Shaping Jazz with Damon Phillips

bookjacketIn 2013, Damon Phillips, James P. Gorman Professor of Business Strategy at Columbia University, published the book Shaping Jazz: Cities, Labels and the Global Emergence of an Art Form with Princeton University Press. This book is filled with insightful arguments and findings for the study of economic life and, in particular, of the role that organizations and geography play in shaping cultural markets. The book combines network analysis and archival research in innovative ways while, at the same time, presenting Damon’s thoughts and stories which gives the reader a glimpse into the author’s creative mind. Damon and I met to chat about his book. Below I present a summary of our conversation with the attempt to provide you with some “backstage” information about this relevant and enjoyable piece of work:

Q1. What got you interested in jazz as a subject of study? You mention in your book that you are an amateur jazz musician…

A1: Yes, very much an amateur…unfortunately. There are two answers to this; there is the personal answer and there is the academic answer. The personal one is that I’ve been interested in music since I was a child and I started to become fascinated with jazz even as a teenager. Although then I definitely didn’t understand it. But it does go back to those early times, and listening to different records that my parents had, that planted the seed. Although at the time I had no idea that I was going to pursue it academically. Because I didn’t even know I was going to be a social scientist. I was going to be an engineer. And I became one! But after doing that for a couple of years I decided that’s not really what I wanted to do in life. So when I finally turned to things that I was more passionate about, this subject came back up.

Academically though, I had written some other work about social dynamics in markets and while I was working on this there was another area within sociology getting more attention around labels, classifications and categories. Some of it had happened early on over DiMaggio’s work and it was turning back similar to that but with a focus on things like people in the audience. I had contributed to that work, but I didn’t see myself as the core of that work. But in doing that, even though I’ve written papers that I liked, I saw a couple of things that were challenges. One is that I didn’t get a good hand on how things work dynamically. While I was getting much better at understanding static things, things in equilibrium, mature markets. I thought I had a much better handle of how things worked there. But for things that were dynamic, it was very tough. Theories were making assumptions about things that weren’t going to be true in a dynamic world – or at least less true — and the methods aren’t always going to be as helpful. So your standard regression are amazingly powerful tools, they don’t handle dynamic situations as well and they certainly don’t handle the emergence of things as well.

The other thing was that I was in a Business School and I always felt that and overtime became more interested in that people studying cultural markets in business schools could add something to the conversation. There was a set of tools that could be interesting to put to use, tools mostly conceptual; different framings, that could help bridge different groups, such as Cultural Sociology, Organizational Sociology, Economic Sociology. But even bridge the work of people studying marketing and economics. Then it turns out too that it involved a lot of history as well.  The more I became convinced of this, the more I decided to jump in! That how I decided to do a project on this.

It became a book because I was writing articles and it was very tough writing articles, as anyone doing qualitative work knows, it is a very hard format to share your work and explain your work. And on top of that cultural work and historical work. I was getting things in journals but most of the interesting I couldn’t really touch on! And the richness you could never get into. One time I was presenting it at Chicago and John Padgett actually came to me and told me that it should be a book. He was the first person to mention that. And then others started to mention that too. So that’s encouragement led a project on jazz to a book.

Q2: Among other things, Shapping Jazz, examines how the boundaries of the market for jazz are determined by a few tunes that are re-recorded over time, which you call “exemplars.” Your research also explains two main social dynamics that determine the appealing of jazz songs: (i) “sociological congruency,” which corresponds to the match between a cultural product (recordings) and its context of production for a given audience and, (ii) “disconnectedness,” referring to the higher appealing of songs that come from a disconnected place. At first glance, the idea of disconnectedness might seem counterintuitive… How are these two findings connected in shaping the market for jazz? How did you get to these major findings? What was most surprising for you in this process?

A2: It seems more intuitive to me now than initially. One of the things about the book is that it was motivated by several surprises that I decided to pursue. I tried my best to write the book in that tone. Is more like an investigation, I tried to document where I was surprised or where I realized something wasn’t true. With “disconecteness” I struggle a lot with trying to understand something that I was seeing. I noticed something because I have this dataset. Maybe if others have had this dataset before I, they would have noticed this too. But I started to see that in contrast to one version of jazz history based on large cities like New York, Chicago, London, Paris…there are a lot of people who don’t think beyond that. When we start to look at that period you realize that something else is going on. That there are a lot of places that are not “the central places” that appear to be really important to the history of jazz. I was trying to think of how to really understand what was going on. There are already people that talk about innovations coming from the periphery. So that was really helpful to read and learn about. However, this thing was a little bit different: Let’s say that there is a new song, style that it comes from the periphery. It wasn’t that the periphery was generally more innovative. Usually, a band in a small town, let’s say Chile, they were a cover band. They are going to be doing what everyone else is doing, they are going to be looking to what others were playing in major cities and playing versions of that. It looked more that whenever they were doing something different – whether it was intentional or not — then people in the major cities noticed that. So it drove this idea of “disconnectedness” because I wanted to capture that without it being people of the periphery intentionally innovating, cause’ I wasn’t seeing that. It was much more like the people in New York aren’t going to notice that cover band in a small town in Chile. So even if most bands in Chile are cover bands, is the ones that are a bit different that are going to get noticed.

