#74 Hits are Black Swans-Take the Skinheads Bowling
The Black Swan Theory or Theory of Black Swan Events is a metaphor that encapsulates the concept that The event is a surprise (to the observer) and has a major impact. After the fact, the event is rationalized by hindsight.- wikipedia.
12 Take The Skinheads Bowling (click to play)
I’ve mentioned this before. Success in the music business is completely unpredictable. No one can really predict which artists will end up being successful. No one can really predict which song or album will be a hit. And a lot of times the songs, albums or artists that become the really big smash hits seem to just come out of the blue. They are often surprises to the record labels and artists themselves. The smaller hits and the minor hits seem almost predictable by comparison. The really big hits are truly outliers.
In technical terms these smash hits are Black Swans. Further there appears to be a distinct lack of causality. By this I mean, spending money on radio promotion, publicity, advertising, production, videos etc etc seems to be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Sure it’s unlikely that a band with no budget or promotional push behind them is gonna be a massive hit. But having a million dollar promotional budget and the full might of Warner Music Group behind a band doesn’t guarantee success. Money might sometimes be a necessary condition but it is not sufficient.In fact it leads to success in perhaps 1 in 10 cases.*
Sadly talent is overrated. Yes there are very talented artists and songwriters. While talent is a subjective quality there are clearly artists that we all seem to agree have talent. We can be objective and say they have talent. And to be sure these talented artists always have a much better chance of becoming stars. They have a much better chance of having hit songs, multi-platinum albums and large crowds at the their shows. But it is not guaranteed. In fact most “talented” artists do not become stars. T They toil in obscurity until they finally give up or become too old to be marketable. Its just a lucky few that make it. And it is luck.
And the opposite is also true. Sometimes fairly untalented artists have big hits. Sometimes it’s the strange one hit wonders like Right Said Fred. Other times fairly untalented artists can have long and successful careers. Take for instance Kid Rock. This is not a jab. I believe there exists a scientific proof that can establish that Kid Rock is fairly untalented. I’m just stating facts. I have a feeling that Kid Rock might admit that he is fairly untalented and extremely lucky.
Talent is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success.
It’s not that there really is no rhyme or reason to an artist’s success. It’s not really random. It’s just that the process of making a hit or a star is irreducibly complex,unpredictable and impossible to model. It can never be duplicated. What worked for one artist doesn’t work for the next artist. All we can say is that empirically the secret alchemist formula for success has little to do with money, clout or talent. These seem to lead to only marginal improvements in total sales. And this is usually only once an act or a song has already generated some success on it’s own.
Yet everyone in the music business seems to think otherwise. Artists, managers, agents and record executives will argue otherwise. They will cite their own personal narratives that show how their actions and decisions led to some spectacular success. But there are always a few strange logical fallacies at work.
“Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan”- arab proverb.
What this means is not that a successful project has many fathers helping to guide it on it’s way to success. No, this means that many people claim to be associated or responsible for a project’s success no matter how tenuous. People play up their role in a successful project but downplay their role or completely disavow involvement in failures and disasters. It’s a genetically encoded survival feature of Homo Corporaticus. By doing this people artificially increase their win/loss ratio. Equity traders would say they fraudulently increase their alpha or skill quotient.
This also helps create an illusion of causality. It helps us tell ourselves and others the lie that our actions decisions and theories usually result in great success. There’s also something called the narrative fallacy whereby an individual will look back on events and select a cause and effect narrative that brings order to what were really chaotic and random events and decisions.
For instance Quincy Jones might naturally and understandably think that his production of Thriller was the most important and consequential narrative in the unprecedented success of this album (100 million worldwide best selling album of all time). When in actuality totally unrelated seemingly random developments and events were likely greater factors:
1. A burgeoning middle class in the developing world that identified with american Soul and R & B.
2. satellite television that distributed american music videos worldwide
3. the guest guitar solo by Edie Van Halen onBeat it suddenly made it okay for white suburban kids to listen to Michael Jackson etc etc.
I’m skipping a few things here but in short we lie to ourselves not because we are bad or evil, it’s just seems we can not function comfortably with a universe that is chaotic and unpredictable. We need to make sense of the world in a way that comforts and soothes us.
