THE LEFSETZ FALLACY
music • 17.07.14
Bob Lefsetz writes a music industry blog. He has the ear of prominent people in the business being a bit of a ranter, a stream of consciousness type who rolls with opinion. Though he comes over slightly unhinged in interviews I have a sneaking respect for him. He holds his positions strongly and isn’t shy to speak the truth as he sees it. That’s risky and brave. A man who goes up against Gene Simmons as he did in front of a live audience and comes off favourably deserves kudos.
He doesn't always offer insight though. This is especially so where music-making is concerned about which he's not particularly knowledgable. He thinks, for example, that singers who use correction software can't be any good, seemingly unaware that producers have been fixing pitch for decades using other methods. He also thinks that if musicians would just make good music then everything will come around. Actually no, not good music, but great music. Good isn’t good enough for Bob, you have to be great, you have to be able to give him serious chills.
There are many who think similarly. Yet it’s such a facile view for the simple reason that good or great or excellent or wonderful or incredible or mind-blowing, call it what you will, are not quantifiable. They are metaphors, linguistic devices for expressing preferences. When you work with music you learn this soon enough. You learn that opinions are diverse and capricious; that absolutes exist on shifting sands; that the subjective and inter-subjective elements loom large. You learn that most people are indifferent to most music and that your own tastes are a drop in the ocean of what’s out there.
Science advanced exponentially with the embracing of ignorance. It was by being open to the unknown and accepting the possibility of new knowledge that progress happened. I’ve noticed a similar thing with music. The more open and non-judgemental I’ve become alongside having less of a need for tribal allegiance and cultural endorsement, the more my love of the art-form has grown. This is a kind of inverse theory of appreciation: judge less to appreciate more.
As such, evaluation can become an art in itself where those accomplished at it have sophistication of taste. I don’t mean sophistication in the kind of music they like but in the appreciation skills they bring to a mature relationship with it. As I say, part of that process is learning how to be less judgemental in approach and more open to the art in all its complexity. Another part is being able to recognise the value of a work without having to adopt the narrative that’s been built up around it or having to associate with its trend credentials.
You might think that Lefsetz having been around the industry a while would be more developed in these capacities but it seems not. His take on music is akin to that of a wistful teenager, full of opinion and bias, anxiously looking over his shoulder, hoping to be hip to the next thing. I imagine him one of those people who is after the thrill that stands the nerves on end like middle-aged men who still chase younger women trying to get back what they had. In the absence of the hi-octane hit everything sucks.
Better they find a mature mode perhaps, one that is more reflective and ultimately more profound. The current tech allows for that deepened perspective if you want to cultivate it. You can pitch your taste away from the hit and buzz proffered by platform acts, a taste that speaks to your individuality less determined by consensus. This was the promise of the new distributed networks providing infinite niche. The promise was that they might allow artists to be heard without need of institutional support in the form of labels, publishers, journalists and broadcasters. This hasn’t really happened (yet) as most people won’t engage unless the work is fed to them via these same established authorities - or their contemporary equivalents at least.
Bob Lefsetz is old-school here. He’s behind the curve and serves to support the existing paradigm with its tendency toward a mono-culture and mass appeal uninterested in the creators that lurk below the radar trying for recognition. I doubt you would see Bob or his likes pitching a new talent that nobody knows about and enduring the indifference which invariably comes. That’s what Brian Epstein did for the Beatles. The producer of comedy records he approached in 1962 after too many rejections described him as crestfallen. It was a last ditch meeting and hardly worth the bother but Epstein went along anyway. The producer was George Martin and they made history together.
Standing up for complete unknowns against a tide of negativity is tough. Most fall at the first hurdle, no doubt thinking that if the work was any good the world would get it. Not necessarily so. Successful people have always had to endure rejections before catching a break. Most never do at all as breaks are rare. That’s why they’re called breaks, they’re a break from the norm and the norm is being ignored.
It has very little to do with how "great" you are. And that's the philosophical point of this piece: there is no such thing as good other than in the minds of the unenlightened. It is the fallacy of essentialism, the idea that good is a measurable thing residing in the work, or that greatness is in the person, rather than these things being projections conferred upon talented people by culture. It is belief masquerading as knowledge. No one is great until exceptional events render them so. No one is great without a Brian Epstein and there are precious few of them.
Lefsetz promotes his opinions on music within the essentialist tradition and its narrative process whereby the singular artist’s work is elevated above the thousands of also-rans who were equally capable of being on the platform. The world as it stands doesn’t want thousands, it only wants the one whose superiority it can believe in. Some of the excitement is in the belief itself, without which engagement is difficult especially for those who need a narrative context. As long as this maintains, millions of talented creatives go undervalued and lie useless. In this regard the essentialists contribute to a problem before a solution. I look forward to when theirs is no longer the prevailing attitude.
judge less to appreciate more