The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame: A Case Study In The Difficulty Of Signaling

Perennially, among my most popular posts are about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an institution with its museum in Cleveland, Ohio, a museum that is immensely entertaining to visit, which when I was there had thoughtful music history artifacts in a temporary exhibit and a group of jukeboxes that played the music of the inductees that one was most fond of hearing. From time to time I get e-mail messages from them advertising products, reminding me to vote for this year’s fan ballot, and providing a biography of those who are inducted into various categories. Despite my own frequent and trenchant criticisms of the nomination process, and my own popular posts about various bands and artists who have been snubbed, the fact that I write such articles and the fact that so many people read them and share them is a sign that people do care about a hall of fame and take the memorialization of rock & roll music seriously [1]. Otherwise, there would be little point for me to write about those acts who fall between the cracks for one reason or another and no one would care to read or comment on them in the larger cultural conversation. That said, there are a lot of aspects of the process of nomination and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that are somewhat common to all halls of fame, and all attempts to memorialize people within our culture or any other, which makes the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame a worthwhile case study in demonstrating the difficulty of signaling and communication in developing and maintaining a coherent message. It is in this light that I wish to discuss the RRHOF today.

Among the most fundamental aspects of the difficulty of signaling consists the scope of the RRFOF and which acts are eligible for induction. Although there are complaints from time to time about inductees not having a “rock” sound, the museum as a whole seeks to honor musicians, bands, songwriters, and songs from the Rock & Roll Era (defined as being after Bill Haley & The Comets released “Rock Around The Clock” in 1954). Although this particular aim has a global ambition, given that Rock & Roll has drastically influenced the music of the entire world, and in turn been enriched by the music of the entire world as various elements and genres, in practice the vast majority of inducted bands and musicians are either American or British, with the very rare phenomenon of a non-British European band like ABBA being inducted very rarely. Even notable Canadian artists like Bryan Adams [2], Celine Dion [3], and Sarah McLachlan have had a difficult time even being nominated, much less being inducted, despite massive cultural influence and popular success. Likewise, whole genres of music, like 80’s pop, dance, progressive rock, Latin, and Christian music, to name only a few, have found the process of nomination and induction to be a difficult one, as have women inductees in general across any genre [4]. So signaling the scope of what music and what musicians are considered worthy of being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is one area that is a struggle not only for the fans of those acts and genres that are consistently marginalized but in terms of optics for the RRHOF as a whole.

The next area of signaling difficulty, and deliberately so, is the opacity of the nominating process as a whole. Every year a select group of people in the Nominating Committee of the RRHOF choose roughly a dozen artists or acts that are considered to be possibly worthy of induction, of which five are inducted every single year. On average, then, one would expect that a band or artist would expect two or three nominations before being inducted, with some obvious choices receiving induction on the first choice and others taking a bit longer. Given the importance of nomination slots and the relative scarcity of them, it is somewhat clear that if the RRHOF Nominating Committee continues to nominate a band or an artist for induction year after year, that is a clear sign to the larger body of voters that they consider this act, like Chic, which has been nominated ten times without yet being inducted, to be worthy of induction regardless of the initial attitude of the general body of the voters about the act’s worthiness. As the nomination committee cannot actually force people to get into the RRHOF, they signal a band’s worthiness by nominating, and if a band they consider to be worthy is not inducted, and they continue to nominate that band over and over again, it ought to be a sign that something should be done about that act. At least, that is what anyone paying attention to the process would tend to assume. It is really in the nominating process that the horse trading about how many classic rock acts or pop or rap acts or other genre considerations is most important, because in order to be inducted, one has to clear the hurdle of nomination in the first place, so that one has a chance to have one’s record appear before the voters.