I teach a class at University of Georgia about the music business. As part of the class I like to give the students a sort of proof by contradiction that outcomes in the music business can not be reliably duplicated and are highly unpredictable. Here’s how it goes:
Suppose that the music business is perfectly rational and predictable. If that’s the case you could design a Hit Machine that models the music business. For example if you put inputs X Y and Z into the machine you get a predictable volume of sales or revenue out of the other end of the Hit Machine. Every time. No Variation.
For example suppose for each album
we spend exactly the same amount on advertising.
We use exactly the same radio promoters.
We use exactly the same publicity firm.
We give the band the same amount of tour support.
They play the same number of shows in exactly the same venues.
The recording and video budgets are exactly the same.
We even use the same creatives: record producer, engineer, video director, songwriting team and studio musicians.
We spend the same amount on Black Ops: strippers, hookers, drugs and payola.
The list goes on and on.
For each album, the exact same inputs (left) produce the exact same number of sales (right).
Of course we know this is absurd. No one would really expect this to happen. We reasonably expect there to be variation in sales for each successive albums. No matter how firmly we control the inputs to the machine. There are just too many other variables. The songwriter is off his/her game on one song. Global cultural tastes change. Current events make a song’s subject less or more engaging… etc etc.
So let’s redesign our Hit machine. We introduce some variation. A little randomness or pseudo randomness. Now we get something that seems more reasonable. If we put exactly the same “inputs” into the machine for each album you get varying sales out of the machine. In this case you get what mathematicians and statisticians call a “normal” or “gaussian” distribution.
The Exact same inputs (left) produce a normal variation in sales (right).
But as it turns out we know a lot about the variation in album sales. Album sales do not vary in this “normal” or “gaussian” way. They vary “wildly”.***
And here wild is actually a real mathematical term. So if there is a hit machine it would have to generate wild variation in sales with the same inputs.****
I’m skipping a few logical steps here but basically the conclusion is that the “inputs” to the hit machine – those things that the artists, managers, record labels, agents and songwriters have control over – have only a marginal effect on the end result. So marginal they are pretty much irrelevant. And if the cumulative actions of managers, labels, agents, artists, songwriters, producers and video directors have only a marginal influence on the outcome then it’s fair to say success in the music business is due to luck. or success in the music business is random or unpredictable. Q.E.D. sort of…
To use Michael Jackson as an example again off the wall had pretty much the same inputs as Thriller. Yet the results were wildly dfferent. 2 million vs 100 million. Or in gross revenue terms 16 million versus 800 million. You could plausibly argue with a straight face that $16 million dollars of Thriller was due to skill and $784 million dollars was the result of luck. I know this is an oversimplification but it still illustrates my point that most of the profit in the music business is not due to skill, talent or expertise.
This fractal design is “self similar” Each smaller piece is exactly the same shape as the whole.
While similar to fractals this is something mathematicians call a “Dork”.
Another important fact. This “wild” variation in sales of albums or songs is also Self-Similar. By this I mean that no matter how you slice and dice the sales data, no matter which subset of albums or songs you might create you still get a wild distribution.
For example if you look at the subset of just Camper Van Beethoven songs. And you look at the revenue generated by each song, you get what appears to be a wild distribution. It doesn’t matter whether you look at one quarter’s income or the lifetime cumulative income the distribution appears to be wild.
But I doubt that it is just Camper Van Beethoven. I don’t know for sure but I suspect that in the sub-genre of black metal, that if you looked at income for every album in the genre you would get a wild distribution. I suspect the same for the Narco-corridos sub genre.
This is Self-Similarity. Without going into it in detail- I don’t want to make your brain explode- everywhere that you have wild distributions you usually find Black Swans Events. And in the music business these Black Swan Events are the Hits. Camper Van Beethoven’s Black Swan Event was Take the Skinheads Bowling.
CVB writing a smash hit in 1984. The guy in the hat was not visible to the naked eye. He was only visible using certain film and special cameras (Usually KODAK EKTACHROME 160T). He is a minor demon of the Santa Catalina class. We would often accidentally conjure him during moments of intense creativity. He told us his name was “doobie”.
Honestly in 1984 I never thought that much about the song Take The Skinheads Bowling. It was part of our repertoire but it wasn’t like people talked about this song much after the show. If they did talk about it they didn’t talk about it anymore than the other songs.
