There, but for the grace of providence and probability theory, go I

Note: This post veers away from what I normally write about here. It’s long. It’s personal. It’s not rigorously scientific (although it does touch on a couple of psychological theories and employs some rudimentary statistical analysis). It involves speculation, opinion and a little bit of preaching and teaching. But it does touch on how one might take an empirical approach to thinking about how to fulfill a creative, artistic life through optimal decision making. And although the ideas contained herein are framed in terms of my former mistress, the goddess of music, the ideas are essentially “domain general” and could be applied in any number of different creative arenas.

The Setup
In 1990 I got a call from keyboardist John Medeski to come up to his retreat in upstate New York and play some music. He wanted to explore some musical ideas, he said, looking to put together a little unit for a weekend of jamming, perhaps have some BBQ, and see what happened. It sounded like fun. John, although not yet nationally known, was an outstanding musician. But I didn’t do it, because I had gigs booked. Nothing amazing – just a couple of little bullshit corporate gigs – but they paid cash and I’d just moved to NYC and was broke all of the time. I couldn’t afford to turn down paying work, so I declined.

Medeski is the founder and leader of the group Medeski, Martin and Wood, a mostly instrumental band who’ve released 15 or so albums, earning a loyal fan base and strong critical acclaim. Did John’s call and proposed session represent the early stages of MMW? I’m not sure but it certainly seems within in the realm of possibility. For the sake of argument let’s assume that’s the case. Seventeen years later, that band is still going strong, seemingly having provided some modicum of fame and fortune for all involved.

Of course, the only thing that makes the story of interest is that MMW went on to become such a success. Of course, I remember the Medeski call well. But I used to get calls like that quite a bit from musicians in the early stages of putting a project together. And as Medeski’s call is memorable precisely because of his later success, other such calls have since disappeared into the ether. It wouldn’t be uncommon for someone in such a situation to experience a sense of regret – “I should have gone up for that weekend, eh?” But, is such regret really the appropriate response?

Probably not. Not appropriate, but perfectly natural, which begs a couple of questions:

Q1. How does one know to make the right decision when faced with a decision between two different musical/ artistic situations?

Q2. How does one deal with the sense of regret that often accompanies the kind of missed opportunity described above?

The remainder of the piece will attempt to provide some answers.

The Representativeness Bias

Have you ever had the experience of thinking about someone, let’s say your mom, only to have her call you at that exact moment? You’re not alone. Although one might be inclined to see these two events as being either causally related (your thinking about her caused her to call) or a sign of psychic ability, either of those explanations requires a belief in the supernatural. A simpler (and therefore more likely) explanation would be that you think about your mom frequently and she calls regularly, thus making favorable odds for a thought about and a call from her occurring simultaneously.

What do those odds look like? Perhaps it would be helpful to break it out statistically (I will henceforth be putting my math-statistics-probability theory nerd hat on; if that’s not your cup of tea, you can skip this section and go to the next paragraph below without really missing too much):

Category: Thoughts about mom (C)

Memorable examples: Thoughts about mom followed by a phone call from her (M)
Nonmemorable examples: Thoughts about mom not followed by a phone call from her (N)

There isn’t much solid data on how often we have passing thoughts about close others over the course of an average day (largely because this is very difficult to measure), so we’ll have to estimate, and I will proceed to do so (wildly). Lets say that you have 15 thoughts about your mom a day, or one every 64 minutes (based on a 16 hour waking day). If your mother calls you every day (ouch!), that puts the odds of her calling you within 5 minutes of a thought about her on any given day at about .08 or 8%. In other words, this should only happen 8 times every 100 days, or approximately 2 or 3 times per month. Finally, we’ll estimate that we might only remember 20% of the thoughts we have about her (again, there is no solid data out there regarding how many passing thoughts people actually remember having, so this is just a wild but intuitive-feeling estimate.)

In reality, over a 100 day period, you’re experiencing 1500 thoughts about her, with 8 coincidental thought/call combos. The actual thought-to-call ratio is .005 (In other words, The chance of any given thought being followed within 5 minutes by a call, is half of 1%.). But since we’re only consciously aware of 20% of the thoughts, or 3 thoughts a day, it will feel like this happens rather more frequently: the subjective thought to call ratio is FIVE TIMES GREATER, approximately 2.5% (In other words, we actually experience 187.5 thoughts to every 1 thought/call combo but it feels like 37 to 1, certainly a small enough ratio to create the sense there is something psychic going on.)

This is a highly-convoluted example of a cognitive bias known to psychologists as the “representativeness bias,” whereby we overestimate the prevalence of memorable examples of a given category and underestimate the less memorable examples when making decisions and judgments, or estimating the probabilities of certain events occurring.

