Are today’s bands any good?

The business is focused on these young "prodigies", like Britney Spears.  The acts are getting ever younger, and the rationalization is that kids buy music, and that anyone over thirty, maybe even twenty five, is too old for the target demo to relate to.  If you don’t believe the Jonas Brothers are a great act, then you’re an old fart.

But can anyone that young truly be great?

Maybe they’ve got innate talent, but has it been developed, are these young kids truly ready to bless us with their gifts?

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s "Outliers", no.  Innate talent, pure desire, they’re not enough.  Sure, Mozart started writing music when he was six, but he didn’t compose a masterwork until he was twenty one, after he’d put in 10,000 hours of practice.

How can you have accumulated 10,000 hours worth of practice if you’re not even close to twenty one?

Turns out that’s the rule.  You’ve got to have 10,000 hours of practice under your belt to be truly great, to be world class.  How many of today’s acts have this  kind of history?  No wonder today’s live acts rely on production, they’ve barely been on stage, never mind performing for 10,000 hours.  Like the Beatles.

The Beatles went to Hamburg five times between 1960 and 1962.  They played eight hours a night, seven days a week.  Winning over an audience that didn’t speak their language, that was more interested at first in the strippers.  The Beatles gigged 270 nights total in Hamburg.  By time "I Want To Hold Your Hand" broke in America, in January of 1964, the Beatles had performed live over 1,200 times.  That’s more times than many of our so-called stars have ever gigged.

Greatest guitarists of all time?  How about Duane Allman.  Not only did he practice while watching television, he even brought his guitar to the bathroom!  Sure, you’ve got to have talent, but you’ve got to PRACTICE!  How much practicing have today’s musicians done?

Maybe that’s why jam bands do so well on the road.  You might not like their material, but they can play.  Going to a Widespread Panic show is not like seeing Miley Cyrus.  The band may not look pretty, but their music can stand alone.  It draws people in.  They developed over all those years, all those gigs.

How about Elton John?  He didn’t dream of being a star, he just wanted to be in the business.  But he cut demos and wrote incessantly.  To the point where he became incredibly good.

You might not like Diane Warren’s songs, but the reason she has so much success is because of how dogged she’s been. Knocking on doors when she was new and not that good, and working at her craft incessantly, year after year.  Max Martin wrote "…Baby One More Time", Britney Spears just sang it.  Michael Jackson’s an incredible performer, but his great records were done with Quincy Jones, who’d spent so much time in the studio, never mind composing himself.

So, when you e-mail me the music of some new act and I don’t respond, am I hearing something, or should I put that NOT hearing something?  Kind of like Gladwell’s book "Blink", I’ve been listening to music incessantly for years, I know what’s great.  And what you’re sending me isn’t.  Because those acts want stardom, but they just haven’t invested in their careers by practicing enough.

By time the Beatles left Hamburg they were so good, so tight, they could hold any audience.  That’s a skill you learn on stage, it can’t be perfected in front of a mirror, not even in a garage with your buddies.  There’s a different charge at a gig, the energy, the distractions, the adrenaline, you’ve got to DELIVER!  How many of today’s acts truly deliver?

Those English musicians played American blues records again and again.  Jimmy Page wasn’t only in the Yardbirds, he’d played a ton of sessions before Led Zeppelin.  And speaking of sessions, John Paul Jones was legendary for his work.  Is it any wonder Zeppelin was so great?  Or the Eagles…  Glenn Frey and Don Henley played in bands before they backed up Linda Ronstadt on the road, they honed their chops in Aspen, they didn’t compose their magnum opus "Hotel California" until five albums into their career!

Maybe today’s acts just aren’t good enough.  Not because they lack talent, but they lack practice.  That’s what Gladwell says.

He quotes the study of K. Anders Ericsson of students at Berlin’s Academy of Music in the 1990’s.  He found the world class soloists had practiced 10,000 hours by the age of twenty.  But what is even more fascinating is that Ericsson couldn’t find any "naturals", who were world class without practice, and he didn’t find any "grinds", people who practiced yet weren’t superior.

