Tag Archives: quality

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 to estimate the cost, part 2

This is a continuation from part 1.

So, last week I got a little distracted, in my stream of conscious writing style, with listing out a bunch of things that my band, Hidden Number, did for a record release. My intent was to show that there was a lot to do, and how it really helped to know how much time, resources, and money took to do each task. We likely could have done some things differently when it came to the promotional side of things, but I try not to get into that stuff with my blog. And so I want to follow up again with some more ruminations on costing in reference to art.

So here’s an example. If you were considering taking on learning to play a new song, here are some things you might consider:

  1. How complex is the song? How many grooves, how many stops, how complex is the voicing, is there a tag at the end, etc.?
  2. How complex are those parts?
  3. Do I have the technical ability, or will I need to first learn how to technically pull something off?
  4. Can I just sort of wing it in places? How much improv is there?
  5. Are charts provided for me? Or will I need to transcribe charts? How much of it actually requires transcription?
  6. Is there reference audio? Does it actually match the form of the song?
  7. Is there a rehearsal? Regular rehearsals? Sectionals?
  8. How much travel is required to rehearsals and performances?
  9. How much time do I have free?
  10. Will I have to be ready before the first rehearsal? What level of quality is expected from me at various parts of the project?
  11. What level of quality is expected during the performance(s)?
  12. Can I have sheet music at the performance(s), or must it be memorized?
  13. What’s the compensation for all of this? What’s the benefit for doing it?

The more of a beginner you are, the more conscious you need to be about these questions. Conversely, I’ll bet the priorities of these questions change over time, as you gain experience and as your impact changes. I rarely think about this entire specific song-learning process all the way through anymore, so just now I was surprised as I kept thinking of more factors to consider. There are a lot of factors! What did I leave out?

Anyway, sometimes you have to make a quick decision about this kind of thing. You’ll want to trust your intuition on this. But let me warn you: you can only trust your intuition if it’s backed by conscious experience. Otherwise, intuition is just a wild guess. As for myself, I know I forget about some of these 12 questions sometimes, and I’ll bet I even left some off. I trust my intuition on this quite a bit. But I play a lot of live shows. What if someone asked me to compose a soundtrack? Well, back to square one–I’d never trust my intuition for costing that. I’d ask friends about how long it took them to compose a soundtrack, and then I’d double or triple the estimated time so that I can deliver something that I’m proud of. So, I should probably start preparing for this opportunity in advance so that I can intelligently make a good estimate!

Or, imagine you agreed to do a bunch of different things over a period of time. Now the errors in your estimates are compounding. The more you sign up for, the more of a chance that you are biting off more than you can chew, and the more sleepless nights you end up busting your butt. The more varied things you are doing, the more of a chance that you goofed in costing. So, add buffer. In the software industry, I learned to first estimate the cost–and then double the estimate. Make sure you leave room for the unexpected, including unpredictable external factors. And make sure to account for your unrealistic optimism about the difficulty of the project. Because, come on! You want to do it so bad! You want to tell people it will be easy! But it isn’t actually easy, is it? At least be honest with yourself.

Costing impacts what you can sign up to do, but remember this: if you want to have a big impact with your art, then it is almost certain that others are depending on you–and you want to deliver more than you promised, right? Especially when it comes to your fans.

ABC: Always Be Costing.

(Next week, I’ll talk about other benefits of costing, beyond just being trustworthy. And maybe tell some personal horror stories.)

Update: Here’s part 3.

Trying to be consistent

Previously, I’ve mentioned the importance of regulary producing art, over and over, so that you keep up with yourself. Otherwise your art gets stale before you’re done, and you end up scrapping it or never completing it.

The other benefit of regularly producing art is that you learn to be consistent. Consistency is an important aspect of trust. Trustworthy musicians are fun to play with. Of course, good musicians are even more fun! But, it’s good to be trustworthy. I’m not going to get into the band dynamics that come from being trustworthy, that’s what sites like How to Run a Band are for (disclosure: I’m in a band with Seth). And I won’t get into the importance of your fans trusting you, and so on.

But if the quality of your art is all over the map, then you will suffer. If you’re awake one day, and hung over the next, then you’ll suffer. If you only make art when you’re inspired, then you’ll suffer through long periods of time without productivity. You probably already suffer. That’s why you’re an artist. Might as well avoid letting your art suffer, too.

But make sure you’re being realistic. I set a goal to make a blog post once/week, which I thought was realistic at the time, and yet I’m quickly closing the gap of only being a few weeks ahead. I started a few months ahead. By the time you are reading this, I will be on vacation. Good thing I am still ahead! I can focus on my family over vacation. It’s a challenge, but it pays off. And I hope this is a realistic challenge. If I stop delivering a blog post every week, then I expect people will stop checking up on me to see what’s up, and I will get even farther behind when I have tours or vacations.

On a related note, if I don’t write good content, then you’ll stop too! Another example of setting realistic goals: you need to have consistent quality.

This post is probably on the low end of the quality spectrum, but just a thought that I felt was worth sharing.