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Steve Jobs, Rick Rubin and "taste"
The Apple co-founder and the super-producer share similar ideas regarding taste and creativity.
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Today, we are looking at the similar thoughts that Steve Jobs and Rick Rubin have about “taste” and creativity.
Hollywood writers strike
“Aliens: The Musical” = best AI art yet
And some wild memes (including George Lucas)
In 1995, Steve Jobs was interviewed for a PBS documentary called Triumph of the Nerds. It was a decade after Jobs had been ousted from Apple. He kept busy by running Pixar and NeXT, his second startup that Apple would acquire in 1997 to bring him back.
It was during this PBS interview that Jobs famously cooked his corporate nemesis Microsoft, which was at the peak of its powers (perhaps too peaky, as the company was slapped with a massive antitrust suit a few years later):
“The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste. And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products.”
When people talk about taste, it usually feels intangible: “Oh, I love Taylor’s fashion taste” or “I don’t trust Trung’s taste in music” (my wife tells this to everyone).
I think most people get what Jobs is saying, though. Despite Microsoft’s massive success and ubiquity, not a single soul in the history of mankind has ever said “oh, Microsoft has good taste” (to be fair, enterprise and workplace software doesn’t need to be sexy).
Conversely, Jobs had long cultivated a sense of “taste” at Apple and — upon his return in 1997 — fused himself with superstar designer Jony Ive and reorganized the company around the industrial design team. Designers ruled at Apple from the late-1990s until Jobs’ death in 2011, which happened to be the greatest stretch in consumer tech hardware history: candy-coloured iMac (1998), iPod (2001), iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010).
For all the complaints we hear about Apple products — sticker price, hard-to-repair, ridiculous charging cables — many people actually do love them. I am in this camp. Does that make me a sucker? Maybe. But so are 1B+ other iPhone owners. That’s what happens when you imbue a product with “taste”.
I have been thinking about the quote from Jobs since I started reading Rick Rubin’s book The Creative Act: A Way of Being. Rubin is considered one of the greatest music producers ever. He co-founded Def Jam Records with Russell Simmons in the early 1980s and popularized hip-hop acts including The Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and Run-DMC (Russell’s brother is Rev Run).
In the following decades, Rubin created classic works across all genres, including heavy metal (Metallica), rock (Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Aerosmith), pop (Adele) country (Johnny Cash) and more hip-hop (Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem).
In a viral 60-minutes clip talking about The Creative Act, Anderson Cooper and Rubin had a surreal exchange (made extra surreal by Rubin’s legendary beard):
Cooper: Do you play instruments?
Cooper: Do you know how to soundboard?
Rubin: No. I have no technical ability. And I know nothing about music….I know what I like and what I don’t like, and I’m decisive about what I like and what I don’t like.
Cooper: So, what are you being paid for?
Rubin: The confidence that I have in my taste and my ability to express what I feel has proven helpful for artists.
I came away from that clip thinking “this is an incredibly funny meme”. But then I started reading Rubin’s book. And, more importantly, listening to hours and hours of podcast interviews that Rubin did to promote the book.
Two things happened as I learned more about Rubin’s creative process: 1) his description of “taste” became increasingly practical; and 2) a wave of regret washed over me as a I realized I could never grow that beard.
On the first point, I realized that “taste” isn’t intangible at all. It is a straightforward idea and something that anyone can cultivate (to be clear, “straightforward” does not mean “easy”).
1. Everyone has their own taste (and there is no right or wrong)
“I think I've spent a lot of time developing my taste, but it’s my taste. It's not the right taste. It's my taste. I wouldn't say if we both looked at something and you said you liked it and I said I didn't like it, I would never say ‘I'm right, you're wrong’. Everyone has their own taste. It really is in the eye of their beholder.”
A major reason why Rubin says there is no “right or wrong” is because everyone’s taste is informed by their upbringing, where they live and other cultural influences. How can you tell someone that they are “wrong” for their specific life circumstances?
