Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The danger of loving the probable

When you flip a coin 10 times, your odds of getting ten heads or ten tails in a row are about 1 in 500. Your likelihood of getting six or seven in a row is, of course, much higher: about 1 in 10 and 1 in 25, respectively. So if you were to do a hundred such trials, chances are pretty good that you would get quite a number of sixes and sevens, an eight or nine here and there, and a full ten if you're slightly lucky.

Yet if you were to ask a hundred people to simulate a random sequence of 10 coin tosses in their minds, it's unlikely that you would get a single streak of more than five in a row. As humans, we are really, really bad at recognizing and recreating true randomness. And that's important to keep in mind, because the universe itself is random. It doesn't behave according to anyone's prescribed narrative, and history rarely follows a predictable sequence of events. In other words, if you're trying to anticipate where things are headed, it would be good to leave room in your calculations for some impersonal and objective metrics, because whatever you're capable of visualising probably won't be it.

The problem with indie rock, though, is that it's all about the highly subjective and deeply personal. The idea is not to make decisions based on concrete numbers and objective traits, but rather to correct the damage wrought by them. I'm sympathetic to this; I was attracted to this scene for these very reasons, even when they ended up working against me. When we were rejected by Secretly Canadian, for example, Chris Swanson made it clear that it wasn't based on any objective judgment of our talent or potential. He simply listened to his heart, and it told him we weren't the right fit.

Fair enough, but what if Secretly Canadian and all the other indie labels following their hearts out there are no different from those people tossing coins in their minds, whose seemingly random sequences betray an overarching homogeneity of thought once taken as a whole? We all want to discover and proclaim the ideal band, and we all have a fixed inkling of what that would look and sound like: familiar enough to be loved, yet unique enough to be respected. But when every band getting signed out there embodies this perfect combination, then the result is a boring, static mush.

A scene made up entirely of well-rounded individuals is, paradoxically, not itself going to be well-rounded. Without the occasional outliers taking things too far and giving us an improbable nine or ten heads in a row, we no longer get a diverse range of visions and perspectives. Just a predictable selection of signature quirks, each interchangeable with the next.

There's nothing wrong with loving the probable, of course. It's fine to want bands that we can visualise in advance. The danger only comes when our subjective preferences tweak the results to ensure that they get chosen all the time, every time, because history is disproportionately shaped by improbable events. Woody Guthrie couldn't have guessed that his successor would be a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota, and back when rock and roll was synonymous with Southern rhythm and blues, the next big sensation after Elvis was unlikely to be four blokes from Liverpool. No improbability, no history.

So if we care about the future of music, perhaps each of us would be best advised to just relax, take our thumbs off the scale, and allow the momentum of concrete numbers and objective traits to take its natural course.

Update, November 25, 2011: It's official, I'm coining a new term, which I shall call "Bennett's paradox":
"A well-rounded scene must include those who are not well-rounded. If everyone is well-rounded, then the scene itself ceases to be well-rounded."
In a future post, I might write about why I think this helps explain not just the current state of indie rock, but also the current state of Western society as a whole. Until then... pass it on!

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