Saturday, April 28, 2012

Do It Again

When I was in ninth grade, my science fair project was to determine the peak age of professional baseball players.  I determined that baseball players peak at age 27. My methodology was to find the age at which every Hall of Famer posted his highest batting average, and then calculate the mean.  Of course, this was a horrible methodology (especially given what we now know about the limitations of batting average as a metric).  And I didn't actually do a science experiment like I was supposed to.  But my answer wasn't too far from the one that recently developed advanced statistical analysis has postulated (somewhere in the 26-27 range).

But while we've pretty much pegged the prime years for an athlete, we still have no idea when an artist peaks.  Obviously, the performance outputs for an artist are much more subjective (though there is some objective data available in the form of commercial sales and metacritic scores).  The canonical authors, painters, and composers are all over the place in terms of what age they attained their most revered works. 

Another difference between athletes and artists is that the latter need not regress.  While bodily ability will naturally diminish over time, in theory the accomplishments that mostly depend on mental ability should be able to be maintained throughout one's lifetime.  Actually, given the supposed importance of practice and experimentation in order to eventually achieve transcendent successes (10,000 hours are required, says Malcolm Gladwell), one would think that a great artist would be able to enjoy a long-lasting plateau.

And that is why I have always been so intrigued by the career trajectory of rock musicians.  Rock stars, whether they have burned out or faded away, tend to peak early.  I am a fan of many musicians who have given to the world great albums long after their initial successes.  I'd argue all day long that Bob Dylan's 2001 album Love and Theft is a masterpiece (even better than 1997's Time Out of Mind, which won the Grammy for album of the year).  But it would be foolish to say that his best work wasn't done in the 1960s.  Even Bob admitted as much, telling 60 Minutes in 2004: "Those early songs were almost magically written...You can't do something forever. I did it once, and I can do other things now. But, I can't do that."

But why can't Dylan write a song like "Like a Rolling Stone" anymore?  Why can't Keith Richards write another riff like the one in "Satisfaction"? Why isn't Paul McCartney capable of turning out another "Hey Jude"?  Heck, why can't Tyler and Perry write another "Dream On" or Eddie Van Halen a riff like the one in "Jump"?

I think the lack of sustainable output by rock musicians points to the power of cultural influence, moreso than pure individual genius, in artistic accomplishments.  Keith Richards wrote the riff for "Satisfaction" in part because of his own musical ability, but in part because he lived in a world where the creation of that riff was possible.  It's not necessarily that 2012 Keith Richards is different than 1965 Keith Richards, it's that the world is different in 2012.

And that brings us to the always curious case of Brian Wilson.  Like the musicians above, I would argue that Wilson's 1960s-era accomplishments were in large part a result of his ability to live in a particular culture.  Exposed to just the right factors (including the other members of the Beach Boys, lest it seem that I am completely disregarding their contributions), and in balance with his innate and developed talent, he was able to construct masterful "teenage symphonies to God." 

It would be overly simplistic to then say that Wilson went into suspended animation, only to be rediscovered and thawed-out decades later, Captain America-style.  But caught in the throes of mental illness, he did become secluded and isolated in a way that few of us can truly comprehend.  This is a man who released a solo album in 1995 entitled I Just Wasn't Made For These Times.  So it really shouldn't come as surprise that a few days ago, when the world was given the first new Brian Wilson Beach Boys song in decades, it sounded like a 1960s vintage Brian Wilson Beach Boys song:

But on the other hand, I maintain that this song is kind of shocking.  In my critical opinion, this is the first time a "legacy" rock band has recorded a song that sounds like it legitimately could have been released during the band's prime.  A reference at the end of the tune to "spreading the love and sunshine to a whole new generation" does blemish things a bit, because it not only reveals that Wilson knows time has passed, but it also shows his self-awareness that the band is "spreading a message" rather than simply dancing, driving, surfing, and listening to music. 

