Tag Archives: process

Trying to make quality art

As Bob Lefsetz points out regularly, rock stars are not rock stars any more. It’s technology entrepreneurs that are the new rock stars. (And so are chefs.) So, what makes entrepreneurs our new heroes?

In the software world, you sort of have two approaches. You can be b2b, or “business to business”, where you sell products and solutions to businesses (the large ones being called “enterprises”). Or you can be b2c–“business to consumer”. You might consider Microsoft to be more of a b2b type of company, where they get most of their profits from enterprise customers. And you might consider Apple as a b2c type of company, where individual consumers drive most of the revenue.

In the b2b model, you are more focused on scenarios that get stuff done. You are not going to be a rock star. Your customers are businesses, not end users. Most people have not heard of you, or care what you do–but you still get rich. Businesses use your software to make money, and it’s just your business-customers that adore you. The end users in the business get a paycheck, and they just need to accomplish tasks so they can get paid.

On the other hand, b2c companies focus on making the end user feel delighted and at peace. It’s about the journey, about feeling part of something important, about feeling special, about being pleasantly surprised, about being entertained, and ultimately it’s about feeling like the product has somehow intangibly improved their lifestyle. The b2c companies get all the fame, as they inspire the end users. When you’re really great, people forget that they are paying for your product–they really believe that it is being bestowed upon them.

You get loyal customers by consistently exceeding their expectations. And so you need to deliver a quality product. In the b2b model, your quality is measured against the ability to accomplish tasks. In the b2c model, your quality is measured against warm fuzzy feelings.

In your art, your goals are different. Hopefully your goals are not related to making money (let’s be realistic here), but are instead focused solely on music quality as a means toward inspiration. But how do you ultimately define quality? Probably in a different way. Perhaps it’s by inspiring an emotional reaction. Perhaps that reaction could be a positive one, in the case of b2c, or it could also deliberately inspire a negative one. If you’re inspiring discussion, then perhaps that is the result of the quality of your art. As they say, there is no such thing as bad press. Banksy comes to mind.

Bad quality can have a backlash, as we see with the latest iPhone that isn’t flying off the shelves due to its disorienting display. People grow accustomed to a lifestyle, and they expect you to deliver. Much like with art, the negative hype can often just come from the critics, the squeaky wheels–like with Miley Cyrus who is doing just fine financially. You have to understand who is your audience, and how the critics affect broad opinion–if at all. Critics may actually not matter, or perhaps certain critics don’t matter (a consumer focused critic isn’t going to hurt your company much with a bad review if your business is a b2b).

How do you measure your progress in reaching good enough musical quality? This is trickier. So here’s a method to consider.

In the software world, the latest thing is to follow a SCRUM process. You can search it up online, but to summarize: you divide up your project into short, manageable sprints. After a couple of sprints, you have a minimal viable product (MVP) that you can pass around and get feedback. But even sprints are viable in their own way, in that you end up with something that works at every step. As you reach the end of each sprint, you look back and figure out what went well, and what could be improved. You adjust your schedule, you improve your processes, and then you go to the next sprint. This way, you are constantly correcting course and staying agile.

I would wager that we could consider sprints to be like writing songs. You keep writing songs over short periods of time until you get one that is good enough, from your own point of view. That means you’ve reached an MVP. You’re not working on the same song–that’s not the point. You’re working on your ability to create great art. Maybe you take another sprint to polish the MVP-type song. Then you share that song with a small group of “early adopters”, as they’re called in the software world. The early adopters are passionate about you. They want to consume everything you make, and they are unafraid to criticize you with wild abandon. And, in fact, you highly respect their feedback–perhaps they are friends, or members of a song writing group. Often this is all done confidentially. You take all the feedback, and use that to improve your quality. They’ll never hear the bad songs, which is fine because no one will ever hear the bad songs. You are not married to your songs. They are just sprints along the way to an MVP.

Then you repeat. You’re building up your experience, your expertise, and your intuition. You’re digesting feedback, and integrating it. And the next MVP, you give it out to a wider audience–maybe publicly this time, but still on a limited basis to, perhaps, just your die-hard fans.

Repeat some more. The number of sprints between MVPs is decreasing. You’re constantly writing songs, but people don’t hear every one. You are only focused on writing over and over until you finally write one that is good enough quality. Lastly, release your MVP-level song(s) to a wide audience. Include all those critics. You’ve learned how to over-deliver consistently and with high quality. You are inspiring people. You are a rock star.

~

(follow up thought: at what point is a song good enough? Die-hard fans do want to see your tender moments and your screw ups. Hmmm… perhaps it’s time to show them some of your horrible songs after all, to give them a glimpse of your process?)

(follow up thought, part 2: music quality leads to emotional reaction. That’s why I play music, and it may be your reason, too. There is no better feeling in the world than to inspire someone–to be in the right place at the right time, where you have inexorably changed their life. I have no idea if I’ve ever done that, but I hope to some day.)

(follow up thought, part 3: Melt Banana is touring the US right now, but they are down 2 members–likely due to the government shutdown. But tonight, seeing them at Chop Suey, we aaaalmost didn’t notice. They have written so many songs, performed so often, gained so much experience, that they just rolled with it and totally brought the energy. Two people taking up the space of four. I’m sad their drummer and bassist are left at home, but I aaaalmost didn’t notice. Why? Because their music inspires me.)

