Thursday, July 24, 2008

Consistency, Niche, and the Art/Biz Dichotomy

One of my favorite restaurants is Spicy Mina, a Bangladeshi place run by an eponymous chef in Jackson Heights, Queens. One of the things I like best is that Mina never cooks a dish the same way twice. I love this because it assures that I'll never get sick of eating there. And I greatly admire her ingenuity and commitment. Even when Mina cooks something in a way I don't happen to prefer, I can still appreciate the talent and love that's gone in.

But there has been a torrent of pans on Chowhound, usually labeling the restaurant "spotty" or "inconsistent". I understand: you go to a restaurant, fall in love with a dish, and the next visit you find it's been made another way. Even if that other way is just as good, there's a high chance you'll be disappointed. Go to Mina often enough, and she'll eventually make every single dish in a way that displeases you. And this is why the other 99.999999% of restaurants in the world strive to prepare each item the same way night after night.

Humans are hard-wired to seek consistency, and that's why chains flourish. In fact, that's why our entire commercial sector is as it is. We dislike surprise, and thus we are seldom surprised. Even the perception of human beauty seems to hinge upon consistent symmetry. Our curse as human beings is our tendency to needlessly recede into drudgery, while our saving grace is our infinite capacity for creative leaps. But the smart money's always on the former.

A restaurant that makes a dish spicy one day and bland the next will, in time, disappoint everyone, whereas a place making uniformly spicy food gravitates spice-lovers and a uniformly bland kitchen gravitates spice-haters. This is how niches work, and why it's nearly impossible to gather a following without remaining firmly planted in one.

As a jazz trombonist, I'm a chameleon, easily flipping between different styles and playing dense or spare, loud or soft, hard-swinging or wanly reflective, depending on circumstances. Jazz is an improvised, in-the-moment music, and each moment's different. If you're not spontaneous enough to adapt to different collaborators, different audiences, different moods, you're not really improvising, you're just plying your shtick - and that, alas, is what most jazz musicians do.

But the problem with versatility is that, per Mina, it eventually pisses off all parties. I once played loud and bluesy, and was nearly spat at by bandleader Woody Herman, who was in the audience (and is known for his preference for glibly cool trombonists), yet I've had others deem me flaccid and unswinging when they've chanced upon me while I was playing more introspectively. I've given everyone something to hate!

Audiences have their yardsticks and their assumptions, and, consciously or not, they judge what they see/hear/taste/read by those rigid standards. Whenever creative people vary their approach, large swathes of their audiences flip to one or the other side of the judgmental fence. Vary frequently, and you'll rate no better than an ambivalent "meh" from just about everyone.

Some artists develop a heightened sensitivity that tells them what they need to do to "get over" in a given circumstance, and, like politicians, they adroitly pander. Others find a niche and buckle in tightly for their entire careers, never disappointing those who expect to see pretty much what they've seen before. Still others blithely do what they do and don't give a damn what anyone thinks. 

For years, circumstances created an expectation that I'd write and act the part of the whacky, food-crazy Chowhound. I had a web site to promote, and when I delved into the more philosophical issues behind chowhounding, I noticed that people turned glassy-eyed - and reporters stopped taking notes. So I went Pentecostal, evangelizing the notion that we must stop compromising and start expending massive energy to suss out and support the geniuses who create hyperdeliciousness.

Notice how that last sentence sort of slipped into high gear? It's like putting on a sweater.

I always wanted to talk about how Chowhound actually has less to do with food than with a higher impulse - the tenacious desire to ferret out Quality in a world where that word has less and less value to people, our inner drives having been hacked by advanced marketing hypnosis to the point where we are driven to consume for every reason except quality. And I quickly grew weary of being the single-minded jolly food guy, when food is just one of many interests for me. But soul-smothering though it was, remaining consistently in character helped create a nationally-known brand (and, more importantly, attracted lots of smart food-lovers to swap great tips), 

My guess is that Chowhound now gets something like two million unique monthly visitors. This Slog, by contrast, attracts a couple hundred, period. Its audience will likely never grow much, because there's no unifying shtick. Writing about everything fully engages no one.

As with any creative pursuit, one can stay true to oneself, or one can maneuver mightily for success. The choice is to either remain lithe, flexible, and spontaneous, and be overlooked by modern hyperactive, hyperaccelerated, hopped-up data-thirsty audiences (and eventually repel the few who've slowed down enough to notice you), or to shout loudly, persistently, and consistently, eventually perhaps carving out a small presence in the mainstream consciousness.

The trick, as artists through the eons have realized, is to completely disregard all of this and just do what you do. You can be a salesman or you can be an artist, but you can't be both...because a good salesman thinks only about results, while a good artist thinks only of process (insofar as s/he thinks at all!).


Seth Godin said...

Boy this is good stuff.

Like Spicy Mina, not enough customers. What a shame.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, Seth. But, unlike Spicy Mina, I don't need an audience! As I said here: ....I've already experienced a steeply scaling audience once, and definitely got it out of my system. I'm not Slogging for glory, I'm enjoying the writing.

That said, a FEW more readers would be nice (enough to raise this site's google ranking when people search my name, so, for one thing, old friends know where to contact me, given that I no longer have an email address).

I loved Chowhound best about nine months in, when we had about 300 awesome regular posters. So that's the sweet spot.

Mostly, I like to write exactly how I want to. Very few people get to create exactly as they want without interference, and I cherish the freedom. Per the above article, caring about outcome/audiences/promotion/projection is counterproductive. I've learned that from perspectives both high and low!

Anyone who's found this Slog and is enjoying it deserves my very best stuff. And I don't care how many there are.

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