There is a great scene in the 2019 movie Yesterday when Jack plays “Let It Be” for his parents (the poster tagline for the movie tells you more or less what you need to know: “Everyone in the world has forgotten the Beatles. Everyone except Jack.”):
Yesterday was one of my favorite movies from the past few years even though I’m not a huge Beatles fan. I found myself repeatedly bursting into laughter, but probably laughed longest and loudest at this scene. It is just so painfully recognizable (although I, like many, would love to possess even a single ounce of Himesh Patel’s charisma). Anyone who has ever made anything creative and put it out there knows exactly this sort of feeling – a collision between earnest, heartfelt passion (“This is like watching Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa right in front of your bloody eyes!”) and the general boredom and indifference of an early audience.
I was thinking of this scene again after the economist Tyler Cowen shared Cass Sunstein’s paper on the Beatles’ path to becoming “The Beatles” (i.e. successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams). In the paper Sunstein suggests Yesterday puts forward the hypothesis that “the Beatles were surpassingly great, and their sheer greatness was, and is, a guarantee of spectacular popularity, wherever and however their music emerged.” Sunstein goes on to explore recent social science research on cultural success and failure, including the importance of informational cascade and network effects, and also points out some of the straightforward good luck the Beatles ultimately enjoyed. While recognizing the importance of these different effects, Sunstein concludes the paper (“with fear and trembling”) by suggesting that while these contextual factors were important, ultimately the quality of the Beatles’ songs meant that they would have found a way to be successful.
I think that Yesterday actually follows the conclusions of the paper more closely than Sunstein allows. As the “Let It Be” scene indicates, the quality of “greatness” is usually not immediately recognizable to most people most of the time. In the film, Jack’s rise to stardom actually follows a reasonably typical sort of path marked by network effects and good luck (if I remember correctly it is only once he is discovered and promoted by Ed Sheeran that his career as a star really starts to take off).
Reading the paper as a person who spends their free time writing things that can draw strange looks from my family and friends (some of whom are rolling their eyes, even as they read these lines), I was wondering whether there were any insights included in the paper for artists/writers trying to “make it.” Obviously, as someone who spends time writing bromantic essays about Karl Ove Knausgaard and strange mixes of theology and literary criticism (this isn’t even mentioning the things I don’t share on here) I have no illusions about becoming “The Beatles” (not totally clear to me whether this would even be a desirable goal – it seems pretty miserable most of the time, actually). But, if I could reduce the amount of time I spend doing things I actively dislike and spend more time doing things I enjoy and am good at, I like most people, would like to.
David Brooks provided his take on Sunstein’s paper, exploring the same sort of thing. Brooks suggests that the relatively common advice for aspiring artists to work at your craft is not enough. Instead you need early champions etc. (he does not seem to share Sunstein’s conclusion that the Beatles might have made it in the end on quality alone). In the conclusion of Brooks’ column he states, “If you are an artist, you probably have less control over whether you’ll become famous than you would like. Social conditions are the key.” This is reasonably common sense sort of stuff (and on the current social/economic conditions for artists, William Deresiewicz’s Death of the Artist is a bracing reality check). But, after thinking over Sunstein’s paper in terms of where artists should best concentrate their efforts, I still think the traditional advice, i.e. “work as hard as you can on your craft” remains the best (although it should perhaps include a footnote of “don’t be a jerk”).
One of the interesting experiments that Sunstein discusses in his paper involved manipulating the perceived popularity of various songs. Basically, we are mostly sheep, and if we see others like something, we will tend to gravitate towards it as well (22 million songs added to Spotify last year, but we all listen to Taylor Swift). The experiment included a control group to provide a sort of objective measure of the popularity of various songs. In this group none of the listeners had access to know what others were liking and downloading, and among this group certain songs rose to the top of the list and others sank to the bottom (which is sort of interesting in and of itself). In one of the experiments, by manipulating the perceived popularity of a song, the experimenters showed that unpopular songs (as judged by listeners who did not have access to download numbers) could rise to the top of the download list. The game is (or at least can be) rigged! The intriguing part for the artist though is that even in these conditions ” … the very best songs [as judged by the listeners without access to the download numbers] … always ended up doing quite well; social influences could not keep them down (though they could prevent them from being ranked at the very top).” So, in the end, the quality of the song itself was still a fundamental indicator of its potential for success.
The thing for the aspiring artist is that in general you have very little control over the people behind the curtain who might be manipulating the download numbers (figuratively speaking). Yes, it helps to be connected and have access to a network and you can do what you can to help things along in that direction (again, the absolute minimum effort required is to just not be a jerk – show up on time, be kind etc.). In the end though, the network influence side of things still remains mostly out of your control. Much more within your control is trying to make the best possible work you can. Even in terms of generating early champions, people that will defend and promote your work in the face of opposition (as Brian Epstein did on behalf of the Beatles), the best way to do it is by delivering work that will win those champions over. In order to get a champion who will fight on your behalf you have to make work that a champion can believe in. Just making the connection, getting into the network, isn’t enough: you have to hit some sort of minimum level of artistic quality in order to move forward.
The hard truth is that the minimum artistic threshold, the level of quality that means you have a good chance to “make it” even if the stars do not perfectly align, is much higher than you think it will be! This is always the thing I think about when I read about a group like the Beatles getting rejected by all those record executives early on. You can certainly make fun of the record executives (and actually I think Sunstein’s paper is more interesting on that side of things – why are we so bad at spotting talent even when highly incentivized to do so?). But, from the perspective of the artist, it is important to realize that you can be The Beatles and still be rejected by almost everyone. You can be Jane Austen and risk disappearing into literary obscurity (another example from Sunstein’s paper). Forget about literary posterity, what if you just want to write a bestselling book? You can write Harry Potter (HARRY POTTER!) and no one will publish you (until at last, someone finally does). If you are relying on quality to get you through (and in the end that is all you as an artist can actually control) the bar is extremely high. The minimum required is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. And, the hard lesson that comes out of this is that for most of us who aspire to some level of creative success the issue is not that we are spending too much time networking vs. craft (or vice versa), it’s that we spend most of our time doing neither. The urge to break up the band, leave the laptop closed, keep the paints in the … whatever it is painters keep their paints in … is usually the impulse most of us indulge most of the time.
To circle back to Jack in his living room “painting the Mona Lisa in front of your eyes” in Yesterday – I’ve been watching Get Back off and on over the past month, and the viewer actually gets to see McCartney pulling “Let It Be” from the ether, trying to shape it into its final, “granny music sh*t,” world-conquering form. And, what do you know, it doesn’t happen in an atmosphere of hushed and respectful silence. Instead, Lennon is joking around, George is stewing silently and thinking about quitting the Beatles altogether, others are milling around the warehouse doing whatever and paying little attention, and McCartney is over there at the piano mumbling lyrics and nonsense, trying to follow the melody towards something good.