But still, whatever the relation between the Brian Wilson of 2012 and the Brian Wilson of 1965, he doesn't seem to be inhabiting the world of 2012.  And perhaps for that reason, he just may be once again at his peak age.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mortgaging the Future

It's NFL Draft season, which means that many franchise decision-makers are being confronted with the agonizing dilemma of whether to "mortgage the future" in order to increase present competitiveness. It's tempting for general managers to deal future draft picks in order to move up in this draft and get a better player that will help them win right now. Sometimes, this works out. An impact player can make a huge difference on a team's success. Sometimes, it backfires. Even if a team does get an impact player, too many sacrificed draft picks can lead to a future drought.

But the nature of decision making in the NFL is to privilege the here and now. Part of that is because in professional football, the future is just too unpredictable to stake any surety on what might happen. And part of it is because the decision makers (general managers and coaches) generally have too little job security to sacrifice even the chance of short-term gain. Why do they have an incentive to plan for the future when there is little guarantee that they will be around for it?

And the incentive to blow off the long-term also applies to the political world. People affiliated with both major political parties believe that there should be some kind of reform of social security and Medicare. But these same people are terrified of the political implications of attempting that reform. The prospect of short-term loss is much more concrete than the possibility of long-term gain. So to truly get a decision maker to consider the future, there must be incentive. There must be a tangibility to future promises.

Unfortunately, in the NFL that simply cannot be given. And I'm not optimistic that it can be applied to the political world, either. But I think the business world is missing out on customers and profits by not providing further incentives for futurity. Businesses are certainly aware that customers respond to "loyalty" incentives. Bring in your loyalty card every time and get it swiped for the promise of future discount. Rack up frequent flyer miles and earn rewards. Send in your proof of purchase and get a rebate. These and other tactics are used in specifically in order to prevent customers from seeking alternatives in the marketplace.

But I think that ultimate incentives (and the dollars that come with them) are being left on the table. Turn on the television or the radio and someone is always trying to get you to switch your car insurance. Cellphones are trying to lock in customers for years at a time, but free agency always looms (and I've heard of some plans that under certain conditions agree to pay the penalty to cancel out other companies' plans). Cable companies are finding that customers will bide their time, wait out the terms of their agreement, and then at the earliest opportunity, split. Industries that used to count on reliable lifetime customers now need to fight to keep customers.

But I've got an idea that would once again win the day for complacency. If I was the CEO of a company that depended on customer loyalty, I would propose a radical incentive. Agree to stay with us as your service provider for say, 30 years, and after that you get free service for the rest of your life. The effectiveness of such a strategy may become muted by copycats, but to the first company that offers such a possibility, I predict a huge influx of customers. I'm no actuary and I haven't run the data, but my guess is that by providing such an influx of capital, as well as the guarantee of capital over such a long-term period, the infrastructure could be put in place to provide free services decades down the road at little additional overhead cost(though I suppose I can see how auto insurers may bristle at the idea of providing free insurance to a fleet of senior citizen motorists).

And I don't even think you would need to get customers to sign a 30-year agreement. The principle of "loss aversion" would leave them reluctant to leave after they have invested even a minimum amount of the time necessary. If they are already considering the promise of free service as a gain they have been awarded (as I think most people would), walking away from that possibility would be psychologically difficult.

And particularly given that whoever makes the decision on such a policy won't have to deal with its ultimate repercussions, I'm surprised something like it hasn't been tried already.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Pressing Pause

Electronic remote controls have been around long enough now that we no longer regard them as magical. We take for granted the existence of cybernetic extensions of our will. We take them for granted just as we take for granted that our hands will always act in tandem with our brain. But remote controls have an element of power that our hands will never possess. It is one thing to turn a television on or off. We can do that easy enough without a remote control. Likewise, it is no great advancement to be able to switch channels without the use of our hands. Perhaps we can go a little faster without the cumbersome task of rotating our wrists, but when we are switching channels we are essentially moving through space, which is a task our bodies navigate regularly.

But what the remote control offers is control over the temporal dimension. Granted, its power is limited to the control of imaginary worlds and mediated experiences, but it is still a power that our hands do not possess in any form. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of modern media consumption is that we have developed a means for disrupting linear progression. True, one could always manipulate written texts by skimming, using bookmarks, or reading out of order. But because the coherent text was always present even when engaging in such activity, one always had an anchor in time. Now, we obliterate that anchor when we push buttons.

