Interview: Chris DeLine of Culture Bully
Recently, I spoke with Chris DeLine, who is a writer and author of the music blog Culture Bully. In this interview, Chris shares his perspective on a number of big ideas, ranging from late-bloomers to the Hold Steady to the ten-thousand hour rule to the work of economist David Galenson, and back again.
In recent years, as the media hype cycle has accelerated, so too, has the creativity time-line for artists collapsed. Put differently, the Internet has amplified the speed of word of mouth and music publications have interlocked themselves in never-ending competition to see who can champion an aspiring artist first.
With a seemingly endless supply of new artists to advocate for, publications no longer need to worry as much about the merits of the subsequent albums by artists who have since lost their buzz. In tandem, the acceleration of the hype cycle, the amount of space between, or “downtime” rather, that an artist can afford to take between releasing new creative works has shrunk, based not on the discretion of the artist but of the demands set forth by the changes in society.
The range of expectations that the audience puts forth have changed. Together these two trends, among others, have reshaped the demands that surround the artistic endeavors and created the great paradox of our times—that not only do albums lose momentum faster due to the velocity of the cycle, but artists now have even less time to produce new works. This has the potential to force artists to push out work, often times, causing them to follow-up before they’re ready.
In what ways have these societal and technological shifts reshaped the careers of artists and forged a path through the media landscape that requires a new breed of entrepreneurial and digitally fluent artists?
Chris DeLine: In terms of technological changes affecting musicians there have been a lot. They haven't just begun with the advent of music on the internet though, but instead, I think this is just another step in a long line of changes. Radio brought new ways for audiences to experience music, and expanded the number of acts that any given consumer was exposed to; television added to this, music television did the same, and I guess you could throw in things like tape trading and people burning CDs for one another. The internet—specifically, at least in my own experience, things like IRC, Napster, AudioGalaxy, (the original) MP3.com, and Soulseek—added to the next huge step in the time-line (some call it the hockey-stick effect, where a figure begins to grow exponentially…), suddenly allowing millions of people instant access to an endless supply of music from an endless supply of musicians they'd never heard of.
I don't know that technology over time has made it easier or harder to get noticed because I don't know that there were (per capita, at least) any fewer bands 50 years ago than there are today. That said, it's easier to gain access to bands now and it might just appear like there are more bands struggling for the same piece of pie now because it's easier for bands to reach out to listeners. The flip side is that now there are all these musicians that have started up IN the age of the internet who appear to believe that they need instant gratification: if there isn't instant buzz online about them, somehow that has some bearing on whether or not they're good, or enjoying themselves, or like the process of performing and creating, or whatever. As best I can tell, this is only blown further out of proportion because over the past decade thousands and thousands of blogs/online zines/whatever-you'd-prefer-calling-them have started up, offering up free music; legal or otherwise. And as the shift continued you then have people who might have once used outlets like Napster in the late-'90s who are now turning to these sites to find music. The whole thing seems like a three-headed beast that is feeding off of itself: There has been an increase in the number of bands who are looking for online exposure, there has been an increase in the number of outlets that are looking to offer online exposure, and (I assume) there has been an increase in the number of internet users who are looking online for new music. Like you said, the “downtime” between releases has shrunk for many due to an endless queue of bands waiting in the wings to be heard next and a slew of websites and readers eagerly waiting to jump on board for whatever the next big thing might be.
I'm not entirely sure what being “digitally fluent” means anymore, but there are still some traditional paths which have tremendous weight in terms of the prolonged success of any musician. Practicing, for instance, and performing live—both are key for many acts, not only in terms of maintaining interest in themselves for more than an instant, but actually getting better and expanding their real-life fan base. To paraphrase what someone far smarter than me once said, there's a difference between being famous and internet famous. I think more musicians need to keep that in mind before spamming tens of thousands of MySpace accounts to try to gain some new ears. That is, unless if they don't aspire to reach any remote level of “success” outside of the interweblogosphere… Actually, if they're still under the belief that MySpace friends are where it's at, I'm not sure there's much hope for them anyways.
CNN.com featured a story the other day titled "Before I get old: Success for late-blooming bands." In it, reporter Mark Morgenstein writes about the even more counterintuitive situation where three bands—The National, the Hold Steady and Spoon—“have each hit their highest positions ever on the Billboard 200 album chart with albums released in the past few months.” The interesting part is what they all have in common: they’re members are all in their thirties; have been playing together since the nineties; and until now, none of them had much commercial success with their music.
As the music and record industries evolve and as does the nature of the Internet itself, it doesn’t seem inconceivable that the media hype cycle will only get more pronounced and the creatively time-line for artists will continue to shrink. Do you think we’re moving towards a future where a story like that of these three bands can happen again? Or, have we pushed ourselves, both as and industry and a society, to the instantaneous direction of “NOW!” to the point where anomalies like this aren’t as likely?
Chris DeLine: I don't think so, I mean I can't see it not happening: experienced acts rising to prominence. That said, it's not like 2010 was the year that these three bands suddenly gained their respective fan bases, or started selling out shows, or sold a few records… It's just the year that they sold the most records. Is it because there weren't journalists and bloggers writing about how awesome these bands were five years ago? Not really… I mean, while not as influential then as the site is now, Pitchfork planted both Spoon and the Hold Steady in the top 50 albums of 2005; the same year the site slapped a 7.9 tag on the National's Alligator. In five years I imagine we'll have some band who are pretty tight right now come through in a big way.
What’s also significant about these three bands is that they had been playing together for about ten years before they had any commercial success with their music. “And what’s ten years?” Malcolm Gladwell questions in his book Outliers. “Well, it’s roughly how long it takes to put in ten thousand hours of practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” In it, Gladwell does a short case study of the Beetles and concludes that they were in fact the beneficiaries of a special opportunity in the Hamburg strip clubs.
Do you think that, in the ten years that The National, the Hold Steady and Spoon have been playing together, that they have been the beneficiaries of any hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allowed them to work hard and create great music at time when many artists were unable to continue their careers?
Chris DeLine: This is likely going to chop any credibility I might have left to shreds, but I really don't listen to these bands often enough to offer up the best insight. That said I'm not sure that they had any more or less opportunities than any other bands along the way; plain and simple: they're good at what they do and they work really hard. The Hold Steady has a tremendous fan base that dates back to the days of Lifter Puller, and while that might not have initially helped propel them to stardom, it did help make sure that they weren't starting from square one. Once they outgrew the Twin Cities, they took their expanding presence to New York and over the course of the following years built their fan base up ever further to a point where in 2010 they're setting a personal record for first week album sales. A few years back the National were playing some hole-in-the-wall bars and now I can't imagine the band not selling out everywhere they go, regardless of whether it's 1,000 capacity venues in Omaha or 6,000 seat venues in New York City. The same goes for Spoon. I don't think that they're outliers in the sense that they've had some extraordinary luck—though a little luck along the way never hurts—but I think that they've worked really hard to not only become really good at what they do, but also make sure that they've gotten enough face-time with audiences along the way to leave an impact on them. Without either of those factors they wouldn't be where they are today.
Another interesting angle to this news story is the word “late-bloomer.” Both Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Pink have written quite extensively about this subject. From the perspective of Gladwell, we “sometimes think of [late-bloomers] as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts.” He thinks we assume “the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure.” Yet, what the arguments made by economist David Galenson suggest is something different—“that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.”
Based on what you know about the careers of The National, the Hold Steady and Spoon, do you think they follow the archetype of the “late-bloomer?” Or, was Morgenstein wrong to pin them as that?
