Monday, December 17, 2012

Patent trolls of indie rock

Long ago, the patent system was set up to encourage innovation by protecting intellectual property rights. The process of awarding a patent was typically straightforward, since every invention was some kind of physical contraption that performed some obviously useful function. So you either invented something or you didn't, and a roomful of engineers was all that the patent office needed to make a sound judgment on that.

A few decades ago, the nature of innovation began to change. As new concepts and methods were being devised that were every bit as groundbreaking as the telegraph a century prior, patents started to be filed for algorithms and software that only a handful of specialists in newly established fields could understand. Overwhelmed, the patent office awarded quite a few of them, including some so broadly and vaguely worded that their holders could conceivably claim ownership of the entire Internet.

And some now do. They're called patent trolls, and they make their living by buying up old patents and filing frivolous lawsuits. These patent trolls produce nothing of value themselves, which makes them impervious to countersuit, so most companies decide to settle rather than risk lengthy injunctions. Cautionary tales abound of scrappy startups that chose to fight instead, spent years in legal limbo, and eventually won their case, but then had to file for bankruptcy because of expensive lawyer fees.

By exploiting a loophole in a system designed to encourage innovation, patent trolls end up stifling it instead. But here's the thing: they're not breaking any laws. Nothing is underhanded, and everything is transparent. In fact, they operate completely within the system, which means that the system guarantees--and is synonymous with--their well-being, much as walking barefoot on the beach guarantees and is synonymous with getting sand between your toes.

So this is when we step back and ask ourselves, do we value the patent system as it presently stands, or do we value its original intent? Pretty much everyone agrees that we should be rewarding innovators, not patent trolls. Ultimately, we care about the spirit underlying the patent system, not the patent system itself. And so changes will have to be made.

In my lifetime, I've seen two similar situations happen in the world of rock music. The first has been resolved; the second, I think, is still being decided.

The first situation is the glam metal phenomenon that reached its peak in the late 80s. It's easy to forget now, but glam actually made sense when it first began in the early 70s. While its androgyny questioned gender roles, the theatrical nature of it helped keep the subversion lighthearted. But a generation later, long-haired men wearing lipstick and tight leather pants were singing about picking fights and sleeping with groupies. And earnestly living that lifestyle, or trying to. Glam, in other words, was overrun by trolls, who no longer reflected its original intent.

There were some who were comfortable with this, but the ones whose opinions actually mattered--the next generation seeking new aesthetics and ideals to call their own--were not. These kids wanted rebellion and progressive values, not teased perms and lipstick. And so glam metal died, not because grunge killed it, but because it had lost sight of its underlying spirit, alienating those entrusted with keeping it alive.

The second situation is indie rock today. Like glam, indie rock made sense when it first began in the 80s, as a reaction against lifeless, watered-down radio tunes catering to the lowest common denominator. Everyday kids, unburdened by corporate concerns, were forming bands with their friends, playing at parties and local shows, and defying artistic boundaries without pretense. Through mixtapes and word-of-mouth, they promoted and distributed their own music, and this independence is what came to define the genre.

A generation later, though, things look very different, with self-promotion now being the primary focus. While not totally devalued, daringness and originality--indie rock's original intent--are simply taken as self-evident virtues possessed by those with the conviction to promote themselves. But this creates an obvious loophole: an artist focused solely on self-promotion suffers no damage, and therefore enjoys a huge advantage over those diverting at least some effort towards making music of value. And once a loophole is known, a patent troll will come along to exploit it. Some now have.

I'll mention only the most extreme and obvious one: Andrew W.K. I don't feel good calling anyone a troll, except that his biggest fans already do so. No one, these fans included, credits his music with being daring or original--rather, he's respected for the conviction and passion with which he promotes himself. And even when begrudgingly given by his critics, that respect is always genuine. Why is this? It should be obvious: once you've embraced the system for what it now is--a scene that celebrates and rewards self-promotion--then you have to stay at least somewhat charitable to those who take this ideal to its logical conclusion by only self-promoting.

Because, like it or not, these trolls operate completely within the system. Nothing is underhanded, and everything is transparent. And certainly very little is at stake, in a genre where innovation not only hasn't been seen for some time, it hasn't been missed. Which means it's perfectly okay to admire Andrew W.K. for his sincerity, and possibly even mean-spirited not to. So while Pitchfork initially gave I Get Wet a scathing 0.6 ten years ago, this year they gave its reissue a glowing 8.6 review.

In other words, the lesson Pitchfork managed to learn sometime within the last decade is that you can love the trolls at best or tolerate them at worst, but the one thing you simply cannot do--at least not without looking downright silly--is denounce them while still trying to embrace the system. Because the one is guaranteed by--and therefore synonymous with--the other. You might as well flip out because there's sand between your toes after walking barefoot on the beach.

So Pitchfork has grown comfortable with what indie rock has become: a system that now exists for its own sake, rather than that of its underlying spirit. But what about those whose opinions will matter most in the future--the next generation seeking new aesthetics and ideals to call their own? I suppose that depends on whether it's even possible for any new subculture to be attractive enough to replace indie rock. So here's a thought experiment. If indie rock is the new glam metal, then what will the new grunge look and sound like?

I can think of one possible suggestion, but that will have to wait for another blog post.

Addendum, December 17, 2012: A thought came to me as I was finishing this up. In Robert Cialdini's book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he mentions a curious phenomenon related to mother turkeys, who feed and coddle their young in response to hearing them chirp. This instinct evolved, of course, as an efficient way for the mother to reserve time and resources for only her healthiest babies.

What some scientists discovered is that if they placed a stuffed polecat nearby, the mother turkey would try to defend her chicks by attacking it. When they placed a tape recorder playing chirps inside the stuffed polecat, however, she would coddle and feed it instead. Then once the tape stopped, she would go back to attacking it.

It's strange behaviour, but of course nature knows what it's doing. Brainpower is very expensive in terms of the energy it consumes, so the turkey's mothering instinct is optimised to get the best results using the least brainpower. It's a perfectly efficient system overall, and a few trolls exploiting its loopholes--in this case, scientists wielding stuffed polecats that chirp--can never come close to undermining it.

All of this is to say that I'm probably not being fair in my brief assessment of the current situation in indie rock. Obviously, people in this scene didn't suddenly decide to kick daringness and originality to the curb. Rather, they're overworked and underpaid, which means that time and energy are precious resources that can't be spent on finding new bands that aren't readily visible. And since the best bands have the most to gain by promoting themselves and staying visible, then a system that equates self-promotion with being good is probably the optimal one for giving us the best results for the least effort.

The alternative would be to search under every rock to find those few bands that are good but for some weird reason don't promote themselves. That would be painfully tedious and time-consuming. Like giving more brainpower to a turkey, the slight improvement in results wouldn't justify the extreme costs required to close the system's loopholes. Besides, how hard is it to self-promote, really? So if indie rock is a perfectly efficient system overall, then we can afford to embrace those few trolls who manage to exploit its loopholes. After all, they keep things interesting and fun.

The problem, of course, lies in the assumption that it actually is an efficient system. Is it really? After all, time and energy are limited resources, so the more a band invests in self-promotion, the less it's able to invest in making music. And then there's the Dunning-Kruger effect, which shows that the least competent people are oftentimes the most self-confident, precisely because their incompetence prevents them from recognising that they're incompetent. And self-confident people are the ones most willing to promote themselves.

So I guess we'll never know for sure, until some new music label comes along that's willing to do things fundamentally differently. Or until enough people actually bother to consider how the history of music has played out for the last five hundred years. Either one.

Anyway, I don't think any of this contradicts what I was saying earlier. It just clarifies and refines my original point.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Waiting out "sitcom good"

As everyone in the startup world knows by now, the most successful ideas challenge our basic assumptions about how things might be done. Because they don't fit any existing standards for what counts as good when we first hear about them, by default we judge them as bad. For instance, Hewlett-Packard famously turned down Steve Wozniak's idea of an affordable computer to be kept at home for personal use. So if you're looking to invest in startups, or to find co-founders interested in starting one, it helps to keep in mind that startup ideas that sound plausible usually fail, while one that sounds awful might actually change history for the better.

