Despite the cold stereotype which economists are often associated with, they are at heart people with a love for a specific subject who long to explain the happenings of the world using this subject. That is what economists, along with other academics do every day; they attempt to advance the knowledge of their own subject via research and lecturing. An economist’s desire to prove what is happening in the world is often so strong that it leads them to using measurements of activity just because they are easy to quantify rather than accurate.
The problem with doing this is that while data can appear to be insightful because it does capture information about a certain context, it can often be misleading because by boiling information down to just pure numbers; we actually lose a lot of the information. Irish mathematician Des MacHale has a brilliant quote regarding the often misleading nature of statistics; “The average human has one breast and one testicle”.
The world of music can be just as subject to the misuse of statistics as the world of economics. The music press will often try to quantify the success of a musician in terms of sales, awards, or streams just because it is an easy thing to count. But this doesn’t accurately capture how good a musician is it just measures the number of times someone bought, listened to, or honoured their music. For an example, let’s use a very common way to try and measure the success of a musician, Grammy award wins.
For anyone who doesn’t know the Grammy award is arguably the most prestigious award in music. It is awarded to people who have given an excellent contribution to the world of music through a recorded track or album. The number of awards an artist has received is often used to try and validate their success in comparison to another artist. However, if we take a look at the table below we can see some unexpected statistics regarding Grammy wins.
At the top are U2, they have the record for most Grammys won by a band. After that is the Beatles, this may shock some people who know the Beatles are widely regarded as the best and most influential band ever, but given that U2’s careers have lasted a bit longer it may make sense they have had the time to win more Grammys than the Fab Four. After that however it gets even more surprising. How have a retired basketball player, a former first lady, a former US president, and an actor beaten Oasis, Bob Marley, and Guns N’Roses in the Grammy music awards department?
The answer isn’t that complicated. The Grammy awards are given to honour recorded pieces of work, this includes audiobook recordings which is why the likes of Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Carter have more Grammys than Noel Gallagher and Bob Marley. The problem here is that society associates the Grammy awards with musicians because those are the bits of the award show that make it onto the television instead of the segment of the awards for best audiobook recording.
So the issue with people using statistics like Grammy award wins to try and quantify the success of a musician is that the measurement being used is known as a proxy. A proxy is an approximate measurement, meaning it is used to measure something even though it doesn’t measure that thing specifically. So for our example here Grammy award wins is being used as a proxy to measure a musician’s success, but really it just measures how many Grammys they have. The shortcomings of quantitative measurements are discussed excellently by Jerry Muller in his book The Tyranny of Metrics.
By Daragh O’Leary