One salient example from my life: my parents love durian, a pungent Asian fruit that has been described as having the smell of rotting onions. I hate it with a passion (and many hotels in Southeast Asia ban guests from opening the fruit in their rooms). But I get it. My parents grew up in Vietnam and that was a thing in their childhood. That’s their taste. It is neither right or wrong.
Similarly, I love Post Malone a lot lot lot lot more than anyone I know. This does not make it right or wrong (although we can’t be friends if you don’t like the song “White Iverson”).
2. Everyone can discover their own taste…
“If you go to the museum and you see two paintings and someone said, ‘which one do you like better?’, usually you like one more than the other. It doesn't have to make sense. You don't have to know why. But nobody can argue with you [about your taste because it’s yours]. I'm not asking which is better. I'm asking which one do I like? It's so simple. It's so straightforward if you reduce it to ‘what do you like’ and you know what you like.
[Another example] What TV show do you wanna see the next episode for? Which ones do you want to turn off? If you want to turn it off, that’s a bad sign. If you can't wait for the next episode, that’s good sign. That's it…We [are judging things by our taste] all day.”
3. …but be wary of letting external sources — especially an audience — influence your taste:
“Everything I do is just personal taste and it’s what the book is about. Really, for [people and artists] to trust in themselves. Make something that speaks to themselves. And hopefully someone else will like it. But you can’t second-guess your own taste for what someone else is going to like. It won’t be good. We’re not smart enough to know what someone else will like.
To make something and say, ‘well, I don’t really like it but I think this group of people will like it’, I think [that approach] is a bad way to play the game of music or art. Do what’s personal to you, take it as far you can go. Really push the boundaries and people will resonate with it if they are supposed to resonate with it. But you can’t get there the other way. The other way is a dead-end path.”
Let’s pause and take in what Rubin is saying.
Everyone has their own taste. There is no right or wrong. Finding your own taste isn’t actually complicated: do you like something or not? You can develop your own taste by repeatedly asking these questions.
Ok, that is straightforward. Why isn’t everyone Rick Rubin?
Because there are other pieces to the puzzle which — while straightforward — are actually hard to do:
Identifying your own taste requires understanding yourself more, which means shutting out external noise (Rubin relies on meditation to quiet his mind and shield against outside influences).
You need conviction to see your taste through. People all around you — parents, colleagues, significant others, followers, fans, media, critics — are trying to distract or dissuade you from your “taste”. The intention doesn’t even need to be malicious. It’s just that social pressures and conformity have a lot of benefits that are hard to contend with (and it is often the right move to just follow the crowd).
But to create enduring work, you have to identify your own taste and be willing to see it through. Rubin specifically cautions against chasing short-term trends that might bring quick results — whether that is monetary or audience adulation — instead of following your own taste.
“[Even] if you have success doing that,” Rubin tells Rogan. “It’s not revolutionary. It doesn’t change the world. It doesn’t last. It can be a momentary thing. It’s the people who you first see and might not like that you come to like. Because you don’t understand them at first, those are the ones that change the world.”
The nuance here is that while there is no right or wrong taste, there can be work that resonates with more people and has a longer shelf life. These breakthroughs and longer-lasting creative outputs are expressions of an individual’s authentic tastes.
Artists tap Rubin — who calls himself a “professional fan” — because he has high conviction in a well-tuned taste palete. And because he helps the artists express their own tastes, perhaps most famously at his Malibu recording studio known as Shangri-La. The Creative Act is a distillation of everything he learned during these sessions. He doesn’t talk about his career. Rather, the book is Confucian-esque nugget after nugget on the creative process. For example: “Look for what you notice but no one else sees” (trust me, the totality of these quotes throughout the book works very well).