In his latest essay, Paul Graham illustrates this point by imagining the kind of startup a sitcom character might start. If the underlying idea of the startup were truly daring and original, then the audience wouldn't understand it, or worse, they would mistake it for one intended to sound laughably bad. So instead, the sitcom writers would probably choose to piece together elements of familiar successes from the recent past--for example, a social network for pet owners--to convey the impression of a daring and original idea. But of course, this is exactly the kind of startup that is least likely to succeed in real life. "Sitcom good," in other words, doesn't mean "real-life good."

Graham's point reminds me of the time I watched High Fidelity a while back. In the movie, Jack Black's character is always asking his friends to come to his shows, but each time they politely decline because his band has a terrible name. Towards the end of the movie, however, they finally go see him play, and he wows them all with a faithful rendition of a Marvin Gaye song. As it turns out--to no one's surprise in the audience, of course--his band is actually really, really good.

Except I was disappointed, because I was expecting "real-life good," not just "movie good." In other words, good enough to impress in real life the kind of music snob played by John Cusack in the movie. But then I realized I was being unfair. Had the screenwriters actually called for Jack Black's band to be "real-life good"--as in daring and original for its time--the audience wouldn't have understood it, or worse, they would have mistaken it for something intended to sound laughably bad. So instead, they had to call for something familiar to convey the impression of a band good enough to wow everyone present. "Movie good," in other words, doesn't mean "real-life good."

In the past decade or so, file sharing and streaming media have changed the nature of how we hear about and listen to new music. There is now a palpable feeling in the air that not only are we watching history being written in real time, but we are all helping to write it. So as history's screenwriters, we need to advance the plot every now and then with the discovery of new bands making daring and original music. What might such music sound like?

For starters, it can't sound like anything anyone would mistake for laughably bad. Black youth from the Bronx delivering spoken rhymes over scratched turntables and sampled beats, for instance, wouldn't have flown thirty years ago. Instead, the most plausible candidates would probably piece together elements of familiar successes from the recent past. So the key to finding them would be to stay alert and informed enough to know in advance what the next big thing will be, and then once we spot them, to single them out with surgical precision.

A perfect example might be this description of Bon Iver from a Pitchfork review: "There's something irresistible about the thought of a bearded dude from small-town Wisconsin retreating heartbroken to a cabin to write some songs." But of course it's irresistible--it would be instantly recognisable in any sitcom or movie as the backstory for some mysterious, misunderstood character whom we all wish to be, or be with, in real life. And of course the music itself doesn't disappoint, hitting all the right tropes that convey beautiful and heartfelt to us. So Bon Iver is "sitcom good." Heck, he might even be "sitcom best."

This is not to argue that it's cynical in its emotional appeal. Of course listening to Bon Iver is a genuinely moving experience, just like Jack Black's channeling of Marvin Gaye was a truly masterful performance. But we're being asked to take on faith that the bands we've chosen for our times aren't just good enough to be written into History (the script), but actually daring and original enough to be remembered by history (the actual thing). And that's where it gets problematic.

Because, as with startups, lowercase history recognises bands as good not because we say so and then root for them to succeed, but because market forces demand that they be reckoned with. These markets don't need to be financial, mind you; they can be cultural, intellectual, and social as well. After all, Reddit and Wikipedia don't make much profit, just like the Velvet Underground still doesn't sell many records. But people use Reddit and Wikipedia because their services are extremely useful, and people still talk about the Velvet Underground because there's so much to say about them. These are things we actually want, sometimes in spite of ourselves; we don't just want to want them.

And the startup world now knows this. It recognises that history can't be written in real time. History is simply made, by people and events that no one expects, and to believe that greater awareness and more experience can help one get better at predicting the future is to completely misunderstand how innovation and progress work. By definition, we can't expect the unexpected. Instead, the key to preparing for the daring and original ideas of the future is to stay open-minded, dismiss nothing by default, and always diversify, taking enough smart risks so that many small failures can be offset by a few large successes. Much like how the major labels operated in their heyday, come to think of it--minus the heartless part, of course.

But here's the depressing thing. It took the startup world decades to learn this lesson, and only after seeing numerous instances of smart, influential people not initially getting the point of personal computers, web-based email, micropayments, camera phones, and so on. Indie rock, by contrast, not only hasn't even taken a first step towards understanding this yet, but for the past few decades has been teaching itself the completely opposite lesson that tomorrow's pioneers can be anticipated and chosen in advance. So Bon Iver's entry into the mainstream, which wowed few outside this scene, has been tallied a roaring success, while Pitchfork's recent People's List--in which indie rock kids overwhelmingly favoured a major-label band whose rise to critical acclaim could never have been anticipated or guided along by the indie labels--doesn't seem to have inspired any real soul-searching here.

But even once indie rock finally does experience its definitive "Hewlett-Packard turning down Steve Wozniak" moment, most likely it will still be decades before people in this scene start to figure out how innovation and progress actually work, and that history just can't be written in real time. Until then, they will continue to insist that the key to discovering daring and original music is simply to stay alert and informed enough to call it before it happens. Good in indie rock, in other words, is going to mean "sitcom good" for a long, long time to come.

So if you're interested in hearing the daring and original bands of our times, you might want to dust off some old vinyl records for now. Maybe take up knitting.

Because you're in for quite a wait...

Addendum, December 17, 2012: Yes, Bon Iver certainly has a market, but markets can be artificially inflated. When an indie band is granted exposure to the mainstream and wins a Grammy, only to then suffer an immediate backlash while failing to gain widespread support or recognition, it can probably be said to have had its cultural worth inflated somewhat by various insiders and press.

By contrast, the latest teen pop stars are not an artificially inflated market, because no major label signs them believing in their longevity to begin with. Releasing a few singles that sell millions before fading into obscurity is exactly what they were meant to do all along.

I'm not saying that Bon Iver can't eventually make history. The market for his music will now correct itself by deflating somewhat, yes, but he'll have the spotlight for a long time, along with multiple chances to get it right. And to be clear, I do agree that his music is beautiful. It's just that it isn't capable of maintaining cultural relevance on its own without the crutch of indie rock's hopes and values to prop it up.

Doing without such crutches, though, is exactly what needs to happen for any artist to be historically memorable. Today's mainstream and tomorrow's history might share few similar priorities, but the one thing they definitely do have in common is a complete disregard for what indie rock wants them to want.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Of future Joyces and judiciaries

If you're reasonably intelligent and come from a stable, middle-class upbringing, it's probably not all that hard to make your mark as an individual by creating or inventing something truly unprecedented and meaningful. As long as you're willing to forsake a life of security, comfort, and enjoyment, my hunch is that it's actually fairly easy.

But that's just the thing. You only get one life to live. And if you're already guaranteed one that's secure, comfortable, and enjoyable, why on earth would you gamble it away for some vague and foolhardy ambition, the full implications of which nobody in this world, including yourself, will recognize for a long time to come, even if--and that's a big "if"--you actually do succeed?

After all, if you're doing something truly unprecedented, then there's no metric that yet exists to value what you've just done, no established system to reward you or give you full credit. If you're lucky, you might see your achievements acknowledged within your lifetime. But to a degree that correlates with all your time and effort spent, and relative to what they'll be worth for all humanity to come? Definitely not.

Here's a thought experiment. It took James Joyce fourteen years to write Ulysses. What if you could be guaranteed the same impact on the world that Joyce had, and all it would cost you is fourteen years of your life spent working full-time on your project?

There are caveats, of course. You wouldn't be paid while you're doing it, so you'd either have to hold down a real job as well, or else have others willing to support you. You'd miss out on opportunities that only come once in life, when you're young and spry. You wouldn't have many relationships to fondly look back upon, if any. And you might be very, very unhappy for long, long stretches of time.

So would you sacrifice fourteen years of your life for the guarantee of being the next James Joyce in your chosen craft or field? Quite honestly? Probably not, if there's an easier and more fulfilling path to take. You only get one life to live, and fourteen years makes up a huge chunk of it. Once those years are gone, they're really, really gone. And so, paradoxically, if you've been blessed with the resources to be the next Joyce, you're probably also smart enough and privileged enough to choose the much better option of not being the next Joyce.

Which is why history is disproportionately shaped by misfits straddling the borders of respectable society. Music of the last century, for example, is overrepresented by Jews, gays, and blacks, and it's not hard to see why. Given just enough opportunity to know what the good life can be, but denied the opportunity to actually live it for themselves, they had to direct their skills and resources elsewhere. In other words, history is disproportionately made by those who weren't really wanted in their own time.

