The Joshua Bell Effect

On January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell, the virtuoso violinist, played six classical pieces over the course of forty-five minutes for commuters passing through the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the Washington, DC, subway line. Bell did not advertise who he was, and no publicity attended this event. Because he appeared to be just another street musician, nearly all of the commuters moving through the station ignored him. Seven people stopped to listen to him; one recognized him. Bell collected a total of $32.17 for his forty-five minutes’ playing on a 1713 handmade Stradivarius, worth $3.5 million.

The experiment was undertaken by Bell and a reporter for the Washington Post named Gene Weingarten, who won a Pulitzer prize for his story about it. Bell’s playing at the subway station was done as an experiment “in context, perception, and priorities—as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” As an article on scopes.com puts it, “Many a marketing survey has been conducted to gauge how presentation affects consumer perceptions of quality, and quite a few such surveys have found that people will frequently designate one of two identical items as being distinctly better than the other simply because it is packaged or presented more attractively. Might this same concept apply to fields outside of [sic] consumer products, such as the arts? Would, for example, people distinguish between a world-class instrumental virtuoso and an ordinary street musician if the only difference between them were the setting?”

I thought of this “Joshua Bell effect” recently because of a friend and coworker of mine. Keith Huff has been known for years in Chicago as an exceptionally sharp playwright. His success, although quite real, has been as modest as it typically is for any of us in the arts who have gained audiences yet harbor hopes of greater financial and artistic success. Keith was heralded in 2008 as the breakout playwright of the year in Chicago magazine; and now, here in fall 2009, he has the biggest hit running on Broadway. 

The play is A Steady Rain, and it is the hottest ticket of the season. The actors appearing in this two-man performance made headlines when it was announced they would be on stage together: Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. How it happened that two of the biggest movie stars in the world wound up being in my friend’s play is an example of the serendipity, luck, timing, and general peculiarity that attends anyone whose step into the limelight is a giant one. Things fell down the right way this time for Keith, and he deserves it.

Here’s my point: Keith had already achieved attention for this play in Chicago, although it was kind of a hard sell because it is so imaginative: two actors on a stage in emotional meltdown. This is what theater is for, it seems to me, and I’m of the opinion that if you know what you’re doing, you could do Shakespeare in your back yard under a tree with two or three actors and absolutely still be transported. Talent does that for us.

But the brilliance and emotional certitude of Keith’s play didn’t gain wide recognition until Craig and Jackman took A Steady Rain to Broadway. And even then, the story in the press was the two movie stars. The play sold out nearly before it had even begun its previews because of Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. It wasn’t for several days that a reviewer noted that A Steady Rain is, after all, a really good play. It was the packaging that people were paying attention to, but to the surprise of some people, maybe a lot of people, once you got past the star power, you had something of substance underneath the glitter.

I’ve experienced the Joshua Bell effect myself. A few years ago, as an experiment, I published my thriller novel Seasons of the Moon as a print-on-demand book. I thought print-on-demand was the wave of the future, or one of the waves. Because I work in publishing, I asked friends to assist, which they did, offering criticism and proofreading the text. In particular, Dave Stanley did an extraordinary cover for the book. Here’s the thing: when I tried to interest local booksellers into carrying the novel or having me come in to sign copies, I might as well have been asking them to eat rat poison. It didn’t matter that I have a track record as a commercially successful writer; it didn’t matter that, as more and more people read the book, opinion of it was very good. The packaging was all wrong: I was another bum who’d self-published his book, and so I was basically a beggar. I had nothing to offer with my book because I wasn’t presenting it in the right way.

I’m convinced that there is not much we can do about this. And I am as guilty of it as anyone, this being seduced by promotions, advertising, packaging into assuming that the loud thing has more promise than the soft-spoken thing has, that what dazzles is more substantive that the thing that glows quietly. Even when I try to educate myself, we have all been trained to be consumers first, whatever else we are or think we are, and when you’re buried alive, sooner or later you learn to breathe dirt.

So I recommend the following: trying once in a while to break outside our comfort zones, as they are called, and give something unfamiliar a try, whether or not it is presented as dazzling and whether or not the dazzle is what catches your eye. I’ve done it occasionally, and now I want to make it a habit to do it more often. Here’s an example: years ago, on a whim, I read a novel called The Good Negress by A. J. Verdelle. On the face of it, what business do I have reading a coming-of-age novel written by an African American woman? Most of my books so far have been about guys killing other guys with swords. But I heard Ms. Verdelle discussing her book on the radio and gave it a try. Wonderful book, beautifully written. We follow the growth and insights of this young woman as her love of the language expands and matures. Why hasn’t this book been made into a movie yet?

The same with Lamb by Christopher Moore. How many times had I walked past this one while it sat on the shelf at the bookstore? Also Robert B. Parker mysteries. Have you heard of this guy Parker? Let me recommend him. He’s sold a gajillion books and deserves to. I am late to the party when it comes to Robert B. Parker, but I’m glad I showed up at last. The same is true for Sue Grafton. The dazzle surrounding her books didn’t capture my attention until I went out of my way deliberately to give one of them a try. I don’t typically reach for a mystery, or I didn’t; I do now.

So try at least once within the next year—no, twice—try twice within the coming year to sample something outside your routine interests in entertainment, your comfort zone. I will, too. Read Seasons of the Moon; that would be fine with me. Or take a chance on someone else’s book that is not the typical bestseller by a writer who has become a brand name. Or buy a book from Lulu or iUniverse written by someone trying to find an audience; we have no midlist any longer to speak of, no training ground for writers to learn their craft in public and under fire. This is how it’s done, now. Go to someone’s blog or website and follow it for a while. Try out a band that you’d never otherwise listen to. Go see a movie that’s not in a genre you typically enjoy.

One of the details I like best about the Joshua Bell story is that the one person who spent the most time listening to the violinist was a 3-year-old boy. His mother finally had to move him along, but that little boy got it when everyone else in the subway station didn’t. I promise to try to be more like that little boy a few times next year, and I’ll bet you that I’ll be better off for it.

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