The “congruency” here is between my perception that something is unique with my perception of the identity of the place. So if I believe that there is a location that I don’t know much about, if there is something that’s different that comes from there, then I am more likely to receive it positively. The example I like to use is: a rap star who comes from Manitoba, who wears a bright pink jacket and plays the violin while they rap, people will listen to it more if came from Manitoba that if it would come from New York City. A couple of years ago, everyone got enamored with a rap artist from South Korea who had this strange dance of riding a horse. And I would say that that also wouldn’t happen if it would have come from New York. There was something about it being in a different place and a different approach that draws people in. That’s what I was seeing at jazz: those particular pieces that were unique, or different in some way, and were difficult to categorize when they came from places that were thought of as disconnected places. That’s where they almost had like a benefit of being exotic.

Q3: In your book, you also mentioned the example of the bottled water. Can you tell us about this example?

A3: Yes, that another issue that triggered the project. I know that it is a strange habit to go into a store and read the labels in the bottled waters. But if you do – I encourage everyone to do it! — you’ll see that people are creating these narratives about the water. And chemically there is rarely anything different about the water. Occasionally there is, but most of the time there isn’t. Actually that example has prompted other research with psychologists where we can manipulate not only the perceptions of people of the water but also change their blood pressure, performance on different tasks based on what they perceive is in the water. So what I was interested in also with that is that we’ve all heard music and we all know that music has healing powers, as art does. Usually Sociologists we worry more about the perception that is great but we know in our own experience, intuitively, that it is more than our perceptions, that these things really change you. I was trying to look into the book and sort out these ideas.

Q4: Could you tell us of any anecdote or story about the process of writing your book? For instance, a moment in which you had a “creative spark,” when you found new data that challenged your previous conceptions or perhaps a moment that you particularly enjoyed while conducting your research or writing the book.

A4: The book benefited from talking to a broad set of people. This is a product not only of talking to sociologists, but also talking to people in Departments and Business Schools. I learned a lot from historians in the process of writing this book. People in Media Studies, curators in museums, I learned a ton from them! And in particular, there is this guy in that I met in Germany, Wolfram [Knauer], he saved me at least six months of work, at least talking to him. It was because there was something that I did not understand in my study and I was able to go to Germany. I went in there and I have read my books. He asked me what I have read. And he said “Oh, that’s not right.” He knew so much insight, not only about the facts but about who wrote what and why they wrote in that way. Things that came from changes in translations and about cultural identity that it would have taken me forever to sort out. And as I went through the archives I realized that Wolfram was right! And if I would have stayed in my office, reading those books, I would have been just as wrong. I would have really misunderstood lots of things of what was going on. I would have thought that this confusing thing about Germany was something I just had to toss aside, instead of being this source of this really interesting study that me and my student Greg Liegel did together. It was great.

As a Sociologist who just wrote a lot of articles before, the most liberating thing was being able to open up the process for how I was doing it. I was able to write my story, my way. Journal articles for several reasons don’t give people the space or even the legitimacy to say, “I tried this other thing and it didn’t work” or “Here is actually how I came up with this idea.” It’s because the formatting requires you to do it and say it in particular way, which sometimes matches how it was actually done, but not always! And to have the freedom to say things like, “I was wrong with that hypothesis,” “I was just wrong”… in an article I would have never been able to talk about that hypothesis in the first place. In a book you can talk about it and then say, “Here is why I was wrong” and “Here is now what I know about this phenomenon that I didn’t know before.” That was important to me. I wanted to write in that way. I wanted to write it to other people who might want to do this kind of work to at least see how I approached it and decide for themselves. That turned out to be one of the unexpected joys. It was liberating to be able to do that.

Interview: Pilar Opazo


  • Watch a short-video of Shaping Jazzon Vimeo!:
  • While at Columbia Business School, I have had the privileged of working with Damon Phillips. Together, we are organizing a group called “Initiative for the Study and Practice of Organized Creativity,” consisting of graduate students working on different creative industries. Our goal is to gather professionals and academics working on creativity in various fields for fruitful and mind-opening discussions! I invite you to take a look at what we do in the following link:
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