The celebrated theme of our time, however--which many are counting on to be its defining legacy--is that the Internet is making the world increasingly democratic by putting everything up for popular vote, allowing us to surround ourselves further in the things and people that we really, really do want--in place of those we simply don't.

This is problematic, because it's not how history works. But what's most absurd is that this isn't even how democracy works! Every truly democratic government on this planet includes an unelected judicial branch that is accountable solely to justice, reason, and sanity, not to popular sentiment. Any system without such a check in place is not only not a democracy, it is indistinguishable from mob rule.

So until the Internet systematically allows for an unelected judiciary--in the guise of individuals we trust to act as informed curators and gatekeepers--then it isn't actually democratizing anything. And this is such a huge problem that, quite frankly, how we end up tackling it will be remembered as the true defining legacy of the 21st century.

I honestly believe this. Who's with me?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Disruptive innovation and musical upstarts

Most mainstream bands aren't very good, and countless memes and entire websites are devoted to mocking the worst of them. Indie rock, by contrast, prides itself on putting out really, really good music first and foremost. So on those few occasions when an indie band finally breaks into the mainstream, it's reasonable to assume that they'll quickly mop up the place with their superior talent and artistic brilliance. And yet, more often than not, they end up being the ones getting mopped. Why is this?

I think the answer lies in my previous blog post, the one about scalability in music. The average indie band might be far more palatable than the average mainstream one, but it's not any more scalable. It's like a pizza joint in this respect. There might be one in your neighbourhood that's very popular and makes the tastiest pizzas, but it would face serious resistance if it tried to scale on a national level. Why? Because there's a million pizza joints out there, plenty of which are just as good, if not better.

The backlash against Bon Iver might be understood in this context. Despite its beautiful sound, and despite being critically acclaimed and Grammy-approved, his second album is currently rated 3.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon, on par with Coldplay's latest. Why? Probably because we all know bands similar to Bon Iver that are at least just as good. And while we don't mind the Pitchfork lovefest, a Grammy takes things into new territory. Bon Iver's music might be very good, but it's just not very scalable.

This won't trouble Jagjaguwar, of course, who surely found a windfall in Bon Iver's modest success within the mainstream, but it isn't reassuring to those of us who would like to see another Beatles or Radiohead in our lifetime. That is to say, a band that combines widespread popularity and cultural relevance with critical acclaim, artistic brilliance, and pioneering invention. If the one scene that prides itself on putting out really, really good music isn't capable of bringing us this band, then what hope is there?

I think the solution might be found in The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, which seeks to answer the question of why so many top companies take a nosedive in the face of advancing technology and societal change. The examples from history are endless: Western Union, Xerox, Montgomery Ward... and so forth. Popular wisdom, of course, would argue that they suffered from poor management, neglected their customer base, and failed to continuously innovate. But the book refutes this argument by showing that these companies were actually managed very well, extremely attuned to the needs of their customers, and constantly investing in new research.

The key lies in Christensen's distinction between sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation. The early automobile, for example, was a sustaining innovation, because it didn't change markets or assumptions. Only the rich could afford it, so they simply replaced their primary means of personal transportation. The term "horseless carriage" might sound whimsical to us today, but it genuinely captures how this new contraption was understood and accepted by those living at the time. By contrast, Henry Ford's Model T was a disruptive innovation, because it changed both markets and assumptions by bringing the automobile to the middle class.

Now, it was obvious to all that the switch from carriage to automobile represented a huge leap forward in technology. The mass-produced Model T, however, looked so plain and dreary next to the shiny fittings and plush interiors of its predecessors. What respectable steel magnate would be caught dead in that? For this reason, the other companies didn't treat it as serious competition until it was too late. The lesson here is that if your understanding of progress is defined by sustaining innovation, then not only will you fail to recognise disruptive innovation for what it is when you see it, you might even consider it a step backward.

What Christensen also observed is that established companies enjoy a huge advantage when it comes to staying on top of sustaining innovations, so upstarts tend to fare worst when trying to compete within established markets and values. The ones that do well and eventually take over, on the other hand, are those that create new markets and values--in other words, they create disruptive innovations. Personal cars, personal computers, web-based email. And there are plenty of cases where it wasn't even planned at all; the upstarts resorted to it in last-minute desperation, simply as a matter of survival.

And that's the problem with indie rock's forays into the mainstream: they don't challenge prevailing assumptions or values. There's no real difference between what Bon Iver fans and Coldplay fans listen for in music--as opposed to, let's say, those of classical versus hip hop. At best, Bon Iver fans can argue that his music represents a superior take on what Coldplay has to offer--in other words, a sustaining innovation. But as we've just seen, that's not enough for an upstart to compete with an established act. On its own turf, Coldplay still wins by default.

So the next Beatles or Radiohead to truly succeed in the mainstream will only do so by fundamentally challenging our assumptions about what good music can be, where it might come from, and how it gets made--in other words, it will represent a disruptive innovation. Which means that unless we're open to the lessons offered by The Innovator's Dilemma, it's quite possible that when the time comes, we'll look this upstart straight in the face--and then immediately dismiss them as representing a step backward.

In fact, it might have happened countless times already.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Scalable and non-scalable music

In preparation for my new startup, I spent this past summer reading some books on the subject, including The Lean Startup, The Innovator's Dilemma, and Founders at Work. As it turns out, some of the shortsighted practises they mention as cautionary tales are exactly how many of today's indie labels operate. So I've been trying to draw further parallels, hoping that knowledge of startup culture can lead to greater understanding of the problems currently facing indie rock. But so far, none of my attempts on this blog have really quite grasped it.

Until now, that is. I think I've got it now. And in retrospect, it seems absurdly obvious. It's really all about a distinction that's quite basic in the business world, even as it's rarely acknowledged, if it's understood at all, in the music world. I'm talking about scalability.

Startups such as Blogger, Facebook, and Twitter are scalable. That is to say, they are designed to accommodate unlimited growth of customers and users. This is because what they offer, ultimately, is new ideas. Since there's little precedent to show how well a new idea might succeed, though, startups operate under great uncertainty. A seemingly bad idea today might be worth millions tomorrow. Or... it might just be a bad idea.

A non-scalable business, by contrast, combines time, labour, and raw materials in a way that doesn't easily accommodate new customers or users. A pizza joint is a good example. Since each pizza joint can only make so many pizzas a day, none competes intensely with any other. And everyone likes pizza, so there's no need to create a new market from scratch. The downside of this certainty, of course, is that few in the pizza business can expect to make an easy living.

Since a pizza joint's sales are relatively steady from week to week, whether it can stay in business might depend on the tiniest sliver of net profit on each pizza sold. When I was a delivery guy many years ago, the owner could give me the exact cost, in pennies, of a single handful of each topping. So once a pizza joint is firmly established, its main priority is to extract ever more value from the limited time, labour, and raw materials it's able to invest.

By contrast, what is a startup's new idea worth? Since there's no market for it yet, no one knows. Even a ballpark range is impossible. So instead of fretting about the net profit of each individual user, startups simply work to acquire more and more of them. And since the underlying idea is ultimately what makes or breaks fortunes, they need to stay flexible should their initial assumptions prove wrong. But a pizza joint would be foolhardy to stray from its original mission of making the best pizzas ever.

One last difference is that since startups have no fixed limit for number of users, they are often open to hiring more people. After all, the cost of dividing their fortunes even further is easily offset by the resulting growth to their user base. By contrast, a pizza joint with a fixed customer base shouldn't hire any more workers than it needs to get stuff done.

So which is better, scalable or non-scalable? Of course such a question is absurd. We want online chat, but we also want lunch. We want people out there thinking differently and challenging our basic assumptions about how the world might be. But we also want people out there giving us exactly what we want, the tried and true approaches that keep the world sane and running smoothly. It's pointless to compare the two. They fulfill vastly different needs.

The music world has its own versions of scalable and non-scalable. The former see creativity and the ability to generate new ideas as their best assets, while the latter focus on cultivating skills that will allow them steady work. In the classical realm today, for example, composers generally belong to the former, and performers the latter. And just as in the world of business, it's pointless to argue which is more important. Throughout history, however, the circumstances of the world have not always treated them as equally important.

Even as late as Mozart's time, composers and performers were both treated as tradesmen. In fact, it was the critic who was held in highest esteem back then! (If this sounds bizarre, remember that those doing the critiquing were the nobility.) So both were non-scalable since their efforts weren't appreciated outside the courts that hired them. It wasn't until Beethoven inspired the cult of the "brilliant, tortured artist," and new advances were made in printing and publishing, that the world's first scalable musicians arrived in the form of the Romantic composers. A century later, audio recording allowed performers of popular music to be scalable as well, and everyone was happy.

