Seth Godin wrote a post two days ago that got several bloggers offering their dissenting opinions. It was a tiny post about listening to a CD of an old Neil Young concert. Seth noted how the audience whooped and hollered for the songs they already knew. And no matter how much strain or effort Neil put into performing his new songs, he couldn’t get the same reactions for the songs the audience didn’t know yet. Even the ones that would later become classics.
Seth then carried the Neil Young lesson over to the world of marketing and said, “It’s what you say, most of the time, not how you say it.”
This is what got people going.
Adam at Escape from the Belly of the Whale writes that he has always believed the opposite: that it’s not what you say but how you say it. (Though I’m not sure exactly what Adam has against Tom Waits, who rules all things songwriting, if not all things normal.)
Tim McTavish at Insure Me Agent Blog wrote a great response about the importance of innovation and the passion of your delivery.
The biggest lesson I get from the Neil Young concert is about taking chances, and being alive, and tossing your ideas out in the world. The problem is not so much in the “how you say it” or “what you say” stuff. The problem is the expectation that the response even should be hollering and whooping all the time. If you were always going for the sure thing and the woo-hoo’s, then you’d be the Beach Boys in any city on any night in July.
No one knows what was in Neil Young’s head as he performed that night. But every performer knows the temptation to try and get that screaming intensity on every song. Probably there’s a similar toxic pressure in the marketing world.
New Songs are Scary
Performing the familiar stuff is comfortable and easy. (And boring after a while.) I’ll admit I’m terrified to play new songs. I can feel my fingers shaking. And my voice hasn’t quite figured out what the hell it wants to do. And often, it’s true – the new songs don’t get the big response. (Unless they’re funny songs. Or unless you’re Amy Ray strumming the crap out of a little mandolin wailing out a high-drama solo song in the middle of an Indigo Girls concert.)
On my CD Rain & Mud & Wild & Green, there’s a song called The Customers. When I first wrote it, the audience reaction was the same every time I performed it. A pause. And then quiet clapping. After about five tries, I gave up. I figured it was a clunker. Then, when Ben Wisch and I were in the studio making that CD, he heard “The Customers” and insisted that I put in on the CD. We argued about it. “NOOOOOO!” I’d say. “Four out of five audiences found it BORING!” But he won out in the end.
I’m glad he did. It’s still not a big “woo-hoo!” kind of song. But many people have told me that that song has been an important one for them. In fact, one of the women at this past weekend’s retreat said that she remembers hearing that song for the first time while stuck in traffic on 95. She started crying, and at that moment she decided to quit her job and stop being unhappy. (Which she did. And she has.) I don’t claim credit for this. But it’s a form of applause. It just doesn’t happen at the moment of performance. (And in marketing terms, this person might be called a “sneezer.”)
If Neil Young had gone for the big applause every time, he’d probably be co-billed with the Beach Boys this July.
If I went for the big applause every time, I’d still be doing Neil Young covers in bars.
If you hadn’t “played your new songs,” where would you be now?