Now, how might we apply this well documented bias to the way we think about the gigs we do and don’t take?

First, let’s define the categories:

Main Category: No- or low-pay projects declined in favor of paying gigs (“jam” sessions or get togethers, low paying gigs or tours with unsigned, or recently signed, bands or singer-songwriters)

Memorable examples: no-pay/low-pay projects, declined, which have gone on to be wildly successful
Nonmemorable examples: (a) no pay/low-play projects — — declined or accepted — which haven’t gone on to be successful

So, let’s imagine a musician named Rob, a professional session guitarist who earns a decent living. Over the course of a year, Rob gets about one call a week from someone asking him to participate in some kind of no- or low-paying project. Rob turns down most of those (40 to be exact) in favor of paying gigs, but he does accept 10 of the offers. None of the projects he participates in lead to any substantial success, but one of the projects he turned down led to a record deal/tour involving a decent amount of remuneration for all involved (too bad, buddy!). The question is: Does missing out on that opportunity cause Rob to start overweighting the probability of the future success of speculative projects? How much so?

Remember, what we’re interested in is the actual (real) vs. subjective (felt) odds of success. The actual odds of success are a simple calculation: 1 out of 50 or 2%. The subjective odds are slightly more complicated. First we need to add up all of the “opportunities” Rob actually recalls: 10 (accepted) + 1 (the one success) + 8 (the 20% of offers he rejected that are recalled) = 19. So, the odds of success feel like about 1 out of 19 or a little over 5%. Although it doesn’t seem like a huge difference – 2% vs. 5% – it does suggest that success will seem twice as more likely than it actually may be based on the actual data.

The take away message here is two fold: (1) most speculative projects are likely to fail and (2) missing out on a success will make future successes seem more likely than they actually are.

But this is crazy, right? One can’t apply statistical formulas to decisions about music or art? Can one? Intuitively, this may feel wrong to some people. Music is an organic and spiritual thing, not something that we can subject to dry probability formulas, some might say. The problem is that we often don’t know why we make the decisions we make. But we are intuitively computational creatures who create implicit statistical models of the world in order to help us successfully navigate it. Increasing our awareness as to how we make decisions might help us correct for certain errors. But, now I’m going to turn around and agree with the naysayers, and concur: the above data and formulas, although interesting, may not work so well in the context of musical/artistic decisions.


Because even the probability of success I’ve outlined above, even when biased, is only 5%! Most people are going to fail! Why would anyone pursue such a speculative undertaking? One has to be extremely committed and more than a little delusional to do so. I’ve merely suggested that probabilistic errors can make us slightly more delusional. But its really just a drop in the bucket when one considers the difficulty of become a working artist of any stripe. But, hey, if you wanted stability and a steady paycheck you would have become an accountant rather than a musician, right? So, given failure is the most likely outcome anyway, what’s the best approach?

I’m going to recommend making an important decision up front; that is, to decide whether you are going to be a musical artist or a musical artisan.

The Artisan
The rule for decision making for the musical artisan is simple: Paid gigs always prevail over non-paid gigs. My personal goal was to be a professional musician, to support myself entirely as a musician and to be doing so as quickly as possible. What this meant in reality was that I often favored paying gigs with low artistic value over those with high artistic value but no pay. And, although I paid my bills for many years through working as a musician, I led myself systematically, decision by decision, down a specific path. That is, the path of a skilled manual worker whose contributions to the world of music were generally functional or decorative in nature.

Our friend Rob, the guitarist described above, is a model of one form of contemporary working musician or “musical artisan.” He makes a comfortable living doing recording sessions, teaching, going on the road with various acts, performing the occasional corporate gig, subbing on Broadway, and cranking some industrial music out of his home studio. He also takes occasional club gigs with friends for the fun of it and is involved in a couple of speculative projects that may or may not yield some fruit. It took many years of hard work for him to get to this position and he should be rightly proud. His only regret is that he doesn’t have enough time to work on his own music. Rob writes and records his original compositions, and has gotten some good feedback from colleagues and people in the industry, but he just doesn’t have the time to focus on it, so his own music sits mostly on the back burner, as something he does on the side when time permits.

Without thinking about it too much, this is natural path many talented musicians will follow.

Personally, I was driven to claim myself as a professional, and motivated to do so because I’d been challenged on that front by family and by adults who spoke of how difficult it would be to “make it.” Plus, it carried some cultural cache to have earned one’s professional stripes and to become a full-fledged member of the “tribe.” Neither did I have any real appreciable skills in any other field. If you want to make a decent living, you’re more likely to do so as a musical artisan. Don’t waste your time playing for free or for little money on original projects that offer nothing but the promise of future success. Rather, focus on setting a decent price for your services and go after solid gigs with the realization that your contributions to the world of music will ultimately be more utilitarian than original. Of course, this doesn’t mean you won’t consider the artistic value of a given situation, it just means that you would be willing to lower your artistic standards if the price was right.