Unfortunately, scalability didn't (and still doesn't) always equate with quality. New business strategies sprang up to wring maximum sales out of minimal talent, thereby undermining the key premise of scalability, which is that achievement of scale is its own proof that scale is deserved. So when file sharing came along to disrupt this practise a decade ago, most just shrugged, including myself. And since scalability, or the ability to scale, is meaningless once opportunities to scale have been removed, the spotlight has now shifted back to non-scalable musicians, much like in the time of Mozart.

These non-scalable musicians differ from scalable musicians just as pizza joints differ from startups, in that what they have to offer is their time and labour. In other words, their work requires them to be there in person to get paid, usually in small amounts at a time. Not surprisingly, then, for the past decade a certain glee has been palpable in the air now that creative works by themselves, without further time or work put in by the artist, no longer generate the exorbitant earnings they once did.

The newfound attention received by non-scalable musicians also means that they are now filling up the rosters of the record labels, whose business model was optimally designed for scalable musicians. But... this is a problem, isn't it? Because as corrupt and degraded as scalability was at its worst, the historical record will always show the heights it reached at its best. These heights just aren't going to be repeated by musicians holding non-scalable concerns and priorities, and I think they themselves would be the first to agree.

But it's not too late to give today's scalable musicians the opportunity. And if any should succeed, it will probably be the ones who think most like startups. That is to say, the ones offering new ideas, being flexible in their assumptions, and eagerly splitting fortunes with those who can bring them a wider audience. The first thing that smart investors often ask about a startup is, is it scalable? It won't be long before the smart labels start asking the same about the bands they sign.

So now I fully understand what my startup is meant to do. The point isn't to sow tension or resentment between scalable and non-scalable musicians, who fulfill vastly different needs for their respective audiences. We want some musicians to challenge our basic assumptions; we want others to give us what's comfortable and familiar. It's not a contest to determine which is more important. So I just hope to give all musicians, as well as other artists and eventually all individuals, the chance to be scalable by genuinely deserving that scale, in a world where such opportunities are quickly eroding away.

Yeah, that's it. I think I've got it now.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Symbolic hustling

I'm currently writing a business plan for my startup. As the non-tech cofounder, my responsibilities will involve making cold calls, finding clients, attracting investors--in short, hustling. But wait... I hate hustling! Don't I? After all, "I hate hustling" pretty much sums up every single post on this blog. And the whole point of my startup is precisely to make it easier for artists not to hustle. The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that there are actually two kinds of hustling: the regular kind, and what I call symbolic hustling. And my revulsion is strictly towards the latter.

Let me explain with an example. Let's say you're looking for a job. How do you go about it? Well, you need to send out resumes, schedule interviews, and network. Is that all you have to do, though? No, you also need to go to school, develop skills, and build up experience. But it's pretty obvious that these belong to two very different categories. The first category describes "things you do to tell the world what you have to offer." The second describes "what you have to offer." We call the second category "qualifications," and the first, "hustling."

Now, finding a job is pretty hard these days. For every job you might want, it always seems like there's someone more qualified. Wouldn't it be great, then, if you could be judged not just for your work skills, but also for the time and energy you put into hustling? Once you think about it for a full second, however, you realise that this is a really bad idea. If you could get credit for hustling, then everyone gets credit for it. The job market would become a race to the bottom, as applicants try to gain an edge by handing out more and more resumes and racking up more and more interviews.

I call this symbolic hustling. It differs from regular hustling not by how it's done, but by how it's received. Symbolic hustling counts no less than your qualifications do, effectively merging the two categories into one. Ordinarily, no institution would put up with this. It can only become a reality when a) qualifications are too fuzzy or capricious to ever be objectively measured, and b) the pool of applicants is way too large for even a fraction to be given fair consideration. In such cases, immediately identifiable and quantifiable metrics are desperately needed, and symbolic hustling does the trick.

Not surprisingly, then, this is what popular music has become. I often hear it said that musicians have to hustle now, just as they always had in the past. This is a half-truth. They're hustling again, all right, but not like in the past. Jimmie Rodgers and Charlie Parker never imagined they'd get credit for hustling. They did it because, well, that's just what you did back then to get your music heard. And if things worked out and you made it, you stopped hustling. Why keep sending out resumes when you're playing Carnegie Hall?

Look at Sun Ra. No one had to hustle harder than Sun Ra. Yet how much did his struggles as a working musician figure into his own self-created mythology? None. He preferred to talk about his trip to Saturn. That's how little hustling was worth back then. You did it to let the world know what you had to offer. That's all it was. It wasn't the actual thing you were offering. By contrast, so many of today's successful musicians will continue hustling throughout their careers--keeping a constant online presence, touring at a heavy loss just to show they've done it--because hustling is precisely what we love them for.

Here's an interesting question: when symbolic hustling counts, who wins? I'm going to venture a guess: not the best bands. That's just my hunch. I'm certainly nowhere near the best, but I've always aspired to be the best, and you need to aspire to be the best before you can be the best. (This is why British bands dominated in the 60s. They were all working-class kids desperately trying to break out of a rigid class system, and thus had a much stronger work ethic than their American counterparts. You couldn't tell by appearances, though. Ambition makes you look pretty ugly, which is why none wanted to show it.)

So if I hate symbolic hustling this much, then it's a good bet that others like me, the ones who aspire to be the best, probably do as well. This makes logical sense: why divert time and energy away from things that will help make you the best musically, towards things that merely count symbolically? But then this means that the ones who aspire to be the best will never get heard, because they can't possibly compete in a world where symbolic hustling is given equal weight. There's just no upper limit to how much others can and will symbolically hustle.

I truly, truly believe that music will make a staggering leap in improvement once we do away with symbolic hustling. Sometime in the future, a pioneering band will come along that the mainstream can rally around, like Radiohead, making us all wonder if it might just as easily have happened much, much sooner, were it not for our current priorities. Because this band certainly won't be the kind that symbolically hustles, the kind that gets all the attention at the moment.

So that's why I'm eager to get this startup going, because it will help those artists who hate symbolic hustling as much as I do. And this is the best part about startup culture: here, you hustle to get things done, not to get credit for it. It's an awesome deal when all you care about is getting things done. Just the very idea makes me feel empowered in a way that I haven't felt in so long. Seriously, it's like being a modern-day Sun Ra.

Friday, September 14, 2012

What startup culture can teach indie rock

In his latest essay, Paul Graham, whose company Y Combinator helped fund Reddit and Dropbox among others, explains one of the inherent complications of investing in startups:
The best startup ideas seem at first like bad ideas... If a good idea were obviously good, someone else would already have done it... One of my most valuable memories is how lame Facebook sounded to me when I first heard about it. A site for college students to waste time? It seemed the perfect bad idea: a site (1) for a niche market (2) with no money (3) to do something that didn't matter.
In other words, it might be wiser to invest in a startup's underlying ambition and competence rather than how well its ideas presently speak to you. After all, our gut feelings are shaped by what's already out there in the world, the same world that everyone else lives in. So anything that speaks to you probably speaks just as well to many others. This doesn't mean it's not a good idea. It just means it's unlikely to be the next big innovation that takes everyone by surprise.

I've argued before that the indie label habit of trusting gut feelings, of signing bands that best speak to them, is what's killing innovation in music today. But I'm slowly realising that it goes way deeper than that. In the past week or two, as I've renewed my search for bandmates, I've gotten a few responses from those who really enjoy the music and dig what my band is about, but just don't see it as something they personally want to join.

Now, the notion that a record label should be like one big, happy family united by a common sense of purpose is probably specific to indie rock. On the other hand, the notion that joining a band is a deeply personal decision, much like being in a relationship, is embraced by everyone. A band has to be the right fit on an emotional and spiritual level. To argue otherwise would be comparable to endorsing forced marriages.

And yet, those gut feelings telling musicians which bands to join are really no different from those telling labels which bands to sign, aren't they? That is to say, they're shaped by what's out there in the world, the things we already know, the things that are familiar to us. So if you're a musician, the bands that best speak to you probably speak just as much to everyone else. This doesn't mean they can't be good bands. It just means they're unlikely to be the pioneers of tomorrow that take everyone by surprise.

