In 1989, [Howard Schultz] initially balked at providing non-fat milk for customers — it wasn’t how the Italians did it. When word trickled up to him that rival stores in Santa Monica were doing big business in the summer months selling blended iced coffee drinks, he initially dismissed the idea as something that “sounded more like a fast-food shake than something a true coffee lover would enjoy.”My "takeaway" from the article — oh, and YHWH? Please strike me down for using that term — is that Starbucks' dullness comes from listening too closely to customers. Now, I realize full well that that's not exactly the writer's angle; he argues that the chain's recent financial stumbles are the result of not listening to them closely enough. Starbucks, I will paraphrase him as saying, should provide more pumpkin Frappuccinos and pipe more slowed-by-five-percent Norah Jones tracks through the speakers, lest they forget who's boss: Joe Public.
[ ... ]
The chain’s customers have played a substantial role in determining the Starbucks experience. They asked for non-fat milk, and they got it. They asked for Frappuccino, and they got it. What they haven’t been so interested in is Starbucks’ efforts to carry on the European coffeehouse tradition of creative interaction and spirited public discourse.
Over the years, Starbucks has tried various ways to foster an intellectual environment. In 1996 it tried selling a paper version of Slate and failed. In 1999 it introduced its own magazine, Joe. “Life is interesting. Discuss,” its tagline encouraged, but whatever discussions Joe prompted could sustain only three issues. In 2000 Starbucks opened Circadia, an upscale venue in San Francisco that Fortune described as an attempt to “resurrect the feel of the 1960s coffee shops of Greenwich Village.” The poetry readings didn’t work because customers weren’t sure if they were allowed to chat during the proceedings. The majority of Starbucks patrons, it seems, are happy to leave the European coffeehouse tradition to other retailers.
There's a certain democratic satisfaction in pushing this sort of line — take that, espresso-sipping purists — but it also showcases a facet of Reason that I consider its dimmest. "Hey out-of-touch executives," these articles implicitly groan, "check your fanciness at the door and do what the market tells you to. The really radical move, after all, is to satiate demands as efficiently as possible." Don't get me wrong; I understand that, if you want to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, you follow the signals of the free market and don't look back. I'm just willing to admit that I don't necessarily desire a society of the greatest good for the greatest number. (And I'm not even anti-market! But best of luck getting say, an avowed socialist to reveal that they don't want it either.)
This is what's driven me away from most libertarian media: it's got such a cultural tin ear, such a penchant for a certain uncomfortable low-level artistic and/or aesthetic luddism. Maybe it's not luddism; maybe it's just that the sort of person inclined to go libertarian doesn't generally care about these matters. But there's a reason I've always demurred from any alliance, declared or formalized, with libertarianism, even though I've found it to be the most convincing ideology out there (as ideologies go). It's not that I disagree with libertarians' principles; it's that I disagree with their socks under sandals, both real and metaphorical.
Know that this is not a blanket condemnation. I have quite a few libertarian friends to whom this doesn't apply — hell, you might be one! — and I can point to high-profile examples of same. (Tyler Cowen, for example, is a libertarian economist who also happens to be the most culturally aware man alive.) That doesn't change the fact that, taken as an averaged-out whole, the group's taste strikes me as atrocious. I don't necessarily mean that it's actively offensive. It's more like a lack of discernment, or rather, the lack of effort to discern — a willingness to just settle for whatever, culturally.
[PROLEPSIS: There exists, of course, an opposite and almost equal condition. I think specifically of the pathological, disdainful obscurantism that the late Susan Sontag is said to have displayed, and flamboyantly. Given the choice between views that (a) taste doesn't matter and (b) taste is only the thing that matters, I'll take the latter — by virtue of how I spend my life, I'm natively a lot closer to it anyway — but both stances are deeply undesirable and more than a little ridiculous.]
Many a company has, historically, done quite well for itself by dishing out a lot of reasonably priced whatever. Scan most of Starbucks' menu and that feels like their mission statement. (Some knees might jerk at "reasonably priced," but cf. the offerings of comparable coffee shops and see how much difference you find.) It screams "focus grouped," whether or not it actually was. But Starbucks' team are just plugging into a hole, aren't they? They've iterated toward the discovery of something people just keep wanting, and they pump it out. No shame in that, but no interestingness 'neither.
I'm not sure if the sort of libertarian I'm talking about has internalized a difference between what's filling a need and what's — I don't know — pandering. Given its elitist associations, that's probably the wrong word, but I've committed. To my mind, there's a line, though perhaps one so fine or fuzzy as to barely merit the name, between supplying something to society as an act of creation and supplying something to society as an engineering problem. It's the latter that seems to produce the uninteresting stuff, the products/services/artworks that asymptotically approach the Skinner Box, the enclosure in which rats die of exhaustion after pounding day and night on the pleasure lever.
None of this would matter if, after finishing my day's writing, I hypocritically pound a few pumpkin Frappuccinos, buy a few Norah-Jones-slowed-by-five-percent compilations and complain that they weren't lighting up my reward centers as intensely as they used to. But I don't. I ask myself this: as a consumer, do I even want my desires listened and directly responded to? I'm not at all confident that I do. I'm even willing to argue that I actively don't. I increasingly seek out stuff that doesn't necessarily care about what I "want" — in fact, I'm reasonably certain my favorite artists don't give a damn about my wants — because that's the stuff that's going to surprise me, to delight me, to knock my worldview around. Iced chai, even a 55-gallon drum of it, can't aspire to that.
