Be Careful of Broad Strokes

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Our busy world frequently demands that messages be impossibly concise.  I think about this concept often as I read bestselling nonfiction books.  They often succumb to the temptation of summarizing a complex idea in an a metaphor or case in point.  Too frequently, if one examines these examples, there are loose threads that undermine the entire argument being made by the author.

Mike Doughty caught a good one in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”;

“One of his examples is that the Beatles’ success is predicated on their having played 8 hours a night, five nights a week in Hamburg. They got the 10,000 hours he deems necessary for expertise, and hence their artistic preeminence.

But the primary factor in that preeminence is songwriting–which they didn’t do in Hamburg. And the covers they played all night, when they ended up on Beatles albums, sound pretty stiff–“Roll Over Beethoven,” for instance. The best thing a million gigs can do for a band is tighten up the rhythm section–and most of their time in Hamburg, they played without Ringo (and anybody who fronts on Ringo, the fattest, heftiest rock drummer that ever was, is a sucker)–they played with Pete Best, who got fired. The secret weapon in the Beatles is Paul McCartney’s bass playing (I got a bootleg of some solo-ed Paul bass lines, and the sound, the style, and his rhythmic acumen is astonishing)–and he didn’t play bass in Hamburg–Stu Sutcliffe, who died before they started recording, did.”

I think of that when I hear people cite Ok Go’s “Dancing Treadmills” video for their song “Here it Goes Again” shows that you can shoot to prominence on the strength of a single viral video.  Like the Gladwell’s Beatles example, however, the truth is unsatisfyingly complex.

What’s important to realize is that the video never would have gone viral if Ok Go wasn’t a great band that toured relentlessly and valued a one-on-one connection to its fans – who are rabid as a result.  I should know; I have photos on my file cabinet of me with Damien Kulash and Tim Nordwind.
Here’s why:  the “treadmills” video was preceded by a similar low-fi video for “A Million Ways” featuring the alt. rock quartet atypically doing a boy band-ish dance routine to an alt. rock song (typical of their sense of humor) that the band had put together after an appearance on a kampy cable access show in Chicago.  Neither would have gone viral without the sweat that went into building that audience in the first place (a point Seth Godin makes well in “Tribes”).

Not only that, but Ok Go was first introduced to many people on the coattails of They Might be Giants (another band that has been doing social media well since before it had a name; building relationships one-by-one) – who lent them access to their numerous fans by featuring them as an opening act on a 2002 tour.

So be careful about painting in broad strokes; they can obscure more than they reveal.
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