Saturday, August 31, 2013

False Springs

Success is hard, it's hard to identify, it's hard to get to. What makes it hard? A lot of things look convincingly like the path to success and yet they lead nowhere.

See when you first start out, a bad opportunity is easy to pick, you open up the door and see a brick wall. Nothing promised eventuates. But sooner than you think in your career, you open a door and follow labyrinthine twists and turns for days, months, years only to discover it is a dead end.

Sometimes, success comes with the free gift of your downfall included in the pack.

It is not just persistence. You need some smarts and foresight. Some really simple principles, can take you a long way (persistence being one of them) but if you think it's just a matter of clearing a few hurdles and coasting to the finish line insight, better to think you are sailing through a fog, sounding for rocks and other hazards while sirens gently singing try and lure you to your death.

All that glitters is not gold and other cliches, cannot be appreciated until you have a polished turd in your hands.

Friday, August 16, 2013


I have become intensely fascinated by the business models of creative fields. Here is but one aspect.


First let's hear from Pixar:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.
That's an excerpt from Anton Ego's review of the Rat chef in their movie Ratatouille, and I start with it, introduce it to dismiss this consideration for all artists.

He points out the dichotomy of power, of risk taking between the critic and the creator. It's easy to criticise, and hard to see the value in reviews. How many people are really teetering on the brink of seeing something or not? How many genuinelly face dilemma's over what they can consume?

And what indeed, can the artist do about reviews? Here I feel are the two attitudes, options, what have you - 1. you can try and get good reviews. 2. you can hope to get good reviews. The difference between the two is subtle and if you are creating content you may wish to meditate on that difference.

So you log onto facebook, and you scroll down through your feed and your eye is caught by a link shared by your friends band. It has the following preamble 'a great review from ...' You click the link, you are pleased for your friends band. Hey good for them, a great review.

And that is as far as I have ever dug. I must confess, I never go check the sites that post these reviews in any greater detail. I personally, don't put much stock in reviews. I've never checked out anything based on any reviews, I don't seek out that information.

So the rest of this post is based on nothing more than impressions, no hard data and memories of my marketing degree, of Al Ries and Jack Trout.

The first thing is, that I don't know how many sites review gigs in Melbourne alone. Let alone nationwide album reviews, single reviews. I don't know any of their names. I've heard of things like Pitchfork etc. apparently they have sway over people's consumption habits.

And maybe their are record execs, still, that scour review sites and read that stuff. I don't know. I don't know.

What I'd suspect though, is the amount of words written about just Melbourne's music scene must have exploded in the internet age, in just the last 5 years. Any good review, must be a small fish in a whole school, a float in an ocean that was described way back in the 80's by Ries and Trout as 'an over-communicated society' those two pointed out that at average reading rates, words per minute, that the average person would take most of the week just to read the Sunday paper.

Flash forward two decades and I'm at a party where a dude tells me that in the first 5 years of Youtube, more content was uploaded than the entire history of cinema in the previous century.

Do you get a sense of what I'm getting at? Stand inside the system, a good review looks identical to good reviews of the past. It's just instead of being in a glossy Alternative Music magazine, or the Age's entertainment supplement, it's on a website.

But stand outside the system, a review is smaller than the pixels on the screen you are reading this on, in what I suspect is an ocean of reviews.

And here there are two ways to cut through the noise, I'm just speculating though.

First, you have a user rating system, like Amazon reviews, or one of those restaurant guides. Somebody goes to a restaurant, or reads a book, and they like it, or they don't. Not needing any particular qualifications, that person writes a review. Next somebody else goes to that same restaurant, or goes to order that same book, and they check out the other user reviews, ratings, and they might dig deep, or just take the meta-review, the aggregate.

This first system for cutting through the noise, is not particularly useful to you, if you want to explode onto the scene, the user ratings system cuts through the noise by them hearing about you some other way and that's how they find your user reviews. See, it's ass-backwards see. You allow people to find your review, but if you want the review to be helpful, you need people to find you because of the review.

The second way, is magic. No I'm not fucking kidding. It's more an acknowledgement that reviews aren't entirely useless. If you get reviewed by the right reviewer, it can catch, like a virus, and it spreads, you need like a meta-reviewer, a reviewer that reviewers read to decide what they will review. Or simply a reviewer with enough followers that actually respect her/his opinion enough to send your way and make your career, or at least your night. But how to get that review or even become that reviewer...?

Consider the reverse problem, you are a reviewer, how do you get people to read your review, get the hits up on your sight, get more followers?

Before I go on. No conspiracies, it's a Darwinian view I take because it's simple.

See a band, walk up to them before the set and ask some questions, get down some info. Introduce yourself tell them who you're from blah blah...

Then you watch the set, it's awful, you go home and write it up.

The band gets up in the morning to post a thankyou note on their facebook page whatever, then they remember you and go to your site. They read the awful review and feel hurt and discouraged and spend the day getting over it.

That night, you go see a band, do the same shit, you love it, you write a glowing review. That band, suddenly posts a link to your review, because it is glowing - hey it encourages them, you gotta celebrate your successes, maybe those who were on the brink of coming will be shamed into actually getting to your next one.

The reviewer checks their hit counts, yesterday 18 hits. Today, 70. What's the difference? The good review got reposted by the band, and a bunch of their fans checked it out. Furthermore, the bands fans go check your review and find you have the same taste!

This unlike the user review system, literally helps the reviewer more than the subject. Even if it's inefficient, what's darwinian in social media, good reviews get reposted (reproduce) bad reviews perish. Whether cynical or a person of great integrity, the reviews that will get most read are the good ones. You can write bad reviews, but they are less likely to spread. Either way, your following will be based on how many good reviews you write. At least if my description of how it works matches reality.

And now I must plead ignorance. Or a lack of imagination.

What's hard to estimate for me, is the impact of reviews and posters and all these things. This has always been a problem in marketing. The question is put at 'Does Coke need to advertise?'

I only have a sample of one, but I go to probably close to 100 local gigs a year, I would see at least that many sets for sure. The number of those gigs I go to because of a poster I've seen is probably 0.3 out of 100. Reviews then, have no impact on me personally in anything I check out.

Specific to me, there's nothing somebody could write that could describe to me in persuasive terms what it is like to see a local gig. Even then, the venue, the sound tech, whether the gig reviewed is an album launch or a Tuesday night residency, all make a review unreliable in picking the next gig I get to. To me they are all after the fact, and almost obsolete. And furthermore, I don't seek out reviews, I only come across them when bands or artists or whatever that I already know about draw my attention to the review. I guess the best case a review can do, is to validate what I already think.

And this is almost a topic for another post, is that I don't really see the contribution reviews make to success. I don't know what success looks like. But I don't know how many times I've thought one of my friends has finally made the big time, or even just passed through the next gate towards success, and it's turned out to be nothing, a diversion, a misnomer.

Good reviews don't seem to pack out gigs, or exhibitions, or sell records, or keep the Tote open, I will concede that they may exert a weak cumulative positive effect. If you can get 100 good reviews, a person will see 10 of them, and they will be persuaded to go check it out once.

I think Gladwell's 'Tipping Point' applies. I just think, reviews are now mostly self serving, and if you are creating content you have way, way better uses of your time.