Chris DeLine: Well, just going by what the article implies term to mean I can't see how they're full-on late-bloomers; it's not like they created huge musical turds until this year, they're just being greeted with the most commercial success this year, is all. I like the example you sent me where Pink referred to Jackson Pollock's piece “The Key,” which he created at age 34—in the article the painting is literally called “a piece of crap”—and how in the same article he defines Pollock's work some seven years later as “spectacular.” So if the “late-bloomer” is someone who works diligently to realize their potential while stumbling many times along the way, I'm not sure it fits here. I'm not even sure that each of these bands' last albums are their best, which only adds additional evidence against them falling under the “late-bloomer” label.
“On the road to great achievement,” Gladwell writes, “the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.” In Ripped, Jordan Kurland, manger of Death Cab for Cutie and Feist, said, “Now, you run into this phenomenon with people propping things up that shouldn’t be propped up quite so soon… It is a society of instant gratification now, and bands are built up and torn down before they’ve had a chance to create a body of work that represents who they are or what they can do.”
Have we as an industry and the publications that cover it progressed in a way that shuns late-bloomers and rewards only the new prodigies? Have music publications prematurely judged and and thwarted the careers?
Chris DeLine: You betcha! But to some degree I think that's always been true… I'm going to go back to that Jackson Pollock reference again, just to keep things consistent. From the Wired article:
“Nobody would have heard of Jackson Pollock had he died at 31. But the same would be true had Pollock given up at 31. He didn’t. He kept at it. We need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age… Of course, not every unaccomplished 65-year-old is some undiscovered experimental innovator.”
I like that suggestion a lot because it's two-fold. (I'm only using this band as an example because of their public labeling as a “blog band.”) Sure, an band like the Black Kids might be “late-bloomers,” and sure they might still possible create a monster-hit so earth-shattering that it would become so culturally and commercially omnipresent that it puts today's most important songs to shame, but a lot of people who were once behind them, or even once "liked" one of their songs, have already either forgotten about them or written off the group. Then again, maybe they only had a few good songs in them to start with and are simply an average band. Who's to say? If Jackson Pollock had given up due to his mediocrity or lack of determination, he would have likely been long-since forgotten, and his presence would have never been felt. But how many others did give up who were brilliant, or how about if Pollock had peaked with mediocrity… there are a lot of ways these scenarios can and have played out, and certainly too many for me to think that the entire burden of shunning “late-bloomers” and rewarding “prodigies” in this context should rest on the shoulders of music publications.
In David Galenson’s study Old Masters and Young Geniuses, he writes “Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.” To me, this point relates to the careers of many artists like Prince, who took five albums before he came out with Purple Rain, or Fleetwood Mac who took ten albums before they came out with Rumors. Judged by today’s terms, they would’ve been complete failures. Then, in contrast, you have artists like Panic At The Disco who hadn’t even played a show together live before they got signed.
What happens in a day and age where artists lack the financial means and the time-line to produce the kind of creative music that proceeds through trial and error and necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition? Has our culture shifted in a way that no longer provides the environment for an experimental artist to grow and be nurtured?
Chris DeLine: Well, “complete failure” is a bit harsh, it's not like Prince or Fleetwood Mac weren't “names” before those releases, but we can save that for another discussion. Gladwell's “Late Bloomers” article bluntly says that without strong financial and emotional support many would have never made it to the trial and error stage, let alone been able to work through that stage to find whatever brilliance is lurking within them. While this likely dates back far, far further into the past, his examples date back to the 1800s, and I don't know that it's really shifted as much as it's been magnified, just as the internet has magnified the number of musicians out there trying to get their nut. I don't think that I'd say that our culture has shifted away from nurturing artistic growth on the whole though, maybe just here and there, in bits and pieces. Take funding away from “the arts” in schools or cities, and you stop nurturing “artists.” That's just one instance that hacks a little piece away from the larger picture, but it's one of many factors that contribute to the shift you alluded to. People are still talking about this issue which means that it's still got to have some relevance, so if you're asking me, I think that there's still a ton of support for artists out there. But maybe things aren't as simple as they used to appear to be.