The Artist
On the other hand, you could decide to be an artist (putting aside for the moment the argument that artists don’t choose to be so, but, rather are themselves chosen). In this case, artistic value would prevail over money; you choose the $20 jazz gig over the $300 club date. The obvious challenge, of course, is making a living. An artist has a vision and stays true to it, knowing full well that he/she may not ultimately achieve monetary success (she might even ultimately abandon the artistic quest to become an artisan). The true artist attempts to “keep it pure,” and doesn’t strap the instrument on without a full commitment to expressing their singular artistic vision.

Why can’t one do both?

The question of what makes an artist is a difficult one. I hope I haven’t created the impressions of putting down the musical artisan. It’s worthy and important work. Some of my favorite drummers aren’t artists per se, but rather high-level artisans. The reason I’m harping on the commitment to the artist lifestyle is that I fear that some true artists, real visionaries, might be slipping through the cracks. By not defining themselves early on, making a definitive stand for their vision as it were, and also because of their desire to enter the working ranks, many who should be on the artistic path are reduced to being mere functionaries. I’ve seen it happen more than once to friends and colleagues, seen their unique voices silenced by success, by the siren’s call or by the need to buy diapers for their kid.

Legendary modernist classical composer Charles Ives famously made dual livings both as a composer and as an insurance executive (in fact, he was one of the originators of group insurance). I once heard a quote attributed to him to the effect, “One should never try to make a living from one’s art, lest their art be compromised.” ( I couldn’t find the original source so this is a bit of guess work). To me, this is the essence of what it meant to be a true artiste. Granted, not everyone can pull off high level artistic achievement while simultaneously working as an insurance exec. Nor would many musicians I know want to, many of whom take great pride in the fact that they keep the electric on, the rent paid and food in the fridge, solely from their earnings in the music biz. I was one of those. But I would argue that true artists would be less concerned with this accomplishment and more concerned with never compromising artistic integrity for money. The true artist NEVER chooses the money over the art. This is a level of commitment that most people can’t, and perhaps rightly shouldn’t, make. But it is a decision one can make BEFORE embarking on their careers.

What I’ve described may sound a bit unrealistic. Most musicians I know would say that they employ some consideration of both factors when making decisions about what projects to take on, some balance between artistic expression and compensation, such that the lower the artistic value, the more money is required and vice versa. I would agree that this is the approach most working musicians, including myself, have taken. But that artistic value is part of the concession process, does not mean that one is living as a true artist. What I’m suggesting is that the artist doesn’t compromise. Ever. Once money becomes a consideration, one is no longer functioning purely from an artistic vantage point. One cannot make a commitment like this in a casual way. This is why its important to determine early on what are the defining principles by which one is going to live one’s creative life.

Crying over spilled milk – The random walk
In the example I used to begin, the “missed opportunity” was the result of a conscious decision. Some sense of regret is to be expected. But what about opportunities missed purely by chance? Consider this story, told by Howard Grimes, the original drummer for the Stax record label. “[Stax] gave Booker T. an opportunity to record one day. I don’t know where I was, usually I was at home, but that day I left home. When I got back, my mother told me [Stax] had called. I was the staff drummer, but I called them back, and they said they had got someone else. I found out it was Al Jackson. Steve Cropper had recommended him. He called [Jackson] in that day for ‘Green Onions,’ and the rest is history. That was my shot and I missed it.”
Although Grimes’ miss was accidental, it was, nonetheless, clearly a source of regret.

And the closer we are to having missed an opportunity, the deeper the pain of the loss. Imagine the following scenario: two men are rushing to airport to catch a plane. Both arrive 30 minutes late. The first man’s flight left on time so he’s missed his flight by 30 minutes. But the second man’s slight is delayed 25 minutes and he only misses it by 5 minutes. Who feels the deeper the sense of regret? Intuition and experiment seem to suggest the second man will feel worse for having missed it by a narrower margin.