Is it possible, then, that the Internet, which makes it so much easier for us to find bandmates with similar habits and ideals, is also keeping our latter-day Lennons away from their latter-day McCartneys? It's probably no coincidence that many of today's promising bands are essentially one-person operations, like Bon Iver or Tune-Yards. The praise is well deserved; they sound amazing. Of course, it's no surprise they can pull it off: they're one person making the kind of music that one person can reasonably be expected to make.

But what about the future of musical innovation that necessarily requires lots of collaborative effort? It's not likely to come from musicians joining only those bands that best speak to them, nor from one-person bands making one-person music. Our best hope, perhaps, is the epic bedroom recordings made by lone individuals who remain unconcerned with tailoring their sound for live performance. The ambition and competence shown in such works can be taken as proof of the promise they hold as future collaborators.

And if their works don't speak so well to us here and now, or if they sound too polished or too rough or just plain off, that shouldn't be cause for concern in the long term: after all, at present they're just one person trying to make the kind of music that one person can't reasonably be expected to make, especially live. Of course, as I've said before, live performance is exactly what matters most to indie labels. Which is understandable, given that it's the main source of revenue and a reliable means by which word gets spread.

But that doesn't mean we should just give up on these bedroom artists completely. Surely there's a middle ground to be found, where labels can publicly assert confidence in them without undertaking the same financial risks demanded by the official bands on their rosters. In fact, validation from a respected source might just be the final step needed for these bedroom artists to find interested collaborators. It would be the indie rock version of a startup incubator like Y Combinator.

Because until someone finds a way, we're probably not going to discover the indie rock versions of Reddit and Dropbox. Right now, those bands are being killed off before they're even given a fighting chance.

Footnote, September 15, 2012: For those unclear on the Beatles reference, Lennon was as much threatened by McCartney's talent as he was in awe of it. But he was also a working-class kid, during a time of limited social mobility, who saw music as his ticket out of Liverpool. Thus, the only practical option was to make McCartney a Beatle (or rather, at that time, a Quarryman), rather than risk losing him to a rival band. And through the years, this friendly competition between them kept them both in top form as songwriters, making the Beatles the greatest rock band of all time. But the two weren't ever really close. My point is that this isn't a situation most musicians today would consider ideal. They'd probably try to avoid it if they could help it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Would Asthmatic Kitty sign an unknown Sufjan Stevens?

Indie rock embraces an incredible diversity of musical styles, from Afropop to chamber music, and we in this scene should be commended for always seeking out new sounds and aesthetics. But what if tomorrow's musical innovators aren't different so much in terms of their sounds and aesthetics, but rather, in their methods and approaches? How confident would we feel then about being able to identify this next generation of pioneering bands?

I mean, let's think about how new bands are currently discovered. As we all know, the indie labels keep their eyes peeled on the local music scene. They attend live shows, listen to word-of-mouth generated by live shows, and follow a network of personal connections kept hidden from much of the music-buying public. And they almost never listen to demos from unknown bands. This isn't just how it's done; this is how everyone in this scene agrees it should be done.

For example, when Asthmatic Kitty signed Shapes and Sizes on the strength of an unsolicited demo, they made it clear that they felt comfortable doing so only after seeing the band's live shows and meeting the members in person. Fortunately, this proved an accurate measure of Shapes and Sizes, a four-piece band whose brilliant, angular sound carries through no less effectively whether live or recorded. But would it have worked out quite so well had that demo been, let's say, Illinois?

Let's imagine that Sufjan Stevens never released Michigan or Seven Swans, making Illinois the debut album of a complete unknown. Now, it's relatively easy to ask musicians to come over, one at a time, and lay down tracks, so in this hypothetical scenario, the quality of the recording would probably be just as good. But as a complete unknown, it is exceedingly difficult to coordinate and schedule times when all your supporting musicians can get together to rehearse and then play a local or regional show for zero pay, over and over and over again.

So the live shows of an unknown Sufjan Stevens probably would have failed to match the promise of his demo by a long, long shot. And, pretending for a moment that we're in some parallel universe where Stevens himself hadn't founded Asthmatic Kitty, it isn't difficult to suppose that ultimately they would have rejected him for this reason. After all, when it's just so simple and straightforward to "get out there and play," how can a label take seriously any artist who proves so fundamentally incapable of fulfilling this most basic of prerequisites?

(If you're unfazed by hypothetical scenarios, this is exactly how my band was rejected by Slim Moon in 2007 when he was doing A&R for Nonesuch. He really liked our "Ulysses of rock albums," but promptly walked out after he saw we were just two guys onstage playing to a mostly empty room. Given that he knew I played every instrument on that album myself, and that I'd just moved to New York a few months earlier, I'm not sure what more he was expecting to find.)

"But wait!" you might protest. "When I read an album review and listen to the music online, I'm not worried about the quality of their live shows. If I don't like the music, then it's irrelevant, but if I do like the music, then I'm happy to see any live rendition, no matter how stripped down--and I assume they'll just keep getting better over time. And anyway, wouldn't having the support of an indie label be all that a complete unknown needs to finally be taken seriously and cobble together a road-ready band?"

Well, these are my sentiments, anyway. So presently, the indie labels base their decisions on the strength of live shows, even as the music-buying public's initial loyalties always lie with recorded albums. And sure, when file sharing started killing album sales a decade ago, making live shows the main source of revenue, this strategy might have proved prescient from a financial standpoint. But with technology now allowing anyone with enough time and energy to create mind-blowing bedroom recordings of epic scale and imagination, it might be time to reassess what we're missing out on from an artistic standpoint.

What if we needn't be subject to the whims of established artists to hear the next Illinois or Ys? What if any unknown artist or band with the ambition to create such an album could do so, and stand a realistic chance of being heard by the public if it's truly that amazing? This notion hardly seems revolutionary. And yet, sometimes revolutions are born not so much from fiery upheaval as from a singular shift in our most basic assumptions. Which means the time for this next one is as near--or as far--as we want it to be.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Major labels not too shabby on the People's List...

In my last post while discussing privilege, I linked to an editorial that lambasts Pitchfork's recent People's List for being made up mostly of artists who are white and male. Plenty have discussed this aspect of it to death, so I won't. What I find interesting is that half the artists in the top ten debuted on a major label, including Radiohead, who occupy the first, second, and sixth slots. (The other three are the Strokes, Wilco, and Kanye West. Since Radiohead appears three times, there are only eight total.)

The fact that Radiohead makes the strongest showing by far is particularly noteworthy, given that few had any real faith in them when they were first signed. Remember, they were just a Nirvana clone like every other band of that era, all swept up by the major labels using the shotgun approach despised so much by indie rock kids to this day. And through the years, Radiohead themselves have tried hard to downplay this ignoble origin, along with the incredible resources afforded them because of it. But in doing so, they're doing us all a huge disservice, by obscuring the reality of where great music might come from and how it might get discovered.

The indie labels look for bands whose creative habits appear fully blossomed. This approach helps guard against nasty surprises, but it also ensures that a breakout phenomenon like Radiohead will probably never happen under their watch. And yet, Radiohead made the two best albums of the past fifteen years, according to the very subcultural demographic that most ardently supports these indie labels!

Isn't that weird? That's weird to me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Juche rock

In my last post, I compared Beck's upcoming lead sheet album with my own comic book album about Rosalind Franklin. Music writers hail one as a clever idea with definite promise, and appreciate the other for the ease with which it slides right into the recycling bin. But let's be honest, if we were to ask people who know nothing about either project to guess which one met which fate, they would first have to ask, "And... which did Beck do?"

In other words, no work speaks for itself independent of the artist who created it. So it's technically impossible for a complete nobody to create a work of merit, because if that person doesn't exist, then the work doesn't exist, and existence is an essential precondition of merit.

But that goes against everything we believe, or at least wish to believe, about how success is won in the indie rock scene, doesn't it? I know I clung on for as long as I could. Surely the only path to becoming a somebody is through creating works of merit. And besides, if that weren't the case, how else could a nobody ever become a somebody? After all, every somebody starts out as some nobody.

My answer is that there are other factors involved, which I've narrowed down to these three: privilege, luck, and grinding.

Privilege

Privilege is any unearned advantage. Everyone enjoys some form of it, but of course some have less and some have more. In the case of indie rock, some people are just pleasing to behold. Others are admired precisely because they're not. Some long ago won the lottery for race and gender. Others have the right friends and connections.

