Talent Matters


Sometime between the popularization of You Tube and the birth of Amazon’s self publishing platform the notion has been bruited about that if you keep at writing books or making videos you will get really good at it. This notion has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour thesis” which says that if you practice the violin for 10,000 hours you can play at Carnegie Hall. I’ve always thought this was pure bunkum and now some scientists have come forth to rebut this idea.

The new paper, the most comprehensive review of relevant research to date, comes to a different conclusion. Compiling results from 88 studies across a wide range of skills, it estimates that practice time explains about 20 percent to 25 percent of the difference in performance in music, sports and games like chess.

We live in a time that Andrew Keen calls “the cult of the amateur” and as much as I would like to encourage the Eric Clapton wannabes, spending 10,000 hours in your room copying his licks ain’t going to make you a brilliant guitar player. When I was on the road with The Band in the early 1970’s we would inevitably end up at a party after the concert. As the evening wore on the instruments would come out and a jam would start. Where the decent amateur would always come up short was in his (or her) ability to improvise. The ability to react to another player separated the great from the good.

In my book Outlaw Blues, I posited a Gresham’s Law of media–that bad content drives out good. Gresham’s Law is about information asymmetry, which was clarified by George Akerlof in a paper called “The Market for Lemons:Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism”.

Akerlof says that when you are buying a used car you assume the worst—it’s a lemon—in your negotiation stance. Thus the seller of a really good used car always loses out. No one will pay for more than “average quality”. The average consumer of media in our Broadband universe is like the buyer of the used car, she assumes the content is “of average quality” and thus the rise of what Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson calls Free: The Future of a Radical Price. If the You Tube video I’m about to watch turns out to be a “lemon”, I have lost nothing so long as it is free, except my attention to the Google ad accompanying the video. Does bad content drive out good?

We used to solve this problem by having critics who would weed out the good stuff and warn us to stay away from the dreck. But nobody listens to critics anymore (witness Transformers) so I will default to paying as little as possible for my entertainment, even if that means stealing it.

I still believe in genius. I want to believe “ars longa, vita brevis”–that art is the only thing that lasts, the only way man makes his mark on the ages. Lets stop fooling ourselves that anyone can be a genius–fouling up the Internet with hours of crap. All you have is your own vote as to what’s good and what is not. Don’t waste another second on the second rate.

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6 Responses to Talent Matters

  1. RickTurner says:

    The noise floor is awash with dreck, and the tide is rising in the public sphere.

    I’m happy to say that folk music is alive and well among…the folk. The talent level is unbelievable these days thanks to the mentorship of “the children of Harry Smith” and the proliferation of great “Americana” festivals like Telluride Bluegrass, MerleFest, Strawberry, etc. and the amazing music camps like Swananoa, Fur Peace Ranch, the Yosemite Songwriters’ Retreat, etc. YouTube is also an amazing tool for folkies these days.

  2. len says:

    The curators and critics of yesteryear are as clueless about what is coming next as they were when the great folk scare exploded into the era of folk rock. It isn’t your time. It is the time of the second raters and they have a message: fuck Nashville. Don’t need them. Yeah they know about that access thing. They don’t care. They have gear that is good enough, training that is good enough and songs that are good enough.

    Consider this: for all the money, talent and marketing poured into shows like Nashville, for all the careful culling of songs and songwriters, they have sold a lot of perfume but haven’t produced a single hit. The housewives might be buying it but the kids aren’t. They like the crap same as you liked Dylan who as a player and singer was crap. Who said so? The people who listened to Eydie Gorme. He was a good lyricist and in yesteryear, lyrics mattered. But Eydie could smoke his ass until she was in her seventies. Thems the facts. The Band? Still playing on the box at open mic nights. On stage? They don’t play covers. Why? Can’t afford to. Original music is cheaper and there is lots of it. So I guess you and Robbie are going have to be satisfied with what BMI/ASCAP can get from the streaming services. How much is enough? Not my problem.

    What matters now? Dunno. I’m not marketing. Just singing for the crowds at the open mic nights and they like it. Enough to matter? Oh my yes. It’s a much bigger market and it has room. And that is a big difference from when you managed the Band. The difference? Money. And money ain’t truth or music or quality. It’s the natch for the crap that’s selling this week. If you want to control the crap, have at.

    YouTube? Samantha Brown has 7345 views and climbing. Ave Maria is over 18000. Not a lot compared to most cat videos but way better than anything I ever got from The Biz. Three weeks ago I was walked to the door because I stood in front of a Lt Cmdr in the US Navy and had to explain the boss was a technical fraud, that file servers aren’t connected by ODBC and his dog and pony about “contiguous logic” and “neutral XML S1000D data” was so much crap. There is crap and marketing and clueless customers in every business. Difference is, yours really doesn’t matter. A bad song won’t kill a crew. A faked out system will.

