Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunday dollars+sense: Perhaps it was the bagpipes.

Remember Bon Scott? Hard-drinking, hard-living, the former Adelaide postie and bartender went on to front AC/DC, record It's a Long Way to the Top (if you want to rock and roll) and die of acute alcohol poisoning in 1980.

The National Trust has classified his gravesite, rock magazines honour him as the greatest frontman of all time, but the man who replaced him in as lead vocalist, Brian Johnson actually recorded the better selling albums.

So among fans the debate has raged: who was the better vocalist?

This week a paper came to light by a Canadian economist Robert Oxoby of the University of Calgary, attempting to inject rigor into the discussion.

He called it On the efficiency of AC/DC: Bon Scott versus Brian Johnson...

What makes his investigation different is that rather than focusing on what he called “the aural or sonic quality of the vocalists’ performances” he used the techniques of experimental economics. He got groups of university students to take part in a bargaining game while playing different AC/DC music in the background.

To represent Bon Scott he played It’s a Long Way to the Top. To represent Brian Johnson he played Shoot to Thrill.

He found that the bargainers were significantly less greedy, significantly more likely to give what was needed to the other side, and so more likely to arrive at a satisfactory outcome when they listened to the vocals of Brian Johnson.

His conclusion: “In terms of affecting efficient decision making among listeners, Brian Johnson was a better singer”.

He added, fairly obviously tongue in cheek that his finding had “direct implications for policy and organizational design: when policymakers or employers are setting up environments in which other parties will negotiate and are interested in playing the music of AC/DC, they should choose from the band’s Brian Johnson era discography”.

His paper was a joke, although the data was real. But newspapers around the world reported it straight, among them Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald. Oxoby got hate mail accusing him of wasting funds.

In fact he had been stuck at the Vancouver airport and dug out data from a pilot study by one of his students. She had accidentally played two different AC/DC songs rather than the same one while conducting a negotiating experiment.

He wrote the paper in the bar using the same sort of technical language he puts into all of his papers. It has become his most widely-read ever.

He now says he wishes he hadn’t. And he prefers Bon Scott.

Robert Oxoby, On the Efficiency of AC/DC: Bon Scott versus Brian Johnson, University of Calgary, May 2007

HT: Joshua Gans