All-American dish: a plate of apple pie. Photo: Koflers Hutte/Flickr
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Crowdfunding is doomed – there are too many fingers in too many apple pies

Will Self’s Madness of Crowds column.

Some guy in some 0.1-horse town in the ass-end of America’s great nowhere put up a crowdfunding appeal on the web: “I want to bake an apple pie for my mom but I don’t have the money to do it.” A couple of days later there was $49,000 in his bank account. I like to think he’ll now bake many, many apple pies and deliver them widely throughout the States to the needy – like some Johnny Apple-Pie-Seed, but in all probability he’ll just trouser the cash.

At least part of the appeal of crowdfunding (or so the boosters proclaim) is that it enables ideas to get off the ground, whether for businesses or creative endeavours, that would otherwise lie down and die in the mud. The web seems to make possible the conditions necessary for the cultivation of what James Surowiecki characterised – in his 2004 book of the same name – as the wisdom of crowds.

Surowiecki was initially inspired by Francis Galton’s revealing anecdote about how the aggregated guesses of a crowd at a country fair more accurately identified the weight of a slaughtered ox than the prediction of any one expert. Surowiecki built on this to identify optimal factors for crowd wisdom: 1. Diversity of opinion – it doesn’t matter what information this is based on, the important thing is that it should be private to the individual. 2. Independence – individuals’ opinions should be free from the taint of groupthink. 3. Decentralisation – in forming their opinion, individuals should draw on specific, local knowledge. 4. Aggre­gation – a mechanism exists that can take all these individual judgements and turn them into a collective decision.

The web, at least in theory, enshrines these optimal factors in its very constitution, which is presumably why crowdfunding has become such a Big Thing. You can now crowdfund films or music albums; venture capitalists have organised crowd equity funding for company start-ups, and wanker-bankers have adapted the model to make it possible for both individuals and corporate entities with a bad credit profile to raise loans nonetheless. It has been calculated by a UK-based wonk tank that during one month this year, $60,000 was raised worldwide every single hour through crowdfunding. By anyone’s estimation that’s a lot of apple pie. In the heady realm of US electoral finance, crowdfunding has been entrenched since Barack Obama used it in his campaign to wrest the White House from the would-be successor to the pixie-eared reader of The Little Goat.

My suspicion is that the efficacy of crowdfunding will in fact decline in inverse correlation to its success. Put differently: the more money that’s raised, the less wise will be the crowd that raises it. I call this theory – contra Surowiecki – “The Idiocy of the $49,000 Apple Pie”. Here’s how the web works to produce such dumb collective judgements: 1. Homogeneity of opinion – the apple-pie funders’ opinions are based securely on information common to them all: apple pies are yummy, moms are great and it’s nice to make apple pies for moms. 2. Conformity – simply by spending enough time on the web to become aware that some schmuck has posted such a crowdfunding appeal, these people are exhibiting a worrisome conformism. 3. Centralisation – also termed “googlisation”, this is a function of the way commercially oriented search engines act as positive feedback mechanisms to pump-prime consumer (or donor) demand. 4. Aggregation – this is the only proposition my theory shares with Surowiecki’s; I agree with him that the web can take all these individual judgements and turn them into a collective decision.

The problem is that the myriad individual decisions are resolutely crap ones. Why? Because there is a suppressed premise in all of this. True, apple pie is yummy; most moms are great; moms do indeed deserve to have apple pies made for them by penurious offspring. However, the offspring do not deserve to have their donor pie in effect made for them many times over simply because they have access to the web. To begin with, such $49,000 apple pies will be the outliers of crowdfunding appeals, but in time – due to the underlying dynamics – they will increase in number, until the total crowdfunding pie will be divided up between a few such specious enterprises; then the whole thing will collapse in a puff of pixels.

The confirmation of the beginning of the end of crowdfunding was presented to me just a few days after I read about the $49,000 apple pie in USA Today. I was strolling along the promenade at Venice Beach admiring the weathered skins of the sun-and-marijuana-baked hobos, when a leaflet was thrust into my hand. “Donate one dollar so we can raise a million dollars to make a movie!” the thruster cried – and when I read the leaflet it cried the same thing. This was crowdfunding taken back to the streets, trying to re-create the conditions demanded by Surowiecki’s theory by decoupling it from the web altogether. Naturally, the crowd was far too wise to engage with such arrant bullshitting, and there were many discarded leaflets papering the asphalt. After all, while the wannabe film producers thought they were engaging in a novel and democratised form of financing, the crowd saw their efforts for the timeless phenomenon they were: begging. 

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser