Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy



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Magic Circle featured in New York Times "The Playlist"

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Monday, June 15, 2015

The Illusion of Control: A Musician's Cognitive Bias


Many of us in the music business, at one time or another, have been inflicted with the cognitive bias known as the illusion of control--a term coined by Harvard professor and clinical psychologist Ellen Langer.  Simply put, this is when people overestimate the control they have over events in their lives. I've seen this cognitive bias in musicians, music educators, and particularly in music industry people like producers and A & R reps. Sometimes it works for us, sometimes it works against us. But rest assured it's there affecting our everyday lives.

Illusion of Control Scenarios

To give you better idea of the illusion of control, here are a few examples:

Let's say you are an A & R rep at a record label--even though they barely exist anymore--and you signed a band that hit it big and made millions of dollars for the label. The illusion of control is you thinking that you and your "magical" formula for picking bands are the direct cause of the band’s success--which is often not the case. You may have entered them into the race, but why they crossed the finish line far ahead of the others is far beyond your control. If in fact you knew which bands were going to hit it big, you’d be the richest and most sought after person on the planet. But the fact of the matter is that you have no idea. The hypothetical band that you signed who hit it big, did so mostly due to luck. They just happened to be the right people, at the right place, and the right time. 

A non-musical example of the illusion of control is winning the lottery. People who win lotteries often think they know how to pick lucky numbers. Many of them have some wacky system or ritual that means absolutely nothing (i.e. claiming to play numbers only from birthdates of family members, or playing various combinations of their phone number and zip code).  Which as I mentioned earlier means nothing, since the selection of lottery numbers are totally random. Having a three-year old pick random numbers out of a box of sand is as likely to produce a winning lottery ticket as using numbers from birthdays and zip codes.

Studies performed by Langer showed that people who roll dice at the craps table tend to throw the dice harder if the want higher numbers and softer if they want lower numbers, as if that would make any difference. This is something that Langer defines as "skill cues."

As performers, ninety-nine percent of us are probably guilty of this. How many times have you stood on your tippy toes to hit those high notes, or bent your knees to honk out the low tones?  As though being closer to the ground will actually help you play lower. 

Even in the context of carving out a career as a jazz musician, I’ve seen the illusion of control in successful players who think that they know exactly why they became successful. I’ll hear theories from how they know how to put together a great band, how to spot trends, or know the right hands to shake. I do understand the importance of these aforementioned things. However, a lot of skilled musicians know how to put together great bands, spot trends, and have great social and political skills; yet, these things still don’t automatically translate into a successful career.

And of course, there's something to be said for continuing to try and keeping it at. But let's be clear,  this is not control. This creates possibilities, not outcomes--something I will address a little later.


A Story of Randomness

Years ago I had a band called Global Unity who got signed to Columbia/Sony—albeit our tenure with the label was short lived, but that’s another blog post.  The way that this happened was totally random.

The short of the story is this: One day I decided to self-produced an album length recording of my band (this was before that kind of thing was popular, mind you) and after it was completed I played it for my friend Lisa. I told her that I was looking to shop the recording to various labels and she suggested that I give a copy to a booking agent friend of hers who was looking to get into artist management. After I agreed, she set the ball in motion by not only telling him about the recording, but actually taking it to his apartment and sitting down and listening to it with him. One of the reasons he agreed to their meeting was because he’d remember hearing us a few months earlier at some small club in the East Village. And apparently,  really liked the group.

So here is where randomness played a role.

Right before our performance at this East Village club, I realized that I'd left some of my sheet music at home. Since the club did not have a copy machine, I went to a photocopy shop a few blocks from the venue. On the way back, I bumped into him and his then fiancée as they were walking up the street. They were just about to go to dinner, so I gave them a flyer and told them that the venue where I was playing was only a few blocks from the restaurant. So they took the flyer and assured me that they would stop by after they’d eaten dinner. Sure enough they did. And lucky for us, we performed a really good set. We were well-rehearsed and everyone was having a good night. Keep in mind that this was a period where if you wanted to have a relationship with a record company, you had to either invite someone from the label to one of your performances. or someone who would be willing to advocate on your behalf. This was pre-check-out-our-band-on-YouTube days.

Back to my point about randomness. Prior to this gig, I had made numerous unsuccessful attempts to get this agent out to one of my performances. However, just by chance, he happened to be in the neighborhood on this particular night that I was playing. And lo and behold, several months later I was able to reap the benefits of that random encounter.

After I had gotten my record contract, I could have come up with numerous pat-myself-on-the-back theories on why things went in my favor. But the fact of the matter is that I just happened to be at the right place at the right time--not to mention some good advocating on behalf from my friend Lisa. The music has to be good; that's a given. However, the fact that I have not been able to create any music remotely interesting to any label--large and small--is proof that this situation was in fact random. And in my own defense, maybe if I cared about that sort of thing a little more I might have been able to conjure some interests. The fact of the matter is that that sort or thing—shopping to labels and trying to get people to represent me—is of little interest. I’m much more interested in documenting my work these days. I’ll worry more about career advancement when the time is right.

The Negative Aspect of the Illusion of Control

Moving away from my getting-signed story for moment: Another point I’d like to make is that the illusion of control clouds our ability to access our situation. Studies have shown that the more powerful a person feels, the stronger the illusion of control becomes. I’ve seen this demonstrated in prominent jazz musicians who’ve surrounded themselves with sidemen who were not on their level--frankly, musicians whom many considered to be very mediocre. But because of the feeling of control and authority that comes with being a prominent person in this business, you can come to exist in a bubble, since you are no longer open to the criticism and assessment endured by everyday, less prominent players. And this is very common amongst people in leadership positions: CEOs of major corporations, presidents of universities, and pastors of churches. These figures of authority often get caught up in their own illusions of control, while everyone else around them are able to so clearly see the obstacles halting their progress.


The Positive Aspect of the Illusion of Control

I’d like to point out that the illusion of control isn’t all negative. The truth is that it makes us strive for things even when our chances of achieving them are very low. Think about how many times we’ve tried to get our bands booked on festivals as an unknown. The illusion of control made us feel that we could influence the booker’s decision by having a well-written cover letter, a slick looking band photo, and, of course, a well-recorded, well-performed CD.. These things do help, but ultimately, the booker of the festival makes his or her decision independent of what you think your influence is. If you are lucky, your packet will be the very thing they’re looking for at that particular time.

Point and case is when I got my deal with Columbia/Sony, it just so happened that the new regime at the label were looking for something more world music oriented. And voilà! My demo, Global Unity comes across their desk. The timing could not have been more perfect. But the bigger point to be learned from my scenario and many others like it, is that even though you ultimately don’t have the final say (or control), the illusion of control does at least give you the confidence to try.

Things You Can Control 

The last issue I'd like to discuss is the illusion of futility, which is the opposite of the illusion of control. This is when you fail to recognize how much control or influence you actually have over a particular situation.  For example, you may fail to realize how being difficult decreases your chances of employment. Or how practicing correctly makes you play more consistently. Or how just being visible increases your chances of being hired, in general. These are things we take for granted; however, these are things which we can control that can make a big difference.


In summary, if you want to do well in the music business,  prepare, prepare, prepare. Or better yet, try, try, try. Ultimately, you don't have direct control over final outcomes; however, you can increase the likelihood of luck going in your favor.  These are the rules of the game. Now our job is to learn how to play it.

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