There are some amazing producers in today’s music business.  As well as great songwriters.  They’ve honed their chops for decades.  It’s no wonder their compositions rule the charts.  Because the acts they’re writing for are relative newbies, they don’t have the chops because they haven’t put in the time.

But, it gets worse.  Clive Davis has famously said he doesn’t want his proteges to write.  The business has focused on good-looking people, who might be able to sing.  Then again, with today’s studio wizardry/trickery, ANYBODY can sing.  So, no one focuses on getting it perfect, even Mariah Carey doesn’t sing live, and few focus on writing their own songs.  Therefore it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy…today’s acts don’t write their own material because it’s not treasured by the industry and therefore it’s the so-called hacks who have all the talent.

The public was rabid, for a sustained period of time, for the Beatles.  People recognized greatness, developed over years of practice.  Whereas today everybody’s just a flash in the pan, because after their momentary hit written and produced by the usual suspects, there’s nothing left.  You go to hear the hit, you don’t go to see the act.  Maybe the public is much smarter than we give it credit for.

As for punk rock…  The Ramones didn’t rise from nowhere.  They were one of the giggingest bands of all time.  Most people didn’t even know who they were until they’d recorded four albums.  You learn a lot going back to the studio.  How can we expect today’s acts to be comfortable when they’ve barely ever recorded in professional circumstances, and furthermore the sessions weren’t in their control!

Brian Wilson didn’t write "Good Vibrations" for the first Beach Boys album.

Aretha Franklin sang gospel and had a string of albums on Columbia before she broke through on Atlantic.

The lasting successes, the ones cleaning up on the classic rock circuit, the acts people want to see over and over again, didn’t arise overnight, they paid years of dues before they ever broke through.

I’m not saying you’ve got to be old to make it, maybe you just have to be doggedly focused.  Not only on making it, but rehearsing, getting it right.  The music industry has lobbied against this.  It has not encouraged its stars to practice.  It just wants people who are willing to be manipulated, who are willing to do anything to make it.  This has nothing to do with musical talent.

Maybe the conventional wisdom is right, today’s kids do have a short attention span.  Then again, they play videogames for hours, they surf online for days on end.  That’s why your teenager is a computer expert, why he can run your machine at what appears to be light speed.  Because it’s second-nature to him.

But working hard, practicing playing music to make it is not second-nature.  It has not been encouraged by our industry.  We don’t reward practice, we just reward desire and good genes.  And Gladwell posits again and again that genes are not good enough.

What’s the old saw?  That Bruce Springsteen would have been dropped after his first album today?  Same deal with Bonnie Raitt and so many of the legends?  It took them years to hone their skills, to not only write and record great music, but perform it too. Actually, both of those acts developed on the road.  Where are developing musicians supposed to play today?

The audience knows something the industry does not.  That today’s music just ain’t got the same soul.  Rather than being heartfelt confessions by professionals beholden to no one, tracks are cookie-cutter confections created by cynical journeymen beholden to the dollar.

Maybe the Net will allow acts to grow and develop on their own.

But don’t ever confuse greatness with the kid who used his Mac to write songs and then post them on MySpace.  MySpace is a great wasteland.  Everybody can write, few do it well.  What makes people think anyone with a computer can compose great music overnight?

4 Responses to Outliers


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  2. comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>
  3. […] his 10,000 hours theory can get a little depressing, there are a few things we can takeaway from the Beatles work […]

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  5. […] that 10,000 hours rule. Luckily, the New Yorker reports that Kevin Smith didn’t have to go through that […]

  6. comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>
  7. […] of time spent at shows and writing about them and working on my site, I should be damn close to Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. Basically, it comes down to this: I want to get a little bit of the magic back, but mainly I want […]

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    Trackbacks & Pingbacks »»

    1. […] his 10,000 hours theory can get a little depressing, there are a few things we can takeaway from the Beatles work […]

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      1. […] that 10,000 hours rule. Luckily, the New Yorker reports that Kevin Smith didn’t have to go through that […]

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        1. […] of time spent at shows and writing about them and working on my site, I should be damn close to Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. Basically, it comes down to this: I want to get a little bit of the magic back, but mainly I want […]

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