war ratings go down because people get tired of it, so protests might get a boost int he ratings because now they're popular. Actively suppressing the protests will get ratings for the same reason—confrontational and exciting.

    The Tea Baggers are a ratings bonanza because they're dramatic and they're not protesting anything that takes a larger share of ratings. Since the best response to the Tea Baggers is thoughtful, well-considered information, which is boring, the other side doesn't get covered because no one will listen (boring, remember?) and so the Tea Baggers look like a huge movement when they're just a circus act in town for a couple of nights.

    Ratings. They are perverse and don't always make immediate sense. But they do. Just not rational sense.

  5. Erich,

    I know what you mean. I've seen opening acts many times that were better than the main act—I saw Dan Fogelberg, solo, opening for the Eagles before Dan's first album had been released, and all by himself he outperformed the Eagles.

    Sometimes it's just piss poor scheduling. I saw Livingston Taylor open for Emerson Lake and Palmer and he was utterly ignored—but you had to wonder, who in their right mind would expect ELP fans to give a damn about a bluegrass band?

    But this is part of the whole problem of people finding being part of the group more important than their own taste or thoughts.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    How about this question: If a catastrophic event occurs, such as a flood that causes 22 deaths, destroys thousands of homes and businesses, and causes over #1 billion in damages, but the National news fails to report it, did it really happen?

    On the weekend of April 30-May 1, 2010 a slow moving storm front dumped unprecedented amounts of rain over most of Tennessee, parts of Mississippi and Kentucky. Late Saturday afternoon, the front stalled out of the Nashville basin, where the rainfall totals for two days totaled over 13 inches. This resulted in extensive flash-flooding through the area, Over 5,000 homes were damaged. hundreds of businesses were damaged. One of Nashville's two water treatment facilities was flooded and went off line, and at one point the second was in danger of being shut down.

    The local people volunteered to rescue people, with boats, canoes, and a duck-boat( a WW II vintage amphibious vehicle used for river tours) helped evacuate people from the Opryland Hotel complex.

    On a section of interstate 24 in South Nashville, the water rose so quickly that several motorists were caught off guard and trapped in rushing waters that quickly covered their cars.

    The Nashville media did an exceptional job of covering this event. However, The national media totally ignored it. They really dropped the ball on this story.

    In fact, BBC world news reported on the flood before the American networks took notice. The US media should be ashamed.

    A week after the flooding, most of the 150 roads that were closed are finally open, flood victims are emptying and gutting their homes and businesses. The debris cleanup alone is expected to take a month or more. Some homes were completely washed away, Others damaged beyond repair. It is very sad, so many left homeless.

    The floodwater backed up sewers in many places, leaving a thick coating of mud mixed with untreated sewage as the floodwater retreated, and many fear the spread of disease.

    Nashville was hard hit, but almost half of the state has been declared eligible for disaster aid. But it seems that the media doesn't consider it important.

    If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

    If a city is flooded and the networks don't report it, did anyone actually drown?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Niklaus – I was amazed at the lack of coverage too. If that kind of damage had happened where the reporters tend to live (New York City, DC or LA), you would be hearing it around the clock (just like you do when 53 Los Angeles homes were destroyed in a fire last year).

      The news media is powerful in that it can essentially transport millions of eyes and ears to an event, thereby injecting "importance" to the occasion. Mark's example of the intense coverage of even small Tea Party gatherings is a good one.

      The media has this immense power to make an event important, but they (especially local TV and newspapers) slant toward happy news. Yesterday's Post-Dispatch headline on the news front page (not the sports) concerned the views of a man who is trying to buy control of the St. Louis Rams football team. So there you go: hundreds of thousands of eyes and ears all focused on this event, which has thus become "important" news even though it is a form of entertainment. Just like the games themselves — fill the stadium with yelling fans and it becomes important, though perhaps in a chicken-and-egg sort of way.

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    I saw the Tennessee flood reported extensively on NBC, but all but totally ignored by CBS, ABC, and FOX on that Monday. The other networks focused entirely on the continuing approach of the gulf oil slick. Probably because they had footage to burn, by then.

    I don't have cable/satellite, so I scan the broadcast news stations for what I might miss in my scan of blog reports. I even watch things supposedly covered equally by the networks (like presidential addresses) by flipping channels to see the differing emphases and spins revealed by commentary and even choices of cameras/views.

    I have always looked the other way. Not as in "ignored", but trying to see what most others might be missing.

  8. Tim Hogan says:

    The TPers aren't news, they're a creation of the GOP, Faux News and the Dick Armey/Karl Rove PR branding machine. The new "brand" of the TPers allow the far right to seem like they're something new but, they're jut the same old bitter, angry, racist white folks that have always been a major part of Republican politics.

    As for street musicians, you shall always listen and contribute. If they are really good, listen a while longer and give a little more. And let the kids dance if they want!

  9. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    I think the TEA Party began as a Libertarian protest group. It has been largely commandeered by the neo-conservative movement as its foot soldiers.

  10. Purple says:

    I think the experiment is slightly flawed in that very few people actually appreciate classical music nowadays. I'm not sure enough people who appreciate someone such as Joshua Bell would walk past in a short 45-minute time span. Most of those people wouldn't understand what they're hearing even if it was at a large gathering.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Purple: I think you raise a good point, but out of 1,000 commuters in D.C., I would expect that there were at least 50-100 who claimed to appreciate classical music. I would have thought that 20 of them would have stopped and watched, awestruck.

  11. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Several years ago, when Joe Walsh gave a concert at Nashville's municipal auditorium, The crowd had gathered in anticipation, and moments before the concert began, a man walked out on the stage, picked up a mike, asked for the audience's attention. He then proceeded to point out the fire exits, gave his opinion of the soon to start show, and told the audience to be sure and buy some tee-shirts and stuff on the way out.

    At that moment, most people assumed the guy was either an auditorium staffer, or possibly one of Walsh's roadies. A few minutes later they found out he was Joe Walsh.

  12. Ben says:

    One reason is that the people were busy. The average person leaving/entering a subway station has an agenda they are on (or late for). Another factor we might not be considering is that street musicians are *often* talented and therefore it may not have seemed strange to hear "great" music cascading down the escalator.

  13. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Ben, I think its more a symptom of a flaw in our current society.

    We have been brain-washed by decades of advertising to follow the herd rather than trust our own judgement. We have been subdued and harnessed, cultivated and domesticated and exploited as a resource for corporate gain. We are "The Market".

    The brainwashing has wored to the point that most of us judge the importance and therefor the value of an event by how the size of the crowd it attracts. Its a reasonable extension of our directed attitude toward consumerism.

    In a scene from the 2004 movie "Silver City", industrialist and developer Wes Benteen (played by Kris Kristofferson) sums it up

    “People want to back a winner. They need to feel a part of something bigger than they are. They used to advertise the quality of a product – tastes great, whitens your teeth, shaves close, rides like a dream. Now what do they push – America's number one soft drink, best-selling mid-sized utility vehicle. It isn't ‘buy the product’. It's ‘join the club’. You make people feel part of a winner, they'll follow you anywhere."

    The venue associated with a classical musician is the performance hall, not a street corner or subway station. The tallent of a street performer is less important than his individual prestige and fame.

    If a member of a well known band, for example John Kay from Steppenwolf, performs solo with an acoustic guitar on a street corner in Nashville, its pretty likely that he wouldn't draw a crowd either.

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