My perspective - Experience, mediocrity


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

Neepawa Banner & Press

Experience, we all know it’s important, but are we valuing the right kind? I listened to a podcast last week that got me thinking about this topic. It was a conversation with Rick Rubin, one of the most influential music producers in America and in 2006, one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Rubin grew up in Long Island in the late 1970s and was into punk and hip hop. At the time, hip hop was a very niche genre and he found the records being produced bore little resemblance to the music the artists were playing in the clubs. Rubin co-founded Def Jam Records in the early 1980s and began producing more authentic records, along with collaborations with and covers of more mainstream artists. Through this work, Def Jam is mostly credited with bringing hip hop to the mainstream.

Along with those early rap and hip hop artists, Rubin is credited with producing albums that brought many artists into the mainstream. His collaborations with Johnny Cash, beginning in 1994, brought the one-time hit musician out of dinner theatres and back on to the Billboard charts. He was the 2007 Grammy winner for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, for his work with the Dixie Chicks, Michael Kranz, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Green Day and Johnny Cash. He won it again in 2009 for his work with Metallica, Neil Diamond, Ours, Jakob Dylan and Weezer. He was a producer on Adele’s Grammy winning album, 21. The musicians he has worked with reads like a veritable who’s-who of hits from the last quarter century, but it’s a group of musicians across genres who really don’t have much in common. That’s the magic.

Rubin explained that because of his broad musical interests, he was able to present hip hop in a way that was accessible to a broad swath of Americans whose lives were far from the urban hip hop or rap experience. He explained that as he gained success, people wanted him to recreate his past work, do it the same way as last time, but he knew that the success came from doing something different. He explained that if all you ever listen to is electronic dance music, you’ll only ever make mediocre electronic dance music; that’s the line that stuck with me.

This idea has broad implications and maybe we need to re-think how we view experience. Rubin’s success came, in many ways, from being an outsider. He wasn’t completely immersed in any one genre. Because of that, he saw similarities between Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way” and Run-D.M.C.’s rap, he saw what others were doing, what was working, what wasn’t and what could be made to work. The problem is that we often discount this type of experience. In a world that’s increasingly specialized, we favour those with deep experience at the expense of those whose experience is broad. While there are certainly times that very specialized skills are needed, more of the same – same background, same experience, same way of thinking – seldom solves a problem and almost never creates something new.

In every segment of the economy, we are becoming more specialized. There are almost no true mixed farms left, and it doesn’t matter where you look – business, sports or recreation – the story is the same. While economics and scale often require this, we have to remember what we are losing when our focus narrows.

We are becoming increasingly polarized, specialized and siloed. We need a greater understanding of what outsiders bring to the table and recognize that experience comes in many forms. We need to remember that no revolutionary or world-changing ideas come from inside the box and maybe, now and again, we need to be just a little uncomfortable.