Old Gray Advice

During the early part of the 20th century, New York City’s Tin Pan Alley district was the epicenter of American popular music. During its heyday, Tin Pan Alley musicians devised an inexpensive yet effective method to obtain free, expert advice – they played new songs to elderly doormen and solicited their opinions. If the doormen could hum or whistle the tune after hearing it once or twice, then it was deemed suitably catchy for publication.

Ultimately, this simple marketing litmus test became known by the derisive term, the “Old Gray Whistle Test” (OGWT), as many of the doormen and other pro bono musical advisors used by Tin Pan Alley musicians had gray hair.

The OGWT is an interesting historical anecdote, but what can modern-day entrepreneurs learn from elderly doormen and hackneyed musicians from nearly one hundred years ago?

Additive Addvice

“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn't.”

Erica Jong

Sadly, Ms. Jong is describing the type of guidance proffered by most business advisors, as described more fully in Beware The Consultant. In many instances, Big Dumb Company executives solicit the input of consultants in order to justify their actions, rather than to guide them. Entrepreneurs have neither the time nor the money to show an advisor their watch just so the advisor can tell them what time it is. Seek advice only when the answers are unclear.

As discussed in Free Advice – Worth Twice The Price, strive to turn your advisors into addVisors, whose interests are aligned with your company via equity ownership that vests over time, as their input adds tangible value to your adVenture’s efforts.

Why Doormen?

It was no accident that doormen were the primary source of immediate feedback regarding the potential marketability of new Tin Pan Alley songs. The dynamics that led to Tin Pan Alley musicians soliciting feedback from doormen can provide insight to any entrepreneur interested in seducing addVisors to join his or her adVenture.

Some of the key factors that led to doormen’s prominent role as musical opinion leaders include:

  • Accessible and Responsive – Doormen provided their advice while performing their primary duties and the musicians received instant feedback. No time was wasted coordinating meetings, clarifying feedback, etc.
  • Price – Doormen participated in the OGWT pro bono, in exchange for the previously described psychic rewards associated with their Tin Pan Alley Bro relationships.
  • Relevant Expertise – Doormen’s historical knowledge of popular music enabled them to provide valuable, actionable advice.
  • Motives – Doormen’s motives were pure. If they thought a song sucked, they would say so. They had no ulterior agenda to skew their input.
  • Passion – Doormen were passionate and knowledgeable about popular music, which motivated them to accommodate the musicians’ ad hoc solicitations for assistance.
  • Historical Perspective – Much has been made of the doormen’s ability to assess a tune’s memorability. However, an equally valuable aspect of their feedback was identifying songs derived (intentionally or otherwise) from those previously published. This historical insight helped musicians avoid plagiarism and ensured that each new song was relatively distinctive.
  • Focus - Doormen were not asked to opine upon distribution, finance or other operational issues. The OGWT focused the doormen on the area in which they were able to add the most value to the musicians’ efforts.
  • Gravitas – In keeping with Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term, doormen brought a “seriousness in a person's bearing or in the treatment” of the evaluation of a new song’s merit. Their unbiased, informed opinion was weighed heavily when determining a new song’s fate.

The Latin root of the word gravitas translates to “weight.” In order to succeed, Entrepreneurs must attract the necessary Stakeholders, resources and Donors to ensure their success. One way to increase your adVenture’s gravitational pull and attract additional, precious resources is to recruit an addVisor who brings gravitas to your team. The greater your adVenture’s center of gravity, the more attractive your company will be to potential employees, investors, Donors and other Stakeholders.

Many of the factors that made doormen effective Tin Pan Alley advisors are applicable to the characteristics you should seek when adding an addVisor to your adVenture team. Your passionate, readily available and responsive addVisors should have substantial, relevant experiences. If your addVisors have the proper motives, you will have no problem crafting compensation structures that are aligned with your adVenture’s path to success, as further described in Free Advice – Worth Twice The Price.

What Did The Doormen Get?

Why would doormen agree to provide their opinions without compensation? At first blush, it may seem that they got very little out of their interactions with the musicians. However, as in any healthy, long-term Bro relationship, both parties extracted value from the OGWT. The musicians’ gain is obvious. The various benefits derived by the doormen are worth highlighting, as it is likely that your addVisor will be enticed by similar, non-cash, psychic rewards.

  • Purpose – According to Carolyn Wells, “Advice is one of those things it is far more blessed to give than to receive.” This was certainly true for the doormen, who enjoyed sharing their thoughts and were flattered that their opinions were valued.
  • Cool Factor – Doormen had an opportunity to preview new music and be associated with the leading edge of a wildly popular segment of the entertainment industry.
  • Impact – Doormen knew that their feedback made a difference; they gained satisfaction from hearing hit songs on the radio that they had previously endorsed.
  • Mental Exercise – Doormen enjoyed the entertaining break in their otherwise monotonous day.
  • Imminently Doable – Doormen could listen to musicians’ songs during slow moments of the day, without shirking their primary duties.

Manage your addVisory relationships to ensure that these non-cash rewards are reaped by your addVisors.

One Man’s Opinion

The OGWT was extremely effective because it was cheap, practical, and the data, which did not require debate or interpretation, was focused on the end-user. As is typical with most advice, the doormen’s counsel was also highly subjective. As such, Tin Pan Alley musicians relied on a cadre of doormen’s input, which they aggregated and considered in totality.

You should emulate this approach by developing a small group of addVisors, with whom you can conduct your own version of the OGWT. You undoubtedly will obtain divergent opinions from your addVisors. However, as long as you understand the basis for each recommendation, you can make an informed decision.

Commandos Need Not Apply

Doormen were effective addVisors for many reasons, including the fact that they did not leave their posts and burst into a musician’s studio to provide unsolicited input. Even the most well-intentioned addVisors can be guilty of such commando activities.

These rouge advisors parachute into a situation unannounced and, without fully understanding the facts, toss a few grenades and then retreat to the Officer’s Club, not to be heard from again until their next impromptu paratrooper drop.

I once worked with a Chairman of the Board who operated in this dysfunctional manner. He would engage an employee in the hall in small talk and before the conversation was over, the employee would have an entirely new set of priorities and tasks, often unbeknownst to the employee’s boss. Some of this Chairman’s more egregious antics are discussed in Founderitis.

Door Opener

Entrepreneurs who understand the dynamics of the relationship between the doormen and the Tin Pan Alley musicians are well-positioned to maximize the value derived from their addVisors. Just like the Tin Pan Alley doormen, your addVisors should offer thoughtful, timely, succinct and focused advice while adding to your adVenture’s overall credibility and ability to attract resources. Who knows? If you properly cultivate these relationships, your addVisors might also open a few doors for you.

Confusion has recently arisen regarding the origin of “Gray” in the OGWT, due to an erroneous quote by a BBC executive associated with the “Old Gray Whistle Test” TV show. The executive incorrectly stated that “Gray” originated from the color of the doormen’s uniforms. In fact, a number of older advisors were utilized by Tin Pan Alley, many of whom wore no uniforms and others (e.g., Porters) who generally wore red uniforms.

Copyright © 2008 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.


Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

Get real world advice from John Greathouse, Subscribe Today.