I’ve been thinking about numbers.

It’s only natural, once a product of yours comes out, to start following its sales. The first few records Uncle Green put out were on small indie labels, before most sales were electronically tracked by SoundScan. It was hard to know just how many copies we sold; I remember going into Wuxtry or Wax ‘n’ Facts and being thrilled if it looked like there were one or two fewer in the store.

By the time our last major label record came out, Sony was sending us weekly print-outs covered in numbers. We could see how many times individual radio stations played our current single, how many copies we sold in indvidual record stores, where songs sat on different charts: a sea of numbers to pore over in the van as we drove to the next gig, where we would wait to learn how many people would pay to see us. Now there are even more numbers to track. There are daily website hits, Youtube views, “likes” on various Facebook postings, Amazon rankings in various categories. I confess that I have been guilty of looking at all of those, albeit less obsessively than I used to track airplay in Minneapolis.

And then this week one my friends worried aloud about people who only allow themselves until age “x” to “make it” in whatever creative endeavor they are pursuing. (We should all have friends like Jacob Slichter, prone to philosophical wanderings that make places like Facebook worth our time.) I can’t imagine what number the twenty-year old version of myself would have given if he had been asked how long he’d keep at this writing thing until he gave up. It probably would have been lower than fifty-one, which is how old I was when The Weight of Sound came out.

So, what have I learned from thinking about all these digits? That Neil Young was once again correct, and numbers add up to nothing. It’s a great thing to live in a world where friends of mine across the country can buy my book with a click of a mouse, but part of me also hopes we can just keep making stuff because we like to (need to) make it. Maybe one of the upsides of taking so long to get my first novel published is that I do not feel the numbers pressing against the temple of my forehead the way they did when I was younger. I’ve stumbled across enough great books few people have ever heard of, not to mention bands that never register on a Billboard chart, to know that there are aspects of art’s power that humans have not learned how to measure with a number. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Now, to see how many digits long my Amazon rank is…

One Reply to “When Numbers Get Serious”

  1. “I can’t imagine what number the twenty-year old version of myself would have given if he had been asked how long he’d keep at this writing thing until he gave up. It probably would have been lower than fifty-one, which is how old I was when The Weight of Sound came out.”

    I was thinking about this and Jacob’s post and how I started/joined my first ever band at 41. Which simultaneously doesn’t matter at all and makes me laugh. Absurd. High five.

    Aren’t outcomes so wily? We interpret them with all these symbols that are dimensions removed from the things themselves. Your work is a joy, and inspiring. Looking forward book number two — I like that number. 🙂

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