Helping people unlock their authentic taste is important when you consider how much great music comes from non-traditional places with a different sound from what was popular at the time. In a conversation I had with music historian Ted Gioia, we discussed the pitfalls of algorithm-led monocultures and how the most important — and innovative — musical acts often come from misunderstood outsiders:
Elvis Presley came from Mississippi, one of the poorest states in America
The Beatles came from Liverpool, a working class British city which was very much not London
Hip-hop rose out of the poor neighbourhoods in New York (Bronx) and LA (South Central)
Jazz was invented in New Orleans, where French, Spanish, African and Caribbean cultures mixed in a trade hub city
Rubin’s mediation on taste isn’t just about art. He makes it clear in his book and interviews that cultivating one’s own “taste” can be applied to life and business as well.
Back to Jobs, the Apple co-founder has spoken about cultivating taste in a manner similar to Rubin’s take. There are a few related excerpts in a collection of Jobs correspondences, emails and interviews titled Make Something Wonderful (the compilation was put together by Laurene Powell Jobs and the Steve Jobs Archive, and is available for free).
After downloading the book, I literally did a CTRL+F for “taste” and found one match in a 1983 Fortune interview with Mike Moritz (former journalist turned Sequoia Capital co-founder). Jobs said about taste:
I don’t think my taste in aesthetics is that much different than a lot of other people’s. The difference is that I just get to be really stubborn about making things as good as we all know they can be. That’s the only difference.
…your [taste] gets more refined as you make mistakes. I’ve had a chance to make a lot of mistakes…But the real big thing is: if you’re going to make something, it doesn’t take any more energy—and rarely does it take more money—to make it really great. All it takes is a little more time. Not that much more. And a willingness to do so, a willingness to persevere until it’s really great.
Jobs’ influences included Bob Dylan, The Beatles, zen meditation, Dieter Rams (the legendary designer behind Braun) and Polaroid founder Edwin Land (who also built a business at the intersection of technology and liberal arts).
A lot of people claim these influences. And while Jobs had a specific mix of said influences, he says the secret ingredient was a “willingness to persevere”. In other words, a conviction to see his taste through (which often included heated tirades with Apple employees).
Jobs also shared Rubin’s take on not letting an audience overly influence one’s taste.
“Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do,” Jobs famously said about why Apple didn’t do consumer testing. “People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
Or as Henry Ford put it, “If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, 'A faster horse!’”
There is one more connection between their thought processes that I want to point out: why even refine and share your taste? For both Rubin and Jobs, it is an act of giving something back to humanity for others to build upon.
The title Make Something Wonderful comes from a quote by Jobs:
There’s lots of ways to be, as a person. And some people express their deep appreciation in different ways. But one of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there.
Similarly, a line I wrote down from Rubin’s book reads:
If we choose to share what we make, our work can recirculate and become source material for others.
I’ll wrap up with a story from 2007, when Jobs and Bill Gates did a co-interview at the All Things D Conference to talk about the intersection of their careers. An audience member asked Gates which of Jobs’ attributes he wish he had. Take a wild guess at what Gates said:
Well, I’d give a lot to have Steve’s taste. I think in terms of intuitive taste, both for people and products. You know, we sat in Mac product reviews where there were questions about software choices, how things would be done that I viewed as an engineering question…and that’s just how my mind works. And I’d see Steve make the decision based on a sense of people and product that, you know, is even hard for me to explain. The way he does things is just different and I think it’s magical. And in that case, wow.
The inspiring thing is that both Rubin and Jobs believe everyone is equipped with the ability to form their own unique taste and bring something into the world. It is also inspiring to know that they believe having taste is straightforward (although, not easy). Ultimately, there is no right or wrong taste but some — particularly those that are hard-earned — resonate with more people and for much longer.
This is a long way of saying that my family needs to brace for me playing non-stop Post Malone bangers this summer.