Missed opportunities hurt. And the narrower the margin by which they were missed, the greater the pain.
I offer the following example from my own experience (from the mid ’90s):

“I had booked a weekend of work out of town with a saxophone player, Mark Johnson, who had a record coming out on a pretty good sized label. This was to be his record release party and would be a big deal: the label was going to be there, radio promotion, etc…We did a fair amount of rehearsing for said gig, as it was an important one for him. Around the same time, I got a call to audition for another smooth jazz sax player, Warren Hill, who was a bit more established. He was looking for a new drummer and had three months of solid, and well paying, work booked. The only problem was his tour started the same weekend as the first sax players’ gigs in Chicago. I figured I’d just do the audition so I could meet the guy at least and get a relationship going. Hopefully I wouldn’t get the gig and won’t have to make a difficult decision. I went down and played, said thanks and went home with the mindset that I was still working that weekend. Next morning, I get a call from Warren’s keyboard player that Warren can’t decide between me and one other guy and he’s going to take a couple days to think about it. I know if he calls me for the gig, I’ll probably have to take it. I can’t turn down the money. Oh shit. Later that same day, I get another call, this one from the manager of a famous bebop trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard, one of my heroes, seeing if I was available for two dates for the upcoming weekend; one in Bermuda and one in the US. Now I’m really confused. I know that Freddie’s gig is just a one shot situation; I would just be subbing and probably wouldn’t do the gig again but it would be an amazing experience. I would have to cancel Mark’s gig and risk losing it entirely and if I got Warren’s gig I would have to turn it down and lose out on three months steady work. I seemed to have one bird in the pocket and one in the bush. I decided I couldn’t take the gig with Freddie so I turned it down. At this point my head was swimming so I decided to get out of the house, take a walk and get some air. I arrived home about a half hour later to the perfect storm. I check the machine and hear the following; “Beeeep. Hey D, this is M.; I’m really sorry man, but those gigs in Chicago were canceled.” Oh shit…”Beeeep. Hey D, This is [Warren’s keyboard player], Warren decided to go with the other guy. Thanks for coming down though. You sounded great and he said he could have gone either way.”
I’d lost two birds but it freed me up to take Freddie’s gig so I immediately got on the phone to his manager only too find out it was too late, he had already taken care of it. The gig was no longer available. I had gone from three potentially great situations that weekend to none. I think I did end up booking a bar mitzvah for that Saturday and as I was getting into my monkey suit that Saturday afternoon, I remember seriously questioning whether or not I was really cut out for this business.”

Things clearly didn’t work out very well in that case.
But consider what happened a couple of years later:

“One Saturday night, during a late club gig, I received a call from a good friend of mine that he was able to hook me up an audition with Lenny Kravitz. The one catch was that the audition was to be the next morning and I would need to learn about 7 or 8 songs cold. Getting off the gig at 4 am and forgoing my usual visit to the Italian after hours club I often visited, I sped home to learn tunes, passing out sometime around 7 am. I was scheduled to go out to Jersey around 10 in the morning or so to play with the band. But it wasn’t to be. Also auditioning was a guy from LA, a drummer who had worked with Fishbone. He came in early Sunday morning, sounded good, and Lenny hired him on the spot. I was disappointed but such is life. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Two days later, I got called to audition with Bo Diddley for an upcoming European tour and possible regular position in his touring band. I went down to a session at the Lone Star, sat in with his rhythm section and was hired for the gig that night. Four days later, the guy who had been hired by Lenny was un-hired when Lenny decided not to replace his drummer. Had I come in and got the gig with Lenny, I probably wouldn’t have auditioned for Bo and by midweek would have been gigless! And likely back in a monkey suit by Saturday. What a valuable lesson to have learned.”

The music business is one beautifully cruel bitch, aint she?

So, in closing:

Statistically speaking, the odds are that most speculative projects will fail. Quality is not an accurate barometer of success. Don’t fall for the hype (those bonafides from managers, record company people, or the artists themselves, about how you’ll be going “straight to the top!”) Think hard before giving up a solid situation for an unknown one. There may be occasions when it is more wise to forgo immediate financial remuneration and choose the gig that might offer better long term benefits – players that you would like to meet, opportunities for more and better work in the future, the quality of the music (lest we forget that crucial aspect of the equation!) Choose these projects, however, only because your artistic instincts tell you to.

If you’ve missed out on opportunity to be part of something great because you went with the bird in hand (rather than in the bush), don’t despair. And don’t start overweighing the possibility of success for subsequent speculative projects. Don’t kill yourself engaging in woulda, shoulda, coulda kind of thinking. There isn’t much benefit to second guessing yourself after the fact. Randomness does play a significant role in how one’s career transpires. But if you stay in the game long enough, and keep working hard, eventually the luck might break your way.

Finally, decide what your artistic goals are before you even embark on your journey and then commit to them with the tenacity of a rabid bulldog. Whichever life you choose, that of the artisan or the artist, or some hybrid thereof, every subsequent decision you make will be so much easier by virtue of this decision.

I’d be interested to hear others’ idea/thoughts/comments. Please don’t hesitate!