Identifying privilege isn't a witch hunt; it's a necessary measure to prevent a downward slide into oligarchy, or rule by a permanent elite. Since we only ever hear from the successful, and theirs are the only opinions that matter, it's very easy to settle into an attitude that equates success directly with merit while neglecting every other possible cause. Given that most indie rock fans are social progressives, hopefully this point doesn't need to be explained further.

Luck

Duncan Watts once conducted an experiment in which thousands of participants, divided amongst parallel social networks, were asked to rate the same set of songs by unknown bands. However, each person could only see the votes made by peers in his or her own network, not those of any other. The results? Each network came up with a completely different order of ranking.

As Watts explains in a guest post on the Freakonomics blog:
Enormous differences in success may indeed be due to small, random fluctuations early on in an artist's career, which then get amplified by a process of cumulative advantage--a 'rich-get-richer' phenomenon that is thought to arise in many social systems.
So luck matters. A lot. Sure, we might minimise how much it helped bring us the bands we love, but it also goes a long, long way towards explaining those we don't. It's not a difficult conclusion to accept overall, is what I'm saying.

Before I move on to the third and last factor, let me make it clear that I'm not denying the merits of any band that's found success. What I am saying is that when success means success over others, and the sheer number of talented bands out there is taken into account, then pure merit is a completely dishonest explanation for why a few somebodies get to be elevated above the countless nobodies. It's like insisting that anyone you date should have no prior conviction for armed robbery. A few other criteria might need to be involved.

So a problem arises when we discuss any successful band's merits. If I choose A over B, then compliment A for a certain trait and leave it at that, I'm not lying even if B also possesses that trait. But I'm clearly doing B a disservice. Similarly, when we marvel at the innovative genius of a somebody, we should also note that some nobodies out there might be just as deserving of the same applause, if we were to actually pay attention to them.

Grinding

Grinding in World of Warcraft means doing something mindlessly repetitive like killing boars, purely for the sake of acquiring items or leveling up. It's also an apt term to describe the one surefire way for any band to grab the reins of its career and gain massive respect in indie rock. I'm talking, of course, about paying one's dues.

So what does it mean to pay one's dues? Does it mean to work hard? Not quite. After all, the hard work that goes into something like a comic book album is pretty evident on the surface. No, paying one's dues specifically means working hard according to predefined and observable metrics. You know, self-promotion and distribution, endless touring, and so forth.

But if such metrics already exist, and the means by which to fulfill them long understood by everyone, doesn't that mean we're merely retreading the same path over and over, instead of forging new ones? Yes, that is indeed correct. And truth be told, I don't think anyone really gets all that excited when hearing about the latest band to finally get noticed after having paid its dues. It's just that the option has to be kept open if there's to be any semblance of meritocracy in this scene.

So while it's called paying one's dues in indie rock, and busywork in the academic and corporate worlds, the concept is the same: earning respect by working hard contributing nothing of genuine value. But I'm just going to call it grinding. To me, killing virtual boar after boar after boar... is exactly what it feels like.

Juche

The interesting thing about grinding is that it's the only one of these three factors for success that's specific to an ideology. Privilege and luck are unavoidable facts of life, and much effort has to be invested to counter their effects. But the same isn't true for grinding. We either choose to value it or we don't. It's as simple as that.

So, I was sitting here trying to think of any other culture or institution besides indie rock that places such a high value on grinding. NASA? Jazz music? Professional hockey? No, all of these care deeply about results. If a process that leads to superior results doesn't match an original assumption, then they discard that assumption, not the process. So no, in these fields, there's probably zero patience for hard work undertaken purely as a symbolic gesture and signaling device.

Then I remembered Pyongyang, a comic book novel by Guy Delisle that tells about his time there. We don't think of North Korea as producing anything of value, and yet the North Koreans work incredibly hard. Their workweek lasts for six days, and on the seventh, they "volunteer" for hastily planned civic projects. In one instance, Delisle describes seeing schoolchildren watering a park lawn by running back and forth carrying buckets.

If you weren't born to privilege, you can still get ahead in North Korea by grinding: keeping your head down, doing exactly what you're told, and not making waves. Most of all, you don't innovate, because innovation means disrupting the system. And there are just too many people whose lives and livelihoods are at stake. "Hey, I didn't spend weekends in my youth watering park lawns with a bucket, just to watch you invent something called a sprinkler! I paid my dues! You die now!"

So there you have it: indie rock and North Korea, two institutions where grinding is celebrated and rewarded. Incidentally, indie rock stands for independence, holding as its ideal a world in which no artist and no label must rely on any other, while the official state ideology of North Korea is Juche, which can be roughly translated to "self-reliance."

I don't think that's a coincidence.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pseudepigrapha

When I was a religious studies major many, many, many moons back, I learned about pseudepigrapha, the practise of attributing authorship of one's works to another of greater renown and authority. The Gospel of Thomas is one famous example. At the time, I accepted this ancient custom on an intellectual level--but it just made no sense to me on a personal level, young and idealistic as I was, and holding the individualist values that I did. If your message is profound enough to resonate with the world, I reasoned, why would you deny history the truth of whom it came from?

Well... I'm starting to really, really get pseudepigrapha now. Because, man, when you're a nobody, nothing you say or do matters! Nothing counts, because you don't count. All the thought and energy that goes into each individual project of yours, at the end of the day, still has to be multiplied by the zeroness of your actual being. What's ten times zero? Zero. A hundred times zero? Zero. A thousand times zero?... and so forth.

Based on initial reactions from the labels and press, it looks like my prediction is coming true: the Rosalind Franklin comic book album isn't impressing any of the powers that be. I can argue all I want about the promise it holds for combining unrelated media to create new storytelling possibilities, or that as a female scientist she was robbed of her place in history, and this album hopes to correct that injustice, or even simply that the songs are really, really good. But none of these arguments matter, because I don't matter.

In fact, the whole "female scientist" angle is a pretty good analogy for my position, I think. When you read about educated women and blacks in the 19th century, it's always the same story about how their accomplishments were ignored. But really, it's not like everyone around them was trying to be a jerk. People back then simply weren't capable of accepting scientific insights coming from blacks and women, any more than I'm willing to accept relationship advice coming from a talking banana. You can't take it personally. When you're a zero, you're not being ignored because they hate you. You're being ignored simply because people and things that don't count... well, don't count.

By now, everyone knows about Beck's plan to release an album solely as lead sheets. Given that there are plenty of genres such as gospel music where sales in this format have always been strong, this by itself isn't noteworthy, of course. We find it new and exciting because it's Beck. Meanwhile, what would happen if Beck were to release a comic book album? I'm guessing there'd be a bit of talk about the promise of combining unrelated media to create new storytelling possibilities. Beck is a somebody, so anything he does, multiplied by his nonzero self, will actually be, like, multiplied. That utterly blows my mind.

And suddenly, the idea of giving authorship of my work to a somebody like Beck starts to sound really, really nice. I just have to cross out "Bobtail Yearlings" and scribble in "Beck" on this comic book album. That's all it would take to have my work appreciated by millions! Seriously, how awesome would that be?

Footnote: Actually, truth be told, I would happily take relationship advice from a talking banana. Lord knows, I need all the help I can get.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Labelmetrics? Musicball?

Peter Brand: People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws: age, appearance, personality. Bill James and mathematics cut straight through that... Billy, this is Chad Bradford. He's a relief pitcher. He's one of the most undervalued players in baseball. His defect is that he throws funny. Nobody in the big leagues cares about him because he looks funny... This guy should cost $3 million a year. We can get him for $237,000.
--Moneyball
Some of you know that several years ago, I set out to create "the Ulysses of rock albums." The hope was that by putting out an album that could not fail to win stellar reviews, I would gain a foothold in this scene without having to spend years playing in dive bars to a crowd of three on a Wednesday night. Both Secretly Canadian and Nonesuch liked the album and kept in touch for a while, though both eventually declined. But overall, there just wasn't enough of a reaction elsewhere to solidly confirm to me that such a path isn't in fact viable.

So I concluded instead that my "Ulysses of rock albums," which necessarily demanded the kind of time and attention from its listeners that I as a nobody hadn't yet earned, was simply the wrong project to make it happen. My next project would leave nothing hidden below the surface, and all would be well. Feeling the sting of rejection and fearing that my place in music history wasn't as assured as I'd assumed, I decided to mix pragmatism with personal feelings by making a comic book album about Rosalind Franklin, the historically neglected English biophysicist.