Trying over and over

I have this annoying ability to do the same thing over and over. I really enjoy the process, and that makes it hard to accomplish anything. I see other people enjoy the accomplishments. But somehow I fear accomplishment–because then the process is over! So, something I do now is consider Finishing as part of the process. It’s kind of a trick, where I complete things quickly and move on to the next thing–over and over. It’s a meta-process, of repeated completion.

Anyway, so I don’t get that way with the things I don’t care about. Just with the things I’m passionate about. I’ve seen the same thing over the years with my students. If they are passionate, then they will practice on their own. So I have to figure out how to inspire them. And I have to figure out what they are already passionate about, and then teach from that frame of reference.

I used to play trumpet from 4th grade up through high school. I was in jazz band, I was first chair, I played in a ska band on the side. I thought I was passionate. But then one day I sat down behind some drums, and discovered the truth. I didn’t own drums, but I would figure out when I could go bang on my friend’s drums whenever possible. I became obsessed, and learned pretty quickly. So… I had been passionate about music all along, but never as passionate with the trumpet. Drums are my thing. I taught myself drums so that I was just as good in a few years as I was with 8 years of trumpet.

Sometimes I wonder… what if a teacher had recognized that earlier? What if they had introduced percussion to me earlier, just to see what would happen? Do passions come and go? Are you born with some? (On the other hand, I would be nowhere as good of a musician, had I not first had the perspective of playing a melody instrument.)

I had to fight external factors to learn drums, and it was an expensive proposition while also paying for college. I didn’t have to fight to play the trumpet. Was that a factor?

Anyway, at some point I think we have to take stock of what we’re doing and stop doing the things we’re not passionate about. There are a bazillion artists out there, and they are all really good. And the passionate ones are practicing, and are getting better every day. Many of them were practicing before they even knew it would pay off for them someday.

Trying not to fall behind

It seems like it’s a struggle not to fall behind. There’s always more to learn. More to observe and soak in.

I’ve played with musicians in the past that have been stuck. They had the chops. They had the core technical skills to rock. But they hadn’t kept up with what was going on in the scene around them.

Now you might be the type of musician that doesn’t care what’s going on, and that’s fine. You’re the type of person who we call “ahead of their time”. There are even savants like Henry Darger, who just sort of figured out how to do his thing all by himself and for himself. But the rest of us mortals have to care a certain amount about what’s happening now, if we’re going to have a conversation with the rest of the art community.

So, I saw that those musicians who were stuck were being left behind. They were hard to work with. It took longer for them to get the right sound that the song required. If you’re going to push the boundaries, you have to know the boundaries. And the boundaries are always changing, so I try to predict the changing boundaries and push that too. If you don’t know the boundary, then you are irrelevant at the moment.

That happened to me. I learned to play drums in the 90s. I built up a set of hardware in that context, and certain inflections in style particular to that time (for example, a tightly tuned snare). It wasn’t until maybe 15 years later that I realized I was still hanging on to a few things. I probably am still irrelevant in many ways, otherwise I’d be famous.

It’s hard to be that self aware. I really value the people I can trust who will be honest about that stuff. “Your snare sound sucks.” “Your high hat is way too brittle sounding.” Sometimes I don’t notice that stuff right away just on my own.

Yeah, so try not to fall behind like I did. But if you’re truly passionate, then you’ll figure it out.

Trying to have some personality

I think personality is more important than technical ability. A lot of times it takes a lot of technical ability to truly express your inner personality, but I just find myself more drawn to the kind of art where the personality transfixes me. Sometimes an aspect of that personality can be really sloppy, or can be something that borders on a train wreck but not quite. Tom Waits just can’t be compared to Pavarotti, but you know what? They both have a magnetic personality. Or take Madonna: she has fully admitted that she’s not the best singer. Adele has both personality and technical skill, but I think people mostly just care about her personality. I can think of some bands that just suck, but they are all technical virtuosos. I won’t name them here. :) Or take the entire hard core movement. It was about energy, it was about substance, it was about the scene. Not about hot guitar riffs.

Don’t get me wrong–I think you have to have technical skill of some kind in order to express what’s in your soul, and anyone can be technical with enough practice. So there’s some balance here. It’s a skill to be able to express yourself properly. And that is above and beyond learning to play a bunch of fast notes in a row.

I’ve played in sessions where I’ve felt my soul getting crushed because I felt like I was under the microscope, and it made me self-conscious. And I’ve seen it happen to others. They focus so much on playing notes perfectly, and then the life gets sucked out of the finished recording.

I was just listening to some rough mixes from Bucharest Drinking Team. We recorded a couple songs completely live at Vera Project. No individual tracking, and not one instrument at a time. We just went in for a few hours and recorded live whatever happened. The Drinkies are the kind of band where the live experience is so much of what they do, so I  couldn’t imagine recording any other way. There were some sour notes. I overplayed on the high hat. Whatever. The personality is shining through, and I’m completely happy about that. So I hope I’m making some progress with that, finally. It wasn’t until I went to get some drum lessons that I truly appreciated this.

So what’s important to you? Personality? Something else?