In a BBC 6 radio interview, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien explained why they left the song Lift off of the album OK Computer:
“Lift” is a funny song. We played that live with Alanis Morrissette, and it was a really interesting song because the audience, suddenly you’d see them get up and start grooving, it had this kind of infectiousness about it. It was a big, anthemic song. If that song had been on that album, it would have taken us to a different place, and we’d have probably sold a lot more records…
For perspective, OK Computer sold 7 million copies to Jagged Little Pill’s 25 million.
In that sense, the band may have been correct.
But they still made an album that sold almost seven times as many copies as their previous one and is regularly included in lists of The Best Albums of All Time.
It reminds me of a line from Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to See:
We should not trust our perceptions too much—that is something the Buddha taught. “Are you sure of your perceptions?” he asked us. I urge you to write this phrase down on a card and put it up on the wall of your room: “Are you sure of your perceptions?” There is a river of perceptions in you. You should sit down on the bank of this river and contemplate your perceptions.
Radiohead attempted to predict the reaction people would have to their song.
They couldn’t know for sure, but they had trust in their perceptions of the audience when they played the song live.
I always find points when working on something where I’m trying to judge the potential reaction of its intended audience.
Points where I tend to struggle come when I lack that trust in my perceptions—second guessing what people will think when the work is in front of them.
It might be worth remembering how Radiohead sought out the benefit of taking their work out into the world.
Uncertainty about how other people will react can’t be removed by hiding the work from other people.
It reminds me that there’s more to the internet than what was published days, or even hours, ago.
Many of the most frequently read posts on this site are things I wrote one or more years ago.
Yes, it’s a limited data set (I could/should post here more regularly), but they’re also posts on fairly evergreen topics.
If I write an engaging tweet, I’ll know in a matter of hours. When I publish something here, I might not know for a year or more if it has value to other people.
But the tweet will be difficult to find in a few days.
If I’m going to measure what’s a better use of my 4,000 weeks based on how many people find something useful in what I do, it makes sense to spend less time shouting to be heard in a big party and instead work quietly on making things that are available for people when they’re actively looking for them.
Clicks and eyeballs aren’t everything, but they’re a thing.