But lately I'm beginning to realise that this new project is fated to be completely ignored as well, even before its first wave of promos has been sent out. The immediate visibility of its worth is irrelevant. The true lesson I should have learned the first time around is this: Any attempt to gain a foothold in the indie rock scene by crafting an album that can't fail to win stellar reviews will always be doomed to fail, for the simple reason that indie labels don't consider album reviews.

This is a provocative statement, I know. I could buttress my argument with observations I made as a former intern at Dim Mak, or exchanges I've had with various label reps over the years, but I'd rather not risk descending into snark, however unwitting, and anyway these wouldn't mean anything coming from a nobody like me. So let me just ask you to step into the shoes of the label reps, and see things from their perspective.

Music is hopelessly subjective, and familiarity breeds comfort, which makes it difficult to objectively judge things like artistic beauty and cultural relevance. At the same time, support for the indie labels is dependent on their role in nurturing artist empowerment and self-reliance. Consequently, a label's confidence in an unknown band is gained not through recordings, for which the barriers of entry are too low to be an effective gauge, but through live shows, with everything signified by what they entail: the voluntary presence and immediate feedback of the audience, the spirit and passion evident on each member's face, and the ability to meet and connect with the band on a human level afterwards.

So new bands are discovered through some undetermined combination of personal connections, word-of-mouth, and serendipity, and the live show is the forum where it all comes together.

Let's say you're a label rep, and you've just watched a fantastic set by a band you've heard great things about. They've built up a local reputation through sheer commitment and elbow grease, and it shows: a good-sized crowd for a Saturday night has turned out. A longtime fan pulls you aside and tells you he was there from the beginning, watching them play in dive bars to a crowd of three on a Wednesday night, and even back then they always gave it their all like they were onstage at Wembley.

You meet up with the band after the set and they're super friendly and passionate about what they do. Talking to them feels like talking to old friends. Reassured, you sign them. Half a year later you release their album, send them on the road with a more established band on your roster, and wait.

The reviews come in... they're great! You pat yourself on the back for another gem well spotted. Or... they're not so great. You tell yourself, that's okay. You've heard firsthand their brilliance. It just wasn't meant to be confined within the carpeted walls of a recording studio. And you've seen them make it in their own hometown. With your resources and their diligence, they can just as easily win over Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, one at a time, in the exact same manner.

Your intern walks in with the day's mail, which includes a few unsolicited demos. You tell her to file them away with all the rest in an overstuffed bin at the back of a closet, and ask her to book your flight to the upcoming SXSW, which you've been eagerly anticipating for weeks.

In other words, a general prediction of how favourable the album reviews will be is never once made before a label signs a band. They simply don't matter. Live shows, not recordings heard free of any context, are what make and break the deal.

But wait! Let's step back into our own shoes now. How many of us prefer to discover new music by randomly going out to see unknown bands play live? At most, one out of ten of you just raised a hand. Many of us rely on recommendations from friends, but that just kicks the question up the road: how do these friends hear about new music? And concert reviews don't tell us much, since they contain more descriptive commentary than qualitative judgment, which is what we're really after. We read them to keep up with bands we already like, not those we don't yet know.

No, with new bands we want album reviews, preferably with the option to see all the various scores aggregated into a single number. Any band that has a realistic chance to reach our ears is obviously good enough, yet being bombarded by thousands of them, we count on trusted intermediaries to winnow down the selection even further. For most of us, album reviews are the lifeblood of our musical tastes, whether directly or indirectly. But you see where this is headed: the most important criterion by which we judge new music is actually completely irrelevant and only tangentially related to the actual decision-making process that brings new music to us!

The movie Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis's book of the same name, is about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who led a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the major leagues to a stunning twenty-game winning streak in 2002. Beane's strategy was based on sabermetrics, a system of statistical analysis pioneered by Bill James. As Peter Brand (based on real-life Paul DePodesta) explains in the movie:
There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening... People who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn't be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs... When I see Johnny Damon, what I see is an imperfect understanding of where runs come from. The guy's got a great glove. He's a decent leadoff hitter. He can steal bases. But is he worth the $7.5 million a year that the Boston Red Sox are paying him? No. Baseball thinking is medieval. They are asking all the wrong questions.
For sabermetricians, the problem with traditional statistics such as batting average and slugging percentage is that in order to be translated into meaningful action, they need to be interpreted by human beings, whose gut instincts are woefully susceptible to irrational biases. In the movie, for example, we see Beane's scouts express faith in one player's abilities due to his "strong jaw," while another player's "ugly girlfriend" is taken to signify a lack of self-confidence.

What does all this mean for indie rock? Simple: In the same way that most sports fans are loyal to their teams rather than to individual players, most music fans are won over by the music first, not the artist. Consequently, an indie-rock version of Peter Brand might argue that there is an epidemic failure within indie rock to understand that an indie label's real goal shouldn't be to sign bands, but to sign music. And in order to sign music, you need to sign albums—that is to say, the albums that have yet to be made.

It won't be easy to effect this change, of course. The indie labels will find it unsettling to focus primarily on hard results while ignoring the auras, personalities, stories, and human connections that speak to them most and count for so much in their eyes. But such a dispassionate approach would actually be a blessing, for it would encourage them to evaluate new bands the same way that first-time listeners already do. Indie rock will also have to drop its penchant for myth-making in real time, but this would be no real loss either, since history usually backfires on such attempts anyway.

Perhaps the most valid objection is that in baseball, wins are quantifiable and indisputable, while music is hopelessly subjective. All is fair when it comes to making judgments, so it's pointless to argue with whatever external features enhance our listening enjoyment, however much they're based on irrational biases. I get that. And it's natural to be suspicious of sterile calculations, especially when something that's so emotionally engaging and personally meaningful is at stake. The decision-making process will always retain some element of the mystical and ineffable. I get that too.

But I'm not asking anyone to accept some totally inconceivable alternate reality here. I'm simply arguing that this aversion to cold, hard numbers shouldn't cause the indie labels to neglect the one cold, hard number that most music fans not only already do trust, but possibly trust above all other criteria: the weighted average of every score that accompanies each album review.

Trusting gut feelings is what defines the spirit of Generation X, the generation that started indie rock. By contrast, the Millennials will accept all the mounting evidence that human intuition is largely irrational, and work with that as a fundamental reality.

So it won't be long before indie-rock versions of Bill James and Billy Beane come along to forever change the game of discovering new music. When that happens, the indie labels will have to ask themselves: Do we want to be the indie-rock equivalent of the 2002 Oakland A's? Or are we content to be depicted in the eventual movie as some old guys signing bands based on criteria that future audiences will find no less wrongheaded and superficial than "strong jaw" and "no ugly girlfriend"?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Can indie rock survive the Millennials?

When I first started playing in bands hoping to make a splash in the East Bay scene ten years ago, it was common knowledge that the way to attract indie label attention is by not needing a label. For the bands themselves, this makes perfect sense: self-reliance through promoting and distributing your own music allows you to negotiate from a position of strength. When you consider what's in it for the labels, though, it's exactly as strange as it sounds.

Imagine this McDonald's billboard: "Anyone can put meat and cheese between bread, really. The real exchange takes place between our suppliers and our customers, which we merely facilitate. We're not really needed!®" This would make for a pretty lousy business strategy, which is why no business works this way. The ideal model for a business is interdependence, where every single part and person is needed to play a unique role.

The model for indie rock, by contrast, is independence, where no part nor person is forced to rely on any other. But despite its reduced efficiency, this strategy has worked pretty well these past two or three decades, precisely because we value artist empowerment so strongly. We support the indie labels that refuse to exploit untested bands, and in turn, they promise that every band they sign has proven its mettle through self-reliance.

Of course, by forgoing interdependence, we lose the possibility that the whole can ever be greater than the sum of its parts. In my last post, I explained that the Beatles were exceptional precisely because they could count on others to handle every little thing unrelated to making music. But our desire to see bands get out there and hustle essentially guarantees that none today will be as musically noteworthy as the Beatles. Self-reliance, then, isn't just a virtue we highly respect; by default, it's the only virtue that has any chance to distinguish indie rock.

And this will go on for as long as the generation that started indie rock--my generation, Generation X--can go on. But the next generation, the Millennials, might choose to play a different ballgame altogether.