I don’t think it was until after we recorded our demos or the first Camper Van Beethoven album (and before it was released) that people began to notice this song. Usually because we had given them a demo tape. Our friends were also dubbing and passing around our cassette. It started to become one of our popular songs. At least within our circle of friends.
But it was not the only song that people liked. Lassie, Where the Hell is Bill and Club Med Sucks were also popular with our friends. In fact Where The Hell is Bill and Lassie were much more popular with our friends.
So it should not surprise you that I never thought that Take the Skinheads Bowling would become a Hit. If someone had traveled from the future and told me we would have a hit on our first album I would not have picked this song as being the hit. Not in a million years. I would have more likely picked Where the Hell is Bill.
Why? we regarded Take The Skinheads Bowling as just a weird non-sensical song. The lyrics were purposely structured so that it would be devoid of meaning. Each subsequent line would undermine any sort of meaning established by the last line. It was the early 80’s and all our peers were writing songs that were full of meaning. It was our way of rebelling. BTW this is the most important fact about this song. We wanted the words to lack any coherent meaning. There is no story or deeper insight that I can give you about this song.
Lassie and Where the Hell is Bill were silly but there was at least a point to the songs. Plus both songs were pretty jokey. Something that seemed popular at the time.
When we first put out the Telephone-Free-Landslide-Victory we mailed out a fairly limited amount of albums to radio and press. We got a few good reviews and a handful of college radio stations began to play a couple of the tracks. Where the Hell is Bill was one. Club Med Sucks was another and then of course Take the Skinheads Bowling. We were pretty excited. There were probably 20 college radio stations in the country summer of 1985 that were playing our record.
In September we decided that we should mail out another round of promo copies of our album. We expanded our list of college radio stations we added a few commercial stations like KROQ in LA and WLBS in detroit. Someone also suggested we send copies to two or three BBC DJs in london.
Sometime later that fall something unexpected occurred. We began getting reports that BBC 2 was playing Take The Skinheads Bowling. Simultaneously it began getting regular airplay in Detroit on WLBS .
Up until this point College Radio had been mildly supportive of Camper Van Beethoven. But somehow word began to get out that we were being played on the BBC and suddenly our cool factor went way up with college radio. I had been calling various West Coast college radio stations for some time. I was always trying to find gigs for Camper through the college stations. I was also aware that this also helped to promote airplay.
I was always treated decently by these college station program directors but I could tell that some were just humoring me. So it was very apparent when the sea change came. Suddenly everyone would take my call. And everyone wanted to talk about the fact we were getting played in the UK. Shortly after this we began to see our record charting on nearly every college radio station in the US (as well as a number of commercial stations.)
I have no proof that the BBC playing Take The Skinheads Bowling led to more US airplay. It is just a strong hunch. And I think I am probably right. But what I know to be true is that Camper Van Beethoven acquired Gravitas when the BBC began to play us.
For a band like Camper Van Beethoven gravitas was an important property. Without it we would have been regarded as novelty or joke band. We would have been regarded in the way our friends (and fellow travelers) The Dead Milkman were regarded: A cute band, an interesting and clever novelty. (BTW I do not agree with this characterization of the Dead Milkman).
The Dead Milkman were a punk band from Philadelphia. They put out their first album almost the same week Camper Van Beethoven released their first album. They were funny and irreverent like Camper Van Beethoven. Like CVB they mixed serious songs with silly punk rock anthems like “bitchin’ camaro”.
Camper Van Beethoven was definitely a weirder ensemble but the bands were very very similar in many other ways. Our fanbase overlapped a good deal. They were also on a very small independent label. The same college radio stations played us. And they also were completely self directed.
For the early part of our career the two bands were traveling in parallel. With the Dead Milkman being perhaps a little more popular than Camper Van Beethoven. But after the BBC airplay Camper Van Beethoven began to be to be regarded as more serious. Serious mainstream journalists began writing favorable stories about us. Spin magazine and The Village Voice featured us. We also began to garner interest from major record labels. IRS records which was on a hot streak came a-callin’. We turned them down but we were able to parlay our newfound gravitas into a distribution deal with Rough Trade Records. More importantly Rough Trade functioned as our label in the rest of the world bringing greater sales, publicity and radio play across Europe and Australia. Camper Van Beethoven quickly surpassed The Dead Milkman critically and commercially. It wasn’t until long after Camper Van Beethoven had disbanded that The Dead Milkman had their big commercial success with the MTV hit Punk Rock Girl and sadly they never acquired the gravitas that they deserved.