    You go fall on your critical acumen. I had to give up a job for mine and all I have today is those YouTube views and open mic nights to keep me going. So goodbye and thanks for all the fish, Jon. When it gets right down to it about what matters in art and music, you don’t have a clue what this all means. Because it isn’t about you. It’s their time and they don’t have time for your crap.

  3. Fentex says:

    We used to solve this problem by having critics who would weed out the good stuff and warn us to stay away from the dreck

    I don’t think that’s true. I think we didn’t use to avoid the problem so much as had a different problem – as distribution was expensive the economics was different and distributors had different incentives and everyone’s attention was on fewer channels.

    And I further suspect this didn’t remove the problem as much as some like to think. for instance I don’t particularly like, and never have, Frank Sinatra. I think he is tremendously over-rated and I think it’s because he lucked into being the person who captured distribution.

    I think that if pure talent and quality of performance mattered there were a lot of better people around who lost out to him in the worlds attention because they didn’t either please the distributors or force their hands by whatever fortune favoured Sinatra.

    Nowadays the opinion of distributors doesn’t matter IF one finds ones own way to the talents performance. But many people don’t. And in that the problem is that most people do not exercise discrimination (as markets pander to youth who have yet to gather the tools and experience to be discriminate that oughtn’t surprise), but instead join in with whatever is shared by their community, for which purpose quality doesn’t really matter.

    I do not like much of popular culture, I feel it is inferior to what I recall of my youth – but I am acutely aware that every single older generation throughout history has made that claim. And as a youth I didn’t exactly immerse myself in it then either for not really appreciating it. Dancing on roller skates, listening to ‘le freak’, wearing flares and big hair. Was that really better?

    I am well aware that much of what people call ‘brilliant’ music of the 1960’s today was not appreciated in the 1960’s, many classics were in their day the B sides of singles and it’s only in reflection and comparison that their quality has lasted while the more popular in their day have faded.

    So I continue to be skeptical of the claim that today is a wasteland and there’s something new or novel about the cheap and tawdry being rewarded at the expense of the talented, especially when I keep coming across interesting and enjoyable music by accident day to day from other peoples recommendations or passing comment.

    I am drawn to think about TV. No one can complain that the quality of entertainment of recent years in that medium is inferior – for those who discriminate in what they watch – to the past, including the music used in soundtracks. SO what does that imply about the hypothesis today is a cultural wasteland of inferior art? It doesn’t support it.

  4. Fentex says:

    Akerlof says that when you are buying a used car you assume the worst

    And by the way – what has this got to do with anything? Taking an observation that people are skeptical about second hand cars quality and making it a claim about their behaviour buying things that are not second hand cars without much distinction except an arbitrary decision to apply it to media makes no sense.

    Why not equally apply it to all purchases? Then the claim becomes one that no one ever wishes to pay for quality which would seem suspect. Thus the argument is suspect because it’s application is arbitrary.

    By the way I recently purchased a second hand Mercedes C180K precisely because I was willing to pay over the odds for the car I wanted due to it’s qualities.

  5. len says:

    Watching Jon Stewart interview Hillary Clinton, something struck me that is both well-understood yet pervasive: the imperial powers can no longer simply negotiate leader to leader. The politics of the world are bottom up.

    So like it or not, elite critique has to reckon with second raters in volume. The talent is there by choice. Dave Van Ronk or Bob Dylan? It isn’t about who plays the best riffs. Players as Chet Atkins told me are a dime a dozen. It is about good songs and the right face at the right time. So nothing has changed except the producer with the access has to sort through more, get less, and apply it to more. The package matters. The experience matters. But the critic and the critique matter almost not at all.

    Pack up your lawn chair and start hitting the open mic nights and the local festivals. Check out subscriptions on YouTube and Reverbnation. The real deal is out there partying on the lawns. The only one who doesn’t get that is you and not because anyone is excluding you but because you choose to stay home clutching your mementos of a time that while it was stellar is over.

    T-Bone said he was paying the young songwriters and that is why they have what they have. Seems to be working. Clapton says he is retiring. Colin Linden is playing as a master should. There is plenty of talent. No one seems to be getting hits. Is it simply the case that in wide and pervasive distribution, millions of channels, hits are a thing of the past? We don’t need hits. We have fans, subscribers, coffee and locals. The whole world is The Village. Van Ronk and Dylan are now equals at open mic night. The people are voting, finding what they like and the difference is they don’t need curators for that.

    You need a new gig, Jon. Or a cup of coffee.

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