Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Data or the Hunch

John Hammond was a boy of ten when he fell in love with the new music called jazz. Rather than heading home after school to his family’s mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he would jump on an uptown bus and deposit himself, 30 blocks away, in a different world. The world he left behind was monied, white, sedate; the one to which he travelled was poor, black and popping with energy. To John Hammond, it felt like real life. The shop-owners and doormen of Harlem got used to the sight of the skinny white kid in a blue blazer and peaked cap, riffling through records in music stores, flashing a toothy grin at every-one he encountered.

This was the early 1920s. By 1930, Harlem had usurped the South Side of Chicago as the prime destination for America’s jazz and blues musicians. At venues like the Lafayette, Big John’s Gin Mill, Minton’s and the Cotton Club, players and fans would drink, flirt, smoke and play. Hammond was still making the trip uptown, only now they let him into the clubs. In his button-down shirt and tie, he cut an incongruous figure. But he was friendly with dozens of black musicians and club-owners who knew that this lemonade-sipping young white man loved the same music they did and knew all about it.

Hammond was born to immense wealth (his mother was a Vanderbilt) but longed to fly the gilded cage. To his father’s dismay, he dropped out of Yale in 1931 to work in the fast-growing record business. To succeed, he needed to find and record new artists. So he crisscrossed New York, from Greenwich Village to Harlem, in search of undiscovered talent. “Drop into almost any nightclub…any recording date or broadcast or audition or rehearsal,” wrote a jazz critic, Otis Ferguson, “and if you stick around long enough, you are almost sure to see John Henry Hammond, Jr, in the flesh, if briefly.”

One February night in 1933, Hammond rapped on an anonymous door on 133rd St. One of his singer friends, Monette Moore, ran a new speakeasy, and he had come to see her perform. As it turned out, she couldn’t make it. Her replacement was a girl called Billie Holiday. Hammond hadn’t heard of her—which meant nobody had—but she took his breath away. Just 17, Holiday was tall, unconventionally beautiful, with an imperious bearing. Her artistry gave Hammond shivers. She sang just behind the beat, her voice wafting languidly over the accompaniment like smoke from a cigarette. She didn’t just sing the songs, she played them with her voice. “I was overwhelmed,” Hammond said.

Billie Holiday became the first big find of John Hammond’s career, which is recounted in Dunstan Prial’s biography “The Producer”. Hammond’s protégés included many influential jazz artists: the “king of swing” Benny Goodman, the swing pianist Teddy Wilson, the vibes player and bandleader Lionel Hampton, the guitar wizard Charlie Christian. Hammond had exceptional antennae for talent. One night in 1936, restless after watching Goodman perform in Chicago, he went to his car, switched on the radio and spun through the airwaves. Through the crackle at the end of the dial, he picked up the faint sound of a swing band with a driving rhythm section. It was a live transmission from the Reno club in Kansas City, and the band was the Count Basie Orchestra. It wouldn’t be long before Basie, sitting at his piano at the Reno, was presented with the open hand of a conservatively dressed man with an outsized grin. “Hi. I’m John Hammond.”

At the time, black musicians were not supposed to play with white ones. Hammond thought this was crazy. He hated segregation and pushed for racially integrated bands at every opportunity. He also believed that virtually all good popular music had its roots in black culture, and thought it an outrage that, as jazz became popular across America, its origins were being obscured from view. So he decided to educate white people. In 1938 he organised a concert at Carnegie Hall called “From Spirituals to Swing”, tracing the lineage of popular music from African drumming to slave chants, Southern blues, gospel and jazz. It featured Basie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Joe Turner and many others. It was a sell-out. Nobody had told Hammond to go and see Billie Holiday that night in Harlem. She had no fan base, no manager pressing her claims. Nobody would record her. But the moment he saw Holiday, John Hammond knew she was going to be a star. He just had a feeling about this girl. A hunch.

The gift for talent-spotting is mysterious, highly prized and celebrated. We love to hear stories about the baseball coach who can spot the raw ability of an erratic young pitcher, the boss who sees potential in the guy in the post room, the director who picks a soloist out of the chorus line. Talent shows are a staple of the TV schedules. We like to believe that certain people—sometimes ourselves—can just sense when a person has something special. But there is another method of spotting talent which doesn’t rely on hunches. In place of intuition, it offers data and analysis. Rather than relying on the gut, it invites us to use our heads. It tends not to make for such romantic stories, but it is effective—which is why, despite our affection, the hunch is everywhere in retreat.

