Saturday, March 9, 2013

How To Make A Scene

The toilet at CBGBNot for those with low constitution.
The number of great bands to play at CBGB in the late 70's and early 80's is hard to fathom:  Ramones, Misfits, Television, the Patti Smith Group, the B-52's, Blondie, Joan Jett, Talking Heads, Agnostic Front, and Sick of It All, to name a few.  CBGB was a disgusting dive bar in a sketchy neighborhood.  So why was it the incubator for so many famous acts?

David Byrne offers a few suggestions.  In his How Music Works, he tells us how to make a scene.  You need:
  • A venue of the right size
  • where artists can play their own material
  • and listen to each other for free;
  • and where patrons are free to pay attention or not.
  • A sense of alienation from the mainstream scene.
  • Cheap rent.
Note that these factors are necessary but not sufficient for creating a scene.  You can't will a scene into existence.  It has a life of its own.

Note also that many of these factors relate to a venue.  A scene needs a location.

It's interesting to hear Byrne reflect on this time.  Surprisingly, he didn't notice anything revolutionary going on.  He remembers some good bands as well as some really bad ones.  There was also nothing romantic about the time.  It's just not cool to see winos passed out in the street or to have to use the bathroom at CBGB.

I haven't heard of many companies trying to make the next Ramones, but it seems like everyone wants to create a good corporate culture (even if it's by banning telecommuting).  Similarly, every city wants to be a technology hub like Silicon Valley.  Creating a culture is like making a scene.  But how do you do it?

In the mid 90's AnnaLee Saxenian compared Silicon Valley to the Route 128 corridor outside Boston.  She found that, though both had a lot in common, such as proximity to great schools, Silicon Valley flourished because of its decentralized and open communication networks.  People came and went, kept in touch, formed start-ups, and generally talked freely about ideas.  Route 128, however, petered out due to its centralized and secretive culture.

A study cited in Peopleware showed that productivity correlates most to office location, not to years of experience or programming language.  Their conclusion is that productivity is inversely tied to the number of times people are interrupted in a day.  In other words, it's the venue that matters most.  With the advent of iPods, voicemail, and telecommuting, interruptions may not matter quite as much as in the Peopleware study.  Still, a good culture is about more than freedom from interruptions.

The problem is that it's hard to draw many lessons from studies like these.  They often come in the form of negative commandments.  Peopleware says: Don't interrupt people.  Don't rush things so that people cut corners on quality.  In Rework, the authors say: Don't treat people like kids.  Don't keep them late.  Don't create policies after the first offense.

But it's pretty hard to show that any of these rules are actually necessary.  The form of inquiry can't really be scientific.  How do you know when you've removed blockages to a good culture but one happens not to emerge, and when you've missed another important rule?  When you're talking about culture, you're interested in the necessary but not sufficient.  There are no necessary and sufficient conditions.

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