Let's face it, indie rock was perfectly made to suit Generation X. The notion that pluck and courage should count for more than cultivated talent, or that those of like-minded spirit can be adored by the world for banding together--these resonate well with a generation that famously resented having to work jobs they hated, to pay for houses they couldn't afford, to fill with stuff they didn't need.

The big story about Millennials, on the other hand, isn't that they resent their jobs, but that they can't even find jobs. Their worst fear is to be forever shunted aside, despite all their qualifications, to make way for those possessing elusive qualities that can't be earned. In this light, the notion that pluck and courage should count for more than cultivated talent might suddenly seem a bit more vulgar, while an indie label that prides itself on being run more like a family than a business might look no different than any other institution that favours connections over credentials.

This is all conjecture on my part, of course, but I've noticed that I don't hear the rallying cry "Support the indie labels!" nearly as often as I did a decade ago. Which makes sense, given the rise of crowdfunding as the self-reliant artist's new source of empowerment. If your business strategy as an indie label is to not be needed--to be a mere facilitator, contributing nothing of substance to the process--then your unwillingness to step aside once a more streamlined option becomes available makes you no less an exploitative middleman than the major labels have long been accused of being.

Indie rock currently reflects Generation X's admiration for the effort it takes to get to the top. But should the Millennials ever definitively declare that they'd rather celebrate what it takes to be at the top, the indie labels will need to drastically change or else wither away. Rather than signing bands that don't need a label, then, they must prove themselves indispensable by signing exactly those that do--in other words, the ones desperately reliant on others to handle every little thing unrelated to making music.

Don't get me wrong, indie rock's model of independence has given us a long run of truly amazing bands. But the most influential and relevant bands in music history thrived during times of interdependence. And when you think about what interdependence is--well, that just sort of makes perfect sense.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

I'm switching from Blogger to Wordpress

Here's my new blog. All my old posts will be exported over there. Please pardon any hiccoughs along the way.

Update, July 22, 2012: Ugh, never mind. I'm too used to Blogger. And I'm too lazy to care which platform is better.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Of Deists and late Beatles

Who do you think would make a great President of the United States? I think many people would include Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Neil deGrasse Tyson on their lists. Yet, none of these three could ever hope to become President. Why? They're all self-professed agnostics.

In this country, believing in the providence of a Judeo-Christian God is an unofficial requirement for the Presidency. It might not make much sense to those of us who don't believe religion holds an exclusive claim on morality, but it especially doesn't make sense in light of what we know about the Founding Fathers, many of whom subscribed to Deism, the 18th-century version of agnosticism. (Without the theories of evolution and the Big Bang, they needed a divine clockmaker at the very least to explain the origins of life and the physical universe.)

It all kind of reminds me of indie rock. In this scene, you need to get out there and keep playing shows. And yet, the Beatles, arguably the greatest rock band of all time, completely stopped touring and performing after Rubber Soul. They then went on to release four of their five best albums. So why do we insist that current bands should only be discovered by doing the very opposite of what the Beatles were doing at the peak of their career?

Okay, I know what you're thinking. The Beatles did their residency in Hamburg. They wrote nothing but crowd-pleasing pop songs for years before putting out the intricate studio pieces that would cement their legacy. In short, the success of their later years very much depended on the honed performance chops of their earlier ones. And whether a band has that initial, solid foundation to build upon is exactly what indie rock's unofficial "get out there and play first" requirement is meant to measure.

But does it really, though? Look closer and you realize that the Beatles got tremendous help, particularly from their managers Allan Williams and Brian Epstein, and especially starting at a time when many around them still found them mediocre. Read the history and you'll get the impression, again and again, that the Beatles had zero business savvy and couldn't possibly have made it out of Liverpool on their own. For those who understand human nature, of course, that should go without saying. You can only do so much, and the Beatles were obviously too busy writing and performing music.

But we no longer live in a time when budding entrepreneurs were more likely to be lurking in the wings hoping to discover new talent, rather than just starting their own bands. If we did, then yes, a band's draw might be a more accurate gauge of their artistic worth. As it is, though, "get out there and play" isn't so much about a band's ability to play live shows as it is about their conviction to get them.

And that's a problem for bands that want to grow. When you're young, getting shows is not hard to do. It's pretty easy when you're content with nothing more than being in a band and playing out. That conviction isn't hard to come by, so it's easy to see why few in this scene can muster any sympathy for those bands who lack it. But let's face it, it's only easy to come by when you're young. As you grow older, life gets in the way, just as you start having more to say, and these changes in circumstance and temperament naturally make writing and recording more fruitful and rewarding than performing and touring. But what happens if you never got any exposure during your early years? Then those early years don't count, and according to indie rock, nothing you do beyond them will count either.

So is a band really to keep itself artistically stunted for years and years, until a scene representative comes along to start the ticker? No one prefers this to be the situation, and yet we see it happen all the time. A good live band traverses the local circuit for a decade, then finally gets discovered and enjoys their brief moment in the spotlight only to dwindle back into obscurity after a year or two, precisely because they languished for too long as a good live band when it was probably time for them to progress onward towards something bigger. Who would want to hear this band? Who would want to be them? And yet, surprisingly, the present system remains unsympathetic to any other approach.

I think this explains my band's predicament in a nutshell. With doublespeaker rhyme, Bobtail Method, and everything else we've done, I feel that we've long reached our Revolver phase, and I refuse to regress backward. Meanwhile, indie rock coolly awaits our Please Please Me and until then, refuses to accept anything more advanced or developed from us. So one of us will eventually have to cave.

But this issue is really about so much more than Bobtail Yearlings. Many of you would agree that religion is an absurd gauge of a President's moral compass, not only because it would be easier and more accurate just to observe those morals directly, but also because some of our greatest Presidents would have failed such a test. Similarly, do we really need to see a band "get out there and play" in order to believe in their potential as a great band, when we can just directly assess their potential to be a great band? Because, guys... THE BEATLES.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Wason selection task for understanding success

Let’s say there are four cards on a table, and each one has a number on one side and a colour on the other.
Card A shows the number 3.
Card B shows the number 8.
Card C shows the colour red.
Card D shows the colour brown.
Which cards would you have to flip over in order to confirm the statement that if a card has an even number on one side, then it is coloured red on the other?

This is the Wason selection task, and supposedly people are pretty bad at it. The answer is B and D. Neither A nor C can prove or disprove the statement, whatever their hidden sides reveal.

Let’s try another one. There are four people in a bar, and each one is drinking from a glass. The legal age for consuming alcohol is 21.
Person A is 18.
Person B is 25.
Person C is drinking beer.
Person D is drinking soda.
Whose ID or glass would you have to check to make sure that all those drinking alcohol are of legal age?

The answer this time is A and C, and interestingly enough, most people don’t have any problems answering this second one correctly, even though it is logically equivalent to the first. The explanation is that our capacity for reason evolved to follow social rules, not abstract concepts.

Let’s try one more.
Band A is good.
Band B is not so good.
Band C is successful.
Band D is not successful.
Which bands would you have to find out more about to confirm the statement that if a band is good, then their success is inevitable?

The answer is A and D. Again, this problem is logically equivalent to the others. In the real world, though, you can’t learn about Band D when you aren’t even aware that they exist. If they were a card, in other words, it would not be on the table. So is this problem more like the first, or the second? That is to say, does it run counter to most people’s capacity for reason, or does it follow it?

The reason I ask is because we are entering a new era of unprecedented models for achieving and sustaining recognition. Some bands have become viral sensations; others have showcased novel ideas for online distribution. This has led many observers to complacently believe that if a band is good, then their success is inevitable, all the while oblivious to the sheer volume of Band Ds out there politely being shielded from their view. In other words, while the technology is now available for us to witness many daring new success models, we have yet to develop the kind of critical thinking needed to accurately gauge whether they can ever be consistently and universally applicable.

The question is, will we ever? That is to say, are the concepts needed for this desired level of understanding rooted in the kind of social rules for which our human intuition naturally evolved? Or are they simply too abstract for the less sophisticated majority of us to ever follow? I hold out hope for the former, but unfortunately, I suspect it's the latter. Despite all the sociological research out there suggesting the precarious nature of success, the concepts and terms involved are probably too inaccessible to ever overcome the limitations of how our brains are ultimately built.

For better or worse, then, the burden will forever be on the losers to explain how they lost, not on the winners to justify why they won.