It's remarkable how this practice has become ingrained in our speech, even when we are talking about the real world that we can't control with buttons. A few years ago, Secretary of State Clinton famously presented a replica "reset button" to a Russian counterpart (even if there was some difficulty in translating the word "reset"). It is now customary for people, when relating a narrative and wanting to omit material, to say something along the lines of "fast forward to today." An attempt to use that metaphor one generation ago would have resulted in a blank stare.

Reflecting our perhaps latent fascination with the tantalizing prospect of power that remote controls offer, several television shows and movies have been produced which incorporate this theme, most notably the Adam Sandler film Click.

But I've come to think that the most powerful button a remote control is not "reset" or "fast forward," but "pause." Oddly, in the late 1980s there was a syndicated show (Out of This World) built around the premise of a half-alien teenage girl whose sole superpower for most of the show's run was the ability to stop time. But then again, maybe this isn't so remarkable. Just as Adam Sandler's character reflected our desire to sometimes skip moments in our life that are unpleasant, this character reflected our desire to sometimes stop and savor the moment we live in.

It's obviously for the best that we can't control time, for we would surely abuse this ability. But it's also nice to live in a time when, however artificial and contrived it may be, we can exercise a modicum of authority over that which we are otherwise beholden to entirely.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Pabst Power

When I was nine-years-old, far and away my favorite beer was Pabst Blue Ribbon. This was a good fifteen years before the brand became a favorite of hipsters, showing how far ahead of the hipster curve I was. And actually, my affection for the beverage had a lot in common with what the hipsters would eventually develop. In both cases, the allegiance came about because of absolutely nothing to do with taste. In my case, I had no idea what Pabst Blue Ribbon beer tasted like. Actually, I rarely even saw the stuff. And truth be told, I didn't really care. I had no desire to ever actually taste it. The fact that I enjoyed their radio commercials was enough for me.

For the last quarter century, the Milwaukee Brewers and Miller Brewing Company have had a sponsorship partnership. The Brewers play in Miller Park. Miller products are the only alcoholic beverages sold at that park. So people may forget (if they ever knew) that there was a time when that was not the case. In 1987, the first year I can recall regularly listening to baseball, Pabst was the exclusive beer sponsor for the Brewers. Since most games weren't televised, and I didn't have a video game system to play, and since I only had three channels on TV, I ended up listening to a lot of baseball games on the radio. Consequently, I heard hundreds, if not thousands, of Pabst Blue Ribbon commercials ("What'll you have? Robust flavor!"). Also, every game I was exposed to the "Pabst Power Inning" a contest wherein a listener could win a growing jackpot if a Brewer hit a home run in a particular inning. (It's kind of interesting that there now exists a scant three places on the entire World Wide Web that confirms that such a thing as the "Pabst Power Inning" ever existed. I guess this post now makes it four). Again, the cumulative effect of this exposure was not enough to make me want to taste the forbidden hops, but it did inspire a brand loyalty.

I realize that it is dangerous to extrapolate a nine-year-old's thought process to an adult sensibility, but I do think that I can apply something from this to an understanding of how branding works, or perhaps how it used to work. In a world where experience and opportunity is limited (which would describe most nine-year-olds' worlds), association is what inspires favoritism. I liked the Brewers, the Brewers were associated with Pabst, so therefore I liked Pabst. I think for a couple of generations musical preferences were developed largely because of associations with particular radio stations. People liked listening to the radio while they fixed cars, REO Speedwagon was on the radio, so they liked REO Speedwagon. If people had lived in a world where they could consciously sample their own music, where they could listen to a multitude of songs without actually investing in records, would REO Speedwagon have ever made it big?

I think it's fair to say that consumers have more choices than ever before. Media is accessible in a way that has never been before. In more cases, we can actually apply objective criteria when determining if we like something (unless you are a hipster). Even given the choice, I wouldn't go back to being nine-years-old. But I do miss the Pabst Power Inning.