Today’s SatPost is brought to you by Bearly.AI
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Links and Memes
Over 11,000 Hollywood writers went on strike. Per a Vanity Fair piece, one of the main issues is how the transition from network TV to streaming has completely changed the economics for writers (in a bad way):
The networks used to employ tons of people just to create and shoot pilots for a zillion shows that never saw the light of day. And if a broadcast show did make it into America’s living rooms? It’d have at least 20 episodes every season, which meant people had steady employment on a single series all year. Actors, writers, and directors would also get residual checks every time an episode was rerun, the way songwriters get royalties. For some TV creatives, it could have a big impact on their bottom line if their show was sold into syndication.
[…] Streaming was a sea change. Transparency about viewership disappeared, pilots were gone, TV seasons were drastically shorter, and workers on all levels had to patch together gigs to make what they used to make on one show. Everybody relying on substantial residual or syndication checks was largely out of luck: What does the word rerun even mean now? “Streamers are making the same product but they changed the delivery system, so they barely have to pay anybody any residuals,” says a showrunner.
At issue is how studios and streamers will split up the pie to make writing — including minimum salaries and residuals — workable for the average writer. The strike includes members from the Writers Guild of America (WGA), who last stopped work for 100 days in 2008-09. That previous strike costed California’s economy $2B+ and led to material changes in the stories for The Office, Lost and Breaking Bad.
Writers vs. AI: Vox has a good breakdown on two points that the WGA wants agreement on regarding generative AI:
AI can’t get credit: “First, the guild wants to make sure that ‘literary material’ — the MBA term for screenplays, teleplays, outlines, treatments, and other things that people write — can’t be generated by an AI. In other words, ChatGPT and its cousins can’t be credited with writing a screenplay.”
AI can’t create source material: “WGA says it’s imperative that “source material” can’t be something generated by an AI, either. This is especially important because studios frequently hire writers to adapt source material (like a novel, an article, or other IP) into new work to be produced as TV or films. However, the payment terms, particularly residual payouts, are different for an adaptation than for “literary material.” It’s very easy to imagine a situation in which a studio uses AI to generate ideas or drafts, claims those ideas are “source material,” and hires a writer to polish it up for a lower rate.”
As someone who has repeatedly failed to break into Hollywood (and as someone building a generative AI app with hopefully a better outcome), the WGA conditions around AI sound very reasonable.
PS. You know who makes some good picket signs when they go on strike? Writers and this thread has 20+ good ones including “my edible just kicked in and I can do this all night.”
And some other baller links:
Podcast alert: One of my favourite industry accounts on Twitter is “Car Dealership Guy”, who dishes insider intel on the auto industry. We had him on the Not Investment Advice (NIA) podcast and he dropped mad knowledge on auto loans, EVs, Tesla, leasing vs. owning and why mini-vans are underrated.
A leaked Google memo — from one Google employee (not representing the entire company) — says that open-source will win the generative AI race because there are no real moats with large language models (LLMs). Consequently, Google and OpenAI do not have moats. That’s good news for Meta, which has an open-source LLM out in the wild and could benefit from more people experimenting with it like lots of people have worked on Android’s open-source mobile system. Meta also has decent data on *checks notes* over 3B users. Document verified and distributed by Semi Analysis.
Ed Sheeran vs. Marvin Gaye: British musician Ed Sheeran was recently sued for copyright infringement for his song “Thinking Out Loud”. The lawsuit charged that he copied Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”. While the chords are similar, the lyrics and melody are completely different. US courts ruled that Sheeran did not copy Gaye and if you want an amazing comparison of the two songs, watch this 4-minute video from Rick Beato.
AI images took another insane leap with the release of MidJourney 5.1. Ethan Mollick has a thread and the images are insanely lifelike. However, the most impressive AI art I’ve seen is “Aliens as a musical” (using the older MidJourney — check out the full 20 photos here).
…and here some fire tweets.
As many of probably know, May 4th double as a celebration of Star Wars (“May the 4th be with you” aka “May the force be with you”). Anyways, I’m definitely going to do a deeper dive on this for the email, but George Lucas cut probably the greatest Hollywood deal ever when he made the first Star Wars film in 1977.