Geeks, Clem Kadiddlehopper, and Steve Jobs: Lessons for Music Insiders from the World of Technology

There is a serious psychological similarity between people who love and create music and people who love and create technology.

They both can’t fathom that not everyone wants to get into the cables and theory up to their eyeballs. Some people just want things to work without lifting the hood all the time.

They both look down on people like that, even if they refuse to admit it.

Technical geeks think that a half-day spent buried up to their noses in a software manual because their first attempt to install the software caused their computer to spontaneously melt is the best way imaginable to spend a half-day. Further, they think that people who don’t want to waste a half-day like that, don’t want to do so because they are simply too stupid to perceive that it’s fun. Add a little misogyny to the mix, and disdain for old people, and they will imagine that most of these people are also female and have grey hair. And are stupid.

Musical geeks think that a half-day spent studying a pocket score for some alarming thing written by Schoenberg, absolutely necessary if one is to go see the thing that night and get even the most basic grasp of what the hell Schoenberg is trying to get across, is a half-day well-spent also. They also have lovely mental images of people who don’t want to do that, calling them timid, unadventurous, uncool, unhip, non-with-it, and probably owners of used AMC Pacers with duct tape on the bumper. (And stupid.)

Basically, both will round-file anyone who doesn’t want to immerse themselves in the super-geeky technical R&D considerations of their favorite pastime as that guy down there. *points*

Clem Kadiddlehopper

Neither will admit that most people are just not into spending hours at a time up to their nosehairs in the minutiae of what for them isn’t a vocation, but simply something that should work when you want it to work. They resent technology that arrogantly sets itself as an obstacle between them and sending their vacation photos to their nephew. They are annoyed by music that is so hostile to the idea of communication that it refuses to lift a finger and expects them to do all the work.

They want the damned computer to just work. They want the music to just say something.

Of course, there will always be geeks who like the inner workings of things, and from time to time, I’m one of them. I don’t want a steady diet of atonal music, but I was happy to sit there with my eyes closed for a quarter of an a hour and at least see what happened when I was taken by surprise by that Lutoslawski thing a while back. I wouldn’t want to install Ubuntu on my laptop and run it as a matter of course, but I’m happy to code the database backend for a website in perl as well as opening Photoshop to make the sparkly colorful pictures to go along.

And from that fencesitting position, I can also point out that it’s irksome and self-defeating for techno-geek insiders of any stripe to expect those outside of the inner circle to:

  1. react the same way they do to the inner workings of their stock in trade, and
  2. consider those who don’t react that way to do so simply because they are stupid and not because they just have other things they’d rather do with their time.

Classical music, art music, whatever the hell you want to call it, needs one of those guys down there. *points again*

Steve Jobs

They need a guy who understands that the vast bulk of the consuming audience wants something that doesn’t have seventeen thousand buttons on it and require you to keep six types of cables straight before you can even turn it on. They want a device with one button on it. At most. They want a device so intuitive that you don’t even need an owner’s manual for it. (Does anyone know anyone who actually read the owner’s manual for their iPhone? Who needs to? Start poking, and the device all but explains itself to you.)

Before the Gospel according to Steve was put out, technology was tailored for the tastes of what they called the Early Adopter: the geek who had to has to have every new gadget the minute it comes out. Usually male, usually white, usually educated in the relevant technology, usually well-monied. (Starting to sound a lot like the art-music crowd, eh?) The majority of the gadgets designed for these types had — I am not making this up — more buttons than they needed in order to make them even harder to use, because they were designed both by and for people who thought that spending a day buried in the manual was fun.

And no one else bought them. The device designers had cornered 100% of the 0.0002% of the market that likes that stuff, and wasted no time patting themselves most enthusiastically on the back for having done so.

This is what happens when the insiders do the marketing.

Then, along came Steve — the white male geek with money who seemed to come from another planet, but who could at least rely on those shared characteristics to persuade the rest of the geeks to actually listen to him when he said things that people who didn’t share those qualities had been saying for over thirty years. Suddenly simplicity of interface uber alles was the watchword. People own computers now with no buttons at all. And they have engulfed the planet with them. Because Steve recognized that most people don’t want to hit six buttons when one will do. Or when none will do.

That’s why Apple owns the entire planet and currently enjoys an enormous market share. Even people who have Blackberries or Androids instead of iPhones generally synch the things up to a Mac someplace, and own an iPod. Nowdays, Early Adopters might line up for the latest iPhone, but that is only after two decades of disdain for Macs as suited only for mere teenaged girls and art majors. (Sort of like how pops concerts are viewed today as suited only for the Lawrence Welk crowd and the tone-deaf.) The techno-insider Early Adopters were well behind the curve and only came to it kicking and screaming after it threatened to leave them behind.

Face it. Just like most people do not want to hit six buttons when one will do, most people also don’t want to spend their entire morning prior to a music concert studying theory and scores. They may not even want to sit through a pre-concert lecture. They just want the damned music to do its job without requiring extensive self-assembly first. In fact, that pre-concert lecture might only serve to enforce the idea that self-assembly is required. You need to come early so we can teach you how to put the thing together before you have a hope in hell of making sense of it!

Sure, I like theory and scores. Most people do not — and they aren’t stupid, timid, fearful, uninteresting, boring, and non-hip for it. Alex Ross might prefer to go to one of those scary Berg operas with a pocket score in hand, but I bet if anyone tried to sit him down and talk him through an Ubuntu installation, he’d be ripping what remains of his hair out in seconds. Even though I and all my friends throw parties when Ubuntu comes out with a new version. Dapper Drake? Galloping Gazelle, or whatever the hell it’s up to now? (Off to Google: Natty Narwhal, apparently.) I and all my cool in-crowd friends know what that means, so surely the rest of the planet knows as well, or if they don’t, they’re dying to and will welcome any attempt to explain it to them forcibly and in great detail.

You see Alex, first you have to cross-wire the framizam, and then you install the hoop-de-whatchamacallit, google the new release of the firmware, reinstall your Megabyte, and reverse the polarity of the neutron flo—hey, where you going? Get back here! Luddite!

Poor Alex. Timid. Afraid of new things. Not too bright, obviously. Frightened by the unfamiliar … Surely he’ll fall in love with computers if only I pounce on him next time I see him and explain it to him again louder. He’s been avoiding me for some reason, though. I know! I’ll have a nice hour-long wine-and-cheese pre-installation lecture on operating systems, and I’ll corner him and get him to listen to me then. I’m sure he’ll fall in love with operating system minutiae then.

This is all the fault of schools that don’t start teaching kids the basics of programming early enough!

If classical music wants to save itself, it needs to stop marketing itself to the geeks and Early Adopters. There will always be a market for those types, sure. But they are a tiny market, they are hostile to the rest of the market, and they need to be satisfied separately. Small, chi-chi venues that seat 250 are absolutely great for that. But habitually presenting that sort of thing in a hall with 5,000 seats in it is a guaranteed recipe for an empty hall.

Classical music had better aim wider than them. The dreaded pops concerts, with John Williams and Howard Shore. What the hell is “pops” anyway but a put-down for “music that means something emotional to the vast majority of our surrounding community?” Salutes to Queen and the Beatles. (Brush up your “Open Arms,” string players, because in ten years, it’ll be Journey.) Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The entire classical music industry has to stop aiming for the guys who like more buttons on their gadgets when fewer will do. This means that guys like that have to stop doing the marketing.