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.