So I don’t really know what made Take the Skinheads Bowling a hit. I’m sure it was a lot of different things. But I’m gonna drill down, and focus on one tiny element. I know it’s not likely correct to attribute the success of this song to this one small event. It’s simply an exercise to show how a tiny accidental decision can make a huge difference in the success of a song, album or artist.
Assume that the BBC playing Take the Skinheads Bowling was the primary engine of success for this song. Then one little handwritten note on the beautifully designed Independent Project stationary made all the difference in the world for this song.
See someone told me that many of the BBC DJ’s did not accept unsolicited submissions unless they were accompanied by a personalized handwritten note. But this was not common knowledge . Somehow this little factoid filtered down to us and when our album(s) were mailed they included a personal note to the DJ from one of us or Bruce Licher . I don’t recall who wrote the notes just that they were included. I like to think the handwritten note on Bruce’s beautiful Independent Project stationary caught someone’s eye. This made our album stand out from the stacks of albums that the BBC would receive each week. And this small detail, this tiny flap of a butterfly wing made Take the Skinheads Bowling a hit.
* “throw ten records against the wall and see which one sticks” This is often attributed to Atlantic records founder Ahmet Etegun. I’ve googled it and find no evidence he ever said it. Still the modern 1950-2000 music business was based on a success ratio of something like 1 in 10. 1 success for 9 failures.
*** It is know that there is “wild” variation in book sales and other cultural products. Since YouTube views of music videos seem to vary wildly and using YouTube views as a good proxy for album/single sales I’m not going out on a limb by stating album/single sales also vary wildly.
**** Actually this last statement does not really follow. I know many of my readers are smart and will quickly point this out. For the sake of readability I am completely fudging here. I believe my conclusion is true but it’s a much longer argument and involves some induction.
“If a hit machine existed it would have to output wild variation in sales because in actuality the variation in sales of albums are wild” No that doesn’t follow. Previously we were assuming that the inputs were exactly the same. The only way this follows is if all albums in the known universe have the same inputs. Clearly they don’t.
Instead the logic is much more complex. It first involves the fact that there are known pairs or even triplets of albums that have substantially the same inputs. The variation of sales in these pairs or triplets of albums is so great (thriller vs off the wall) that this inductively suggests the hit machine will produce a wild variation in sales.
Or another way of looking at it. If there were a hit machine the market would eventually nudge the labels into using only the best inputs, those that produce the greatest sales. These would all be virtually the same inputs. But the market doesn’t do this because it “knows” the inputs don’t matter all that much.
(And the market may know this because at times in Nashville and Hollywood the record labels have come very close to using exactly the same inputs over and over again and they still got “wild” variation. For instance in the late 1990’s at any time the top 10 modern rock tracks were usually mixed by just 3 or 4 mix engineers!)
[C] Every day, [Fmaj7] I get up and pray to [C] Jah [Fmaj7]
[C] And he increases the number of [Fmaj7] clocks by exactly one [C] [Fmaj7]
[C] Everybody’s comin’ [Fmaj7] home for lunch these [C] days [Fmaj7]
[C] Last night there were [Fmaj7] skinheads on my [C] lawn [Fmaj7]
[G] Take the skinheads [F] bowling
Take them [C] bowling [F]–[C] [F]–[C] [F]–[C]
[G] Take the skinheads [F] bowling
Take them [C] bowling [F]–[C] [F]–[C] [F]–[C]
Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes (got big lanes, got big lanes)
Some people say that bowling alleys all look the same (look the same, look the same)
There’s not a line that goes here that rhymes with anything (anything, anything)
I has a dream last night, but I forget what it was (what it was, what it was)
I had a dream last night about you, my friend
I had a dream, I wanted to sleep next to plastic
I had a dream, I wanted to lick your knees
I had a dream, it was about nothing
REPEAT CHORUS x2