Give the drummer some

06/05/2013 § 4 Comments

James Brown’s funk is tight. On a track like ‘Licking Stick’, the music threatens to break loose at any time, barely contained by Brown and the beat. The little I’ve read about Brown suggests that this is no accident. He was apparently a difficult and demanding band leader, but listen to the result.

On several recordings, James Brown calls to Maceo Parker to take his solo. Oh, man, can Maceo play — the pacing, the expressiveness, the musicality — no wonder he’s gigged with everyone.

On ‘Cold Sweat’, as Maceo is finishing up, Brown asks, should we give the drummer some? Wikipedia says this is the first recording in which Brown does this. This call for a solo highlights the importance of the drummer for the whole enterprise. Maceo can play with the rhythm and Brown can give us all his famous ‘uhs’ and ‘good Gods’ because that drum is keeping things together, keeping it tight.

Now, let’s shift to some economics (sorry, but you knew it was coming). I’m involved in a few projects right now that are mainly modelling projects. We aren’t doing primary research in the sense of going out and collecting data and producing new empirical findings. Instead, we are organising existing information. We are using not only economic data, like price elasticity of demand, but also information from other disciplines, like dose-response functions for medicines or nitrogen leaching rates for different land uses.

It occurred to me that we are the drummers in these projects. We have a particular set of skills — keeping information organised and finding ways of making different types of data fit together. But the value of the drummer isn’t the particular beat they’re laying down. Their value is to provide a groove that the rest of the music can revolve around.

The drums provide a solid structure, and that’s what a good model does. As a result, the rest of the information makes more sense, in the same way that a horn solo makes more sense once the beat is established. A good model also demonstrates which parameters are important or which relationships determine the outcomes, just like a solid beat lets the singer shine.

Sometimes, we modellers even get the spotlight; sometimes, even the drummer gets him some.

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§ 4 Responses to Give the drummer some

  • Andrew says:

    Without a doubt you are the coolest economist I know. On music have you caught “cold water” off Tom Waits Mule Variations album?

    • Bill says:

      You are far too kind, Andrew! No, I haven’t heard that one, although I think Tom Waits is great. I’ll have to go find it.

  • Chris Parker says:

    Ah drumming, nice post Bill. Now the question becomes: are you rock drummers or jazz drummers?

    A good rock drummer tends to play the role of a band conductor (driving intensity, coordination), whereas in jazz the bass player does some of that allowing the top drummers to become free-wheeling stars.

    So which of those are ya? Will the scientists and other professions be taking a lead from your work do you think, or will be stealing their limelight?

    • Bill says:

      Ah, excellent to see the metaphor extended. I was thinking in the funk vein, but you raise a good question. Sometimes we are rock drummers, keeping it all together and driving the tempo of the research. Sometimes, the modelling becomes the featured performance — look how a few tweaks make the model dance and sing! It depends a bit on the band, doesn’t it? If you’ve got others who can keep the structure going without losing focus, then you can put your effort into experimentation.

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