Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Eleven years ago at the blog -- the times, they aren't a'changin'

One of the discouraging things about going through these old posts is how it steals away any sense of progress. The same snake oil (debunked in more detail here) pitched in slightly different TED talks.

I also wish we'd done more posts on fitness landscapes. Always had fun with those.


Bob Dylan, the Monkees and the flooded landscape analogy

Seth Godin's comments on Bob Dylan and the Monkees (which comes to us via Gelman via DeWitt via Tinkers via Evers via Chance) got me thinking about fitness landscapes. Here's the quote:
Let me first describe a distinction between the Monkees and Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan gets laughed or booed off the stage every ten years, whether he wants to or not. He got booed off the stage when he went electric and again when he went gospel, and most recently with his horrendous Christmas album. The Monkees never get booed off stage, because the Monkees play "Last Train to Clarksville" exactly the same way they did it 30 or 40 years ago. Here's the thing: Bob Dylan keeps selling out stadiums and no one goes to see the Monkees, because the Monkees aren't doing anything worth noticing. There are people who have succeeded who just keep playing the same song over and over again, whatever that is that they do.
Think of a musician's career as a landscape where creative decisions like repertory, genre, style, arrangements give the location and concert sales are the fitness function. (see here and here for previous posts on landscapes)

In Godin's example, the Monkees have stuck very close to a local maxima that has sank over the years (the sticking close part doesn't actually match reality all that well -- Mike Nesmith had a run of innovative and interesting projects in the early days of music video -- but for the sake of the post let's overlook that part). Any small to moderate change in repertory or arrangement or style would move them to a lower point on the landscape.

I think I may be stealing this from Stuart Kuafmann, but let's flesh out the metaphor a bit and add water. Our landscape dwellers can travel freely on dry land but they can only swim very short distances. Exactly how does this relate to our real life example? Remember that altitude in our landscape corresponds to ticket sales. In order to stay viable, ticket sales for a touring act have to stay above a certain level. If the sales fall below that level, the act loses bookings and can no longer cover its expenses. Of course, like any other business, the act can run at a loss for a while (swim) but that's obviously not a long term solution.

Godin suggest that a willingness to, in our analogy, move to another optima is the key to success. Dylan made the move and thrived. The Monkees stayed put and whithered. But how comparable were the two situations?

Dylan had a steady source of income from other artists covering his songs. In landscape terms, he was a good swimmer (of course, so was Nesmith who got a tiny check every time you used that little Liquid Paper brush). More importantly, Dylan didn't have that far to swim. He might not even have needed to get wet. At least a portion of Dylan's fan base were going to stay with him no matter where he went on the musical landscape and given his reputation (and phenomenal talent, though I'm trying to leave that out of the discussion), there was a maxima waiting for him at pretty much every genre and subgenre of popular music. Those moves might not have been as artistically or commercially successful as the ones he made but Dylan was going to remain viable no matter where he went.

What about about the Monkees? Musically they weren't a bad line-up. Dolenz was a veteran child actor, Jones was a Tony nominee for Oliver! and Tork and Nesmith were both accomplished musicians. Highly successful careers have certainly been built on less, but what did their career landscape look like? Compared to Dylan's collection of tightly-packed peaks, the Monkees had a lonely island surrounded by what looked like a large and empty ocean. The vast majority of their fan base was location specific. When they moved away from that location they hit deep water very quickly.

It is, of course, possible that the group could have focused on coming up with new songs and a new sound with the hope of finding a new audience. This is a dynamic landscape, and where the artist chooses to go is one of the factors that affects it. There might not be a concert market for the Monkees playing new grass or thrash metal now but that doesn't mean there won't be one in the future. Sometimes, by playing music no one wants to hear, you can create a demand for that music. To return to the landscape analogy, treading water in one spot can cause an island to rise up beneath you. It has been known to happen but it's probably not something you want to count on.

In the case of the Monkees, the water-treading strategy would be particularly risky since their reputation is likely to work against them if they try something radically new. This is probably why Nesmith chose to use his own much less well known name for the Grammy-winning Elephant Parts rather than trying to sell it as a Monkees project.

Which brings us back to Mr. Godin and the advice books he and other business gurus dump on the market every year. These books gush out at such a rate that there are actually companies that put out fifteen page versions so that executives can at least give the impression that they have read the latest releases. The Dylan/Monkees example is sadly representative. It takes one of business gurus' favorite truisms (take risks, i.e. move out of your comfort zone, i.e. they laughed at Henry Ford), bills it as a fundamental key to fabulous success (fabulous as in fabled as in obviously untrue) then backs it up with an irrelevant but impressive sounding example.

Godin is telling businesses to be like Bob Dylan and to make radical moves that may piss off your customers and invite scorn and mockery. The trouble is very few businesses are Dylan-at-Newport. The majority are the Monkees-at-the-state-fair. They have something they do reasonably well. If they stick close to their local maxima they can turn a decent profit and have a pretty good run. If they follow Mr. Godin's advice they will sink like a cinder block and never be heard from again.

1 comment:

  1. Mark:

    I hadn't realized at the time, but you can apply this same reasoning to Godin and other authors of business books! A business-book author can keep doing the same thing at the state fair, or the author can break out into new territory.

    From wikipedia, here are the titles of Godin's books since 2010:

    Poke the Box.
    We Are All Weird.
    The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?
    V Is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone.
    Whatcha Gonna Do with That Duck?: And Other Provocations.
    What To Do When It's Your Turn (and it's always your turn).
    This Is Marketing: You Can't Be Seen Until You Learn To See.
    The Practice: Shipping Creative Work.

    Is this more like the Monkees repeating themselves or Dylan trying new things? I'll leave that for you to judge.