This speaks to a psychodrama roiling in my mind. No doubt it also roils in the mind of anyone who's dedicated their life to making interesting things. What, this psychodrama asks, constitutes a healthy relationship between the interesting things you can get it up to supply and the pre-existing desires of the humanity you need to become your audience? How to steer between the Scylla of solipsistic irrelevance and the Charybdis of allowing your profession to resemble a certain much older one? Were I of the psychological profile they called "problem solver" in elementary school — i.e., one who gets off on the very act of defining and addressing problems, regardless of the content or context of those problems — this wouldn't be an issue. But I'm not one of those; I'm something else. I suspect you are, too. Otherwise, you'd have quit reading this eight paragraphs ago to go solve a problem.
I started down this road by asking how I could do better. Longtime readers know that I periodically express bewilderment about the low response drawn by my various projects. None draws less of a response than Podthoughts, the podcast review column I've written for The Sound of Young America's web site since May 2008. When Jesse Thorn put out the call for someone to take it over, I jumped at the chance, assuming it would be an ideal platform from which to post amusing, conversation-generating short pieces. It hasn't quite worked out that way — it turns out to be the exceptional Podthought indeed that I ever hear so much as a sentence about from anybody — and for that I blame myself.
Turning to the local forum for help, I received a number of smart suggestions — try producing a podcast about podcasts as a companion piece? Could work — but several slightly discomfiting ones as well:
- I haven't heard
of the show you're talking about, I don't read that far into the column.
don't read an article if I haven't heard of the podcast.
me the punchiest lines at the beginning. And what about ratings?
have a lovely and lyrical command of the english language, but trying
to get through the first paragraph is very difficult.
i'm not grabbed by the opening, i might skip it.
probably like it if you gave a Rating ("I give this two pod people up")
much text in the posts. I see that giant wall and I usually don't read
- I guess because podcasting hasn't exactly reached maturation as an artistic medium, I'm not interested in a critical evaluation of them as an artform.
Though I'd aimed to achieve a neat dialectical synthesis between my own vision and the demands of the audience, one fellow still had objections:
You just don't get it.Now, that would be a pretty awesome tone, but it is not, for the moment, to be. This got me thinking about a whole array of big, hairy New Media Landscape issues. The standard line about the broader ongoing change in media is that creators and audiences have gotten smushed into a much closer relationship. Creators can more easily reach audiences, but audiences can way more easily voice their complaints or, more likely, click over to one of the other hojillion creators vying for their precious, precious attention. Gone are the days of so few outlets that at least some sort of audience was essentially guaranteed for whatever media people wanted to put out.
[ ... ]
What it smacks of is someone who is used to the old media world of broadcaster to audience who doesn't understand why this whole new media world doesn't work for them. Why aren't your comments coming in? Why isn't what you are doing more remarked upon, aka 'remarkable?" If you want to build your 'purple cow,' I doubt Godin would think blaming the audience for lacking the sophistication to stay with you would be the productive way to go.
What your reaction to the commentary here said to me was that you believe what you are doing with your column is fine, and that it's our problem that we aren't on board. How do you think our - my - 'tone' should be? Thank you, Mr. Marshall, for allowing us to help make your hopes and dreams come true?
Part of me is still that old-school public media guy — ironic, since I've never worked in old-school public media — who wants to use his platform in the noblest way possible: "inform, educate, entertain" and all that. Another part of me is that former BBC Channel 4 executive who called that Reithian mission "a paternalistic exercise in adult education by the wing-collared classes." But as in all interesting endeavors, there's a balance to be attained. As in all worthwhile endeavors, it's not an easy one, and any slip can renders the whole project futile. Even in a line as lowly as podcast reviewing, the belletrist who has fallen to the level of a reader-pleasing functionary might as well pack it in.
I take comfort in the fact that Adam Carolla, a sharp dude but one never accused of membership in the high-handed intellectual elite, said this by way of a mission statement in his inaugural podcast:
If I had a microphone and it was hooked up to ten Rose Bowls that were filled to capacity and I had it for four hours a day, I would spend half the time watching morbidly obese guys eat hot wings? It seems ridiculous to me, yet that's the direction. That's where we're heading. And then it becomes one of these negative spirals, because it's like, are we just keeping up with the dumbasses, or we causing the demise of the intelligent people? Are we causing them to be dumb? Think about it. That's the logic in radio: "Look, you're smart, fine, but everyone who's listening to you is dumb, so dumb it up for them," as opposed to try to raise their awareness a little and have them come up and meet you.Or, put another way, here's an e-mail that Moby wrote to Bob Lefsetz (which would score mass points from me anyway, but whose reference to Lynch sends it to the bonus levels):
see, i had a quasi-epiphany last year when i heard david lynch talking about creativity (and forgive me if this sounds new age or hokey).In conclusion: bring back the toffee almond bar, Starbucks. YOU NEED ME
he talked about how creativity in and of itself is great, and i realized that he was right.
and i realized that, ideally, the market should accommodate art, but that art shouldn't accommodate the market.
i know, it sounds idealistic.
i had been trying to make myself happy and make radio happy and make the label happy and make press happy and etc.
and it made me miserable.
and i also don't really aspire to selling too many records.
see, my friends who are writers sell 20,000 books and they're happy.
my friends who are theater directors sell 5,000 tickets during a run and they're happy.
i like the idea of humble and reasonable metrics for determining the success of a record.
and i like the idea of respecting the sacred bond that exists between musician and listener.
again, i know this sounds hokey, but it's where i am at present.