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.