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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2011/10/28
by David Steinberg

The Loss of Consensus

Due to a fortuitously timed business trip, I got to see Furthur at Bethel Woods this summer. I had heard nothing but praise about the venue and I understand why. Even ignoring the great sound and well-maintained lawn, the venue has a feature that no other one has. Walking to the seats, there’s a spot where everyone pauses, one where you can look down on the field where Woodstock happened. People were where you are standing, struggling to see the band. It’s hard to not feel that if you focused really hard, you could be transported back there. You have three of the dimensions dialed in [1] but the fourth one is the trickiest. Despite standing there trying to find a way of penetrating that veil of 30 years, hoping to catch some spare echo of Jefferson Airplane or Jimi Hendrix, the only result most people have is a weird feeling of being somewhere important on the way to their seats.

Even though I somehow managed to avoid having a trip back to the 60s, I managed to get a little more insight into the event. While the Woodstock Museum is largely unimpressive, there were two exhibits that made the purchase of a ticket more than a way of escaping the afternoon heat. The first one was a collection (unfortunately small) of articles and other original documents that showed the initial reaction to the Woodstock plan. We now know what the festival would turn out to be but seeing how close it came to never happening due to permitting issues and location changes is fascinating, as is the original – pre rain delay – schedule. I could have spent all day reading similar articles and plans.

The other interesting exhibit is a brief movie of the concert itself. Watching it made one fact obvious, one that probably wasn’t even thought about at the time but is glaring now. Woodstock only had one stage. That by itself explains so much as to why bands were so much popular in the 60s than they are now. When a band performed then, your options were take it or leave it. That’s why there were giants in those days. The fewer options led to some bands being huge and others having nothing.

There’s a line that you could draw from about 1963 to now. With every passing year, it became easier and easier for bands to make it and harder and harder for them to become insanely big. Take album purchases. When the only way to choose your music was to go out to a store and buy something, you were locked into the purchase. It probably would be your only new music for a week or two so you were going to give it every chance to impress you. We all have stories of songs or even whole discs that bored us on first and second and third listen but somehow grew on us and became a favorite. When your options were limited, you had to give what you had more of a chance. Today when I hear of a new act I usually YouTube a song or two (or maybe fire up Spotify to check them out) and they have approximately 58 seconds or so to impress or it’s time to check out that other band that someone suggested. Never mind multiple listens; these days a band is lucky if people make it to the end of their song.

The 1960s were a time where a few bands could become massively big but no one else could get any airplay. The current era is a time where everyone can get people to listen but it’s next to impossible to break out of the crowd. Bands get refined for sub-sub-genres and success is being able to play a large theatre, not a basketball arena. There was a sweet spot and – once again – Phish were somehow lucky enough to be playing at their peak right in that era.

Let’s try a thought experiment. If Phish and Frank Zappa played their same music (although obviously their lyrics would have to change) only Junta came out in 1966 and Freak Out in 1988, how would their careers have changed? Maybe Phish replace Jefferson Airplane but it seems most likely that they’d be another one of the forgotten psychedelic bands, a Strawberry Alarm Clock or a Moby Grape. Maybe they’d have a song or two that people would remember them for, but their path to success didn’t really exist then. As for Zappa it’s almost hard to imagine him not being able to make the leap. Even in the 70s he was regularly able to play to five figure crowds in big cities (although mixed in a lot with low four figure results). Any sort of cult band would thrive in the early days of the Internet.

While this isn’t the most original thought ever expressed, this is something important to remember. It’s so easy to look back at the Pink Floyds and the Zeppelins and the Beatles and see them as giants who created this music that no modern band can top. For that matter, it’s easy to praise Phish or Widespread Panic at the expense of bands that are starting out now. While these bands all are incredible, it’s like looking at Cy Young and wondering why no modern pitcher can win 400 games, let alone 511. The rules have changed and we need to always keep that in mind.

[1] Well if you ignore the fact that the earth moves through space, so you’re actually hundreds of billions of miles away from where the planet was in 1969.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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