Strike one against the hunch was the publication of “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis (2003), which has attained the status of a management manual for many in sport and beyond. Lewis reported on a cash-strapped major-league baseball team, the Oakland A’s, who enjoyed unlikely success against bigger and better-funded competitors. Their secret sauce was data. Their general manager, Billy Beane, had realised that when it came to evaluating players, the gut instincts of experienced baseball scouts were unreliable, and he employed statisticians to identify talent overlooked by the big clubs.

The analysts were students of the game but outsiders, less susceptible to the illusory certainties of baseball lore. The scouts might say a young player had “a great body” for the game, or rate a pitcher just by watching him throw. Beane’s stat-heads would find that a player deemed too fat was actually an above-average catcher, or that a player with unorthodox movement was effective. The analysts also noticed that scouts were unduly swayed by whatever they had seen in the last game, and relied on received notions like “clutch ability” that proved, on closer examination, to be meaningless.

The scouts were being hoodwinked by their own brains. The year before “Moneyball”, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman had won a Nobel prize for his research into the rickety apparatus of human cognition, and his work influenced Paul DePodesta, a Harvard statistician who was Billy Beane’s main analyst at the A’s. At first, baseball coaches scorned the idea that nerds with computers could teach them anything, or that there could be any substitute for “good eyes”. But the success of the A’s proved that nerds can see things jocks can’t. “The idea that I trust my eyes more than the stats, I don’t buy that,” said Beane, “because I’ve seen magicians pull rabbits out of hats and I just know that the rabbit’s not in there.”

In football (the non-American version), expert hunches are similarly flawed, and top clubs now employ analysts to offset them. Size doesn’t matter as much as they thought: analysts found that clubs recruit a lot of big players, but use smaller ones more. Some players with a languid style, labelled slow or lazy by coaches, turn out to be covering a lot of ground. And studies suggest that even experienced coaches recall only 60% of the critical events in a match they have just watched—while believing that they noticed everything.

These days, when a football club is interested in a player, it considers the average distance he runs in a game, the number of passes and tackles or blocks he makes, his shots on goal, the ratio of goals to shots, and many other details nobody thought to measure a generation ago. Sport is far from the only industry in which talent-spotting is becoming a matter of measurement. Prithwijit Mukerji, a postgraduate at the University of Westminster in London, recently published a paper on the way the music industry is being transformed by “the Moneyball approach”. By harvesting data from Facebook and Twitter and music services like Spotify and Shazam, executives can track what we are listening to in far more detail than ever before, and use it as a guide to what we will listen to next.

Historically, the music industry has run on hunches. John Hammond is the archetype of what later became known as A&R (artists and repertoire)—the business’s talent scouts. Being an A&R man in the industry’s heyday was a dream job: you were paid to go to gigs and hang out with musicians eager to win your approval. If you spotted more than one or two successes, you were said to have good ears, and handed a fat salary. But the ears of A&R now compete with algorithms.

Next Big Sound in New York is one of a growing number of firms that sell data-based analyses to record companies. According to Forbes magazine, it has found that musicians who gain 20,000 to 50,000 Facebook fans in a month are four times more likely to reach a million fans. It claims to be able to predict album sales within 20% accuracy for 85% of artists. That may not sound so impressive, but then it depends on what you’re comparing it with: the track record of A&Rs was not pretty. In his novel “Kill Your Friends”, John Niven, a former A&R man himself, paints a vivid picture of the job, in the words of his narrator, Steven Stelfox: “Now, I don’t have a perfect track record. No one does. But I’m pretty fucking good. On average I only get it wrong maybe eight or nine times out of ten. That is to say, if you played me ten pieces of unsigned music I might instantly dismiss three or four acts that might go on to enjoy enormous success…We, my label, have spent millions, literally millions, signing and developing music that, as it turned out, no sane person wanted to hear.”

The old music industry turned many young acts into big stars. But it placed many, many more wagers on acts that didn’t sell enough records to pay back; William Goldman’s axiom, “Nobody knows anything”, applies to music as much as the movies. In the social-media era, big bets on untested talent are rarer. This is partly because there’s less money to spray around. But also because the record companies are using data to lower the risk.

This is the day of the analyst. In education, academics are working their way towards a reliable method of evaluating teachers, by running data on test scores of pupils, controlled for factors such as prior achievement and raw ability. The methodology is imperfect, but research suggests that it’s not as bad as just watching someone teach. A 2011 study led by Michael Strong at the University of California identified a group of teachers who had raised student achievement and a group who had not. They showed videos of the teachers’ lessons to observers and asked them to guess which were in which group. The judges tended to agree on who was effective and ineffective, but, 60% of the time, they were wrong. They would have been better off flipping a coin.

by Ian Leslie, More Intelligent Life | Read more:
Image: Peter Horvath