At this point, there is then the question of what acts are to be inducted into the RRHOF. Here again various considerations are in play. The fan vote takes all the votes of fans of rock & roll music like myself, and many of my readers, and combines them into one ballot. Most of these fans, as might be expected, have fairly popular and mainstream tastes. A few may be particular partisans of a band or a genre, but overall there is a pretty close confluence between the popularity of a given act in terms of its career album sales and hit singles and the like and the support it has from the body of mainstream fans as a whole, since the same people who care enough about music to buy it also care enough about those acts they support to vote for them when the chance comes. It is the more professional-minded voters outside of the fans that have the task of blending the clear ratings cachet of a popular act with greater concerns for memorializing worthy acts and picking a balance of acts that well represents the immense diversity of music. By definition this is a political act. If one knows that classic rock bands with a lot of American or British men will be selected by popular audiences of rock & roll fans, then the other voters have to ponder among themselves how broad of a net to cast to induct those who are worthy but who might fall through the cracks otherwise. Just as these voters respond, or fail to respond, to the signals sent by the nominating committee and by the clear notice of the fan vote, so too the larger community of music critics and fans such as myself and others respond to the choices of the voting body of the RRHOF with guarded praise or criticism and point out where the imbalances exist. Every decision, every shift in opinion, every long passage of years without the induction of particular acts or particularly genres, signals the need that those acts or genres have of continued attention to demonstrate interest in what might otherwise be forgotten. Being a person of broad interests, there never fails to be something that is worthy of attention and recognition that is forgotten simply because of the limits of slots available for induction on a year-by-year basis.

So, how is the communication of the RRHOF? Given the high bar of influence that is required to be among five acts inducted in a given year, it is clear that there are many more acts worthy of induction than there are places within the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for them, especially if one looks at the importance of early influences that fell below the sales radar but that provided an important role as trailblazers for later acts. An example of this is the fact that REM has been inducted into the RRHOF, which has largely ignored previous power pop bands like Badfinger [5] and Big Star, and shown no particularly hurry to induct more contemporary influential power pop bands like the Gin Blossoms or Toad The Wet Sprocket. Lest I get on my soapbox too much, though, this is a sign that the body of worthwhile acts is so large and so complex that it is a difficult matter for any one building or institution to do justice to it. We cannot blame the RRHOF for being imperfect, for it is a complicated institution of imperfect people selecting among some imperfect people to be the best models of music in an era full of drastic change and massive societal corruption for other imperfect people who then complain about who is put in (Faces/Small Faces, Laura Nyro) or who is not. As much as it is fun to blame people like Dave Marsh or Jann Wenner for the imperfections of the RRHOF, it is unlikely that anyone would be able to do a perfect job given the constraints and scope of the task. In the meantime, we should all be thankful for the opportunity to demonstrate the cultural importance of music history, and to give a foil for the rest of us when it comes to defending the legitimacy of that which is marginalized, for as imperfect as we all are in signaling and communication, it is important to have something to communicate with and about so that we are not merely voices shouting alone in the wilderness, or a tree falling in the forest that no one hears or cares about, but are rather part of a larger community of people united in the same sorts of conversations, seeking to make sure that those who have done meritorious deeds in writing, performing, and producing music are remembered by others, and cherished by others who share the same desire to honor those who are worthy of honor, and remember those who have done something worthy of being remembered for.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/rock-roll-hall-of-fame-snubs/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/each-and-every-one/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/the-hall-of-fame-game/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-bryan-adams/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-celine-dion/

[4] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-gloria-estefan-the-miami-sound-machine/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-janet-jackson/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-amy-grant/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-kate-bush/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/08/08/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-the-eurythmics/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-connie-francis/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/04/07/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-helen-reddy/

[5] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/12/09/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-badfinger/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame: A Case Study In The Difficulty Of Signaling

  1. Mike says:

    Good stuff! Just when it appears that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame makes a step in the right direction (shakeup of the Nomination Committee, for example), they shoot themselves in the foot and take two gigantic backward steps (lack of female or R&B acts inducted in 2015).

    Also – why in the world would they only induct 5 artists this past year? It makes absolutely no sense. Their ‘fan poll’ was a complete fraud this year and was clearly tampered with before security measures were finally taken that limited voting by IP address. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. Why not restart the voting from a clean slate – or at a minimum, remove the bogus bot votes that were explicitly documented and discussed by cleveland.com and futurerocklegends.com and several other sites.

    FRL has an excellent blog post that raises a whole slew of questions. It’s definitely an interesting read for those interested. http://futurerocklegends.